Foresight as the Future of Innovation

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Musings in Advance of the Front End of Innovation Conference

As I write this, I’m mentally and logistically preparing for the Front End of Innovation (FEI) Conference held in Boston this year May 16-18. For more than 20 years, corporate innovators and R&D executives have gathered at FEI: Front End of Innovation to “stay ahead of trends, collaborate, and identify opportunities to develop and deliver the next-gen products and services that propel businesses forward.”

I am excited, as ever, to attend this year’s event, but I am also honored to have the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion called “Foresight Practices for Meaningful Innovation” with a group of my esteemed colleagues in the Foresight space:

  • Bridget Nelson, Head of Brand Performance and Audience Research at MassMutual
  • Tammy Butterworth, Global Breakthrough Innovation at PEPSICO
  • Liza Sanchez, Vice President, Research & Development at Procter & Gamble

I am eager to discuss the continuing emergence of Foresight into strategic and corporate planning with my colleagues and those in attendance, as I am curious to see how their perspectives align with my own. For me, I can’t help but notice how much more common it is these days to see Foresight methodologies front and center across all sectors of the economy.  This conference is, itself, a prime example of what I’m seeing, as the agenda features an entire stream of content and conversation on the topic of Foresight.

The Accelerated Rate of Change

As a company, Upland has always emphasized the importance of Foresight in the planning work we do with companies and nonprofit organizations. I have dedicated my career to the discipline, in fact. But all around me, I see more conversations around Foresight, I see more books than ever coming out written by futurists or about the concept of Foresight, and I notice on LinkedIn with increasing frequency that professionals in the field are adding some version of “Foresight” to their titles. (e.g., Head of Foresight and Insights, or Head of Insights and Innovation)

There is bound to be much conversation around “the accelerated rate of change” at FEI this year. Everywhere we look, things are changing faster than they ever have before. The future is no longer some far-off-in-the-horizon, distant reality. For most organizations, it will be here before you know it.

It’s not hard to see that companies and nonprofits would have difficulty keeping up with how quickly the future seems to be coming at them, making Foresight more critical than ever. In fact, inbound requests to our firm increasingly are posing questions about Foresight by name, some even going so far as to inquire about whether Upland has seasoned futurists on staff. (We do.) Leadership teams are placing increased emphasis on understanding what the future holds, in terms of opportunity, disruption and overall evolution. Foresight is about looking at the world as it is today, forecasting where it could be tomorrow, and gaining clarity about where it’s going and how it’s going to get there. This methodology for envisioning the future and all of the promise and peril it may hold is gaining favor for those organizations that not only embrace change — they pursue it.

The emergence of artificial intelligence platforms, such as ChatGPT, is a prime example of this change. Little discussed just six months ago, generative language modeling and other AI tools are making headlines each and every day today. And what ChatGPT 4 can do, compared to the first generation we only recently became aware of, is night and day more sophisticated and powerful than prior iterations.

Indeed, the future’s not what it used to be.

New Tools for New Techniques

Speaking of AI, I notice that this is also a topic of focus at FEI, with several sessions and discussions touching on AI in some form or fashion. Of course, we see that there will be tremendous application for the powerful tools emerging in the realm of artificial intelligence in the Foresight work that we do. While AI cannot be left to its own devices to do the meaningful work of analysis and forecasting that are critical to effective Foresight initiatives, it can be a powerful data collection and organizing tool. 

I see certain social listening technologies, which can allow brands to “listen” to the conversations on social media, to be an increasingly important methodology to better understand what people are talking about, see how opinions may be shifting, and serve as early indicators of future trends — all happening in real time and through the authentic, unfiltered and unprompted voice of real humans that exist in any market.

AI is also perfecting language analysis tools that are getting better at collecting inputs, analyzing them and filtering them, then sorting them in an intuitive way for human brains to access, analyze and understand. Such tools can perform certain tasks at scale more quickly than we ever thought humanly possible…in fact, they literally can! This strengthening and expanding of greater and richer inputs makes it possible for futurists and Foresight professionals to deliver better outputs, in the form of insights and analysis.

While some remain skeptical of entrusting what has long been executed by humans to be left to machines, I find the potential for AI in the Foresight and Insights world to be intriguing and fascinating.

Back to the Future

I believe that the practice of Foresight, as a rigorous, scientific methodology, practiced with critical analysis, is tantamount to the future of innovation and strategic planning. It’s so much more than “dreamcasting” and mere speculation regarding various possible scenarios. And unlike think tanks, which have been doing foresight-like work by looking at broad categories or trends and educating an audience about where things are going from an academic perspective, Foresight work can and should be highly tailored to a specific organization and its various constituents. The inputs you use, the frameworks and methodologies you apply, along with the types of data and analysis you undertake, all of it can be highly specialized and surgically focused on matters critical to any unique organization that pursues it.

In a world in which deep research projects can take up to six months and more to complete and analyze, it is becoming increasingly imperative to also conduct Foresight exercises and endeavors. For in six months, the whole world could possibly change around you, making early inputs and insights either irrelevant or unreliable. Don’t get me wrong, such deep research is still paramount for leading organizations. It’s just that Foresight is equally critical in this era of accelerated rate of change.

And the world shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. In fact, quite the opposite.

So that’s what is on my mind as I prepare for FEI and my panel discussion. I will write soon to share with you my takeaways from what is sure to be a fascinating conference. Stay tuned!

Elaine Taite

About The Author

Foresight Strategy Partner to Upland.