Hindsight and Foresight

By Paul Epp

I have been thinking about foresight, especially as it seems so lacking in these unusual times. And hindsight. They seem to be linked. Hindsight is the parent of foresight, isn’t it? Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it is how the philosopher George Santayana put it.

Unfortunately, hindsight doesn’t necessarily lead to foresight. It seems to be a separate condition. We rely on our political leaders to supply the necessary foresight for our political, economic and other forms of wellbeing, and I think that’s a structural problem right there. They have not been proven to be very good at it, so why do we keep expecting them to accomplish it? It seems that the most common training obtained by politicians has been in law, and my sense of that is that its more about hindsight than foresight.

Judicial precedent is what most rulings are based on. Training for teachers isn’t much better as far as foresight is concerned. Real estate development might be an improvement but that’s not certain either. Turning hindsight to foresight seems to require a deliberate intention.

When I set out to be a designer, I basically just wanted to make beautiful things. I was very naïve, of course, but that changed as I went along. One critical insight was that if I didn’t want my designing to be only for myself (which would limit it to being a hobby), I would need to take others into account. I would have to accept that to design is to serve. And, not only would I need to take others into account as they appeared in the immediate present, in some cases I would need to anticipate what they might require in the future. I would need to practice some foresight.

Fortunately, the discipline of design recognizes this and there are educational opportunities to further competence in that asset. It’s a skill and it can be acquired, although, as is usually the case, skill is most readily developed by those that have some applicable talent.

In fact, (strategic) foresight has emerged as its own discipline and is often associated with the parallel field of design thinking, so they can occupy the same toolbox, now broadly used not only by designers but also by a wide array of business and organizational leaders.

How about politicians? Might they not dip into this same toolset? I’d be surprised to see it happen, but I’d certainly welcome it. It seems so obvious that a careful attention to the plausible future is critical to proper management of our current affairs. There have been plenty of pandemics before, so why were we caught (seemingly) unaware?

I suspect that in fact, there were plenty of voices in our governments’ ears, reminding us of the past, but those words were drowned out by the louder voices of political expedience. The present was dealt with, not the alarmist predictions of those that were trying to turn their hindsight into foresight.

Can’t we insist on better? I don’t know how we would go about that, but it seems like a worthwhile objective. Maybe our governments could hire some designers expressly for this purpose. These advisors could utilize their training and experience into looking both to the past and the future (and remind our leaders that they are there to serve). However, there needs to be a strong proviso.

As noted by that insightful Canadian, John Kenneth Galbraith, “There are two kinds of forecasters: those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know.” Well said and worth keeping in mind. But that hardly lets us of the hook of attending to the past so that we don’t repeat the bad parts. We ought to do better.

Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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