Foresight in Retrospect: An Interview with Robert Olson
Upon his retirement after a nearly 40-year career in futures research and analysis, Bob Olson agreed to an “exit interview” with Foresight Signals. Olson’s career as a futurist began in 1979 as a project director with the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). He was a founding member of the Institute for Alternative Futures’ board of directors, where he was director of research from 1990 to 2003 and senior fellow until his retirement this year.
Foresight Signals: Who have been the biggest influences in your career?
Bob Olson: My initial encounter at the University of Michigan was with the economist Kenneth Boulding. I took his course on systems theory and was deeply impressed by his recently published essay “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth,” a founding statement of what came to be called Ecological Economics. Later, I met his wife, Elise Boulding, who was learning Dutch in order to translate Fred Polak’s early classic of futures studies, The Image of the Future.
Boulding connected me to biophysicist John Platt, who became my main mentor. John taught no classes, but we got together frequently for conversations. He was a member of the Club of Rome and brought me into contact with the work underway at MIT that led to The Limits to Growth. ...
What foresight techniques have been most valuable in your work?
Horizon scanning, scenarios, and visioning are the techniques I’ve used the most. Scenarios that embrace a broad range of plausible future conditions are better than most other futures methods for dealing with uncertainty, and visioning the preferred future is important for deciding what to do. IAF has been almost unique among futures groups in its emphasis on aspirational futures, and I very much identify with this approach—helping people clarify their aspirations for the future of their organizations and the future of the larger society, and then thinking about how to move toward those preferred futures. ...
How have you seen foresight change during your career?
There was a period in the 1970s when foresight became increasingly common and sophisticated in the public sector as well as corporations. Then the ascendancy of market fundamentalism increasingly undercut the very idea that foresight and planning are needed. Foresight never went away, but it became less common and more dependent on the support of key individuals in organizations rather than being institutionalized.
Where do you see it going in the next decade?
Foresight has recently been making a revival in the U.S. federal government, mostly below the radar, driven by need and supported by the creation of intergovernmental networks like the Federal Foresight Community of Interest. I’m hopeful this trend will continue.
How do you measure your work’s success?
The most easily visible evidence is change in the outlooks, goals, and efforts of the people we work with, though it’s hard to assess how influential their efforts will be over time. We sometimes come back to clients a year or two later to see what changes they believe came from our work, but these reviews have not been systematic. Sometimes, with a private-sector client, we can see the financial value of our work. One time, in doing that, a client said to me, “Oh, didn’t I tell you, the project saved the company over a billion dollars.” We clearly didn’t charge them enough. [Read more]
Millennium Project Names Latin American Node Chairs
The Millennium Project board of directors has named the following new node chairs for Latin America.
Argentina: Pablo Andres Curarello (Catamarca Province) and Luis Ragno (Mendoza Province).
Colombia: Lucio Henao (Antioquia Department) and Javier Medina (Del Cauca Valley).
Ecuador: David Villacís (Quito).
Mexico: Guillermo Gándara (Nuevo Leon State) and Marco Antonio Moreno Castellanos (Tamaulipas State).
The Millennium Project’s nodes are a global network of individuals and institutions sharing local insights, trends, and analysis. [Learn more]
Federal Foresight Community of Interest Announces Leaders
The Washington, D.C., based Federal Foresight Community of Interest, a group of foresight practitioners dedicated to applying foresight within federal agencies, has announced its new leadership team. Co-chairs are Eric Popiel of the Office of Personnel Management, Sharaelle Grzesiak of the Government Accountability Office, and Joseph Moore of the Veterans Administration. The FFCoI Leadership Council includes Robin Champ of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and Joseph Greenblott of the Environmental Protection Agency. [Learn more or follow @FFCoI on Twitter]
Honors and Awards
The Association of Professional Futurists has announced the winners of its Most Significant Futures Work awards for 2018.
Category 1, Advance the methodology and practice of foresight and futures studies
- René Rohrbeck of Aarhus University and Menes Etingue Kum of University of Münster, “Corporate foresight and its impact on firm performance: A longitudinal analysis,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change (April 2018), doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2017.12.013.
- Leah Zaidi of Ontario College of Art and Design, “Building Brave New Worlds: Science Fiction and Transition Design,” OCAD University, 2017.
- Seyedeh Akhgar Kaboli and Petri Tapio of Finland Futures Research Centre, University of Turku, “How late-modern nomads imagine tomorrow? A Causal Layered Analysis practice to explore the images of the future of young adults,” Futures (February 2018), doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2017.11.004.
- Peter Padbury of Policy Horizons Canada, Module 1: An Overview of the Horizons Foresight Method, 2018.
Category 2, Analyze a significant future issue
- Katherine Prince, Jason Swanson, and Andrea Saveri of KnowledgeWorks, Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out: The Future of Learning, 2017.
- Andrew Curry of Kantar Futures, “The City, The Country, and the New Politics of Place,” Journal of Futures Studies (March 2017).
- Jerome C. Glenn, Theodore J. Gordon, and Elizabeth Florescu of The Millennium Project, State of the Future 19.0, 2017.
Learn more about the annual awards at APF.
The World Future Council, a Hamburg, Germany, based organization promoting sustainable, just, and peaceful solutions to global issues, has named its 2018 Future Policy Award recipients for policies promoting agroecology. The top honor went to the state of Sikkim in northeastern India, as the world’s first “100-percent organic state.” The policy involved implementing a phase-out of all chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which has not only benefited the state’s 66,000 farming families but also boosted tourism. The award was organized by WFC with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and IFOAM–Organics International. [Read more]
We cordially invite all futurists—individuals and organizations—to send us their annual reports to be included in the January 2019 issue of the newsletter. Forward news of your publications, honors, milestones, accomplishments, or any other activities you'd like to share with the futurist and foresight community. Deadline December 31, 2018. Contact me at CynthiaGWagner@gmail.com. —CGW