Reducing Avoidable Surprises

Reducing Avoidable Surprises

The road to futures and foresight 

My career is intertwined with the story of the company I co-founded, 4CF The Futures Literacy Company, a strategic foresight consultancy. My adventure with futures and foresight began during my university days at the University of Warsaw in Poland around 2005. Together with my high school colleague, Piotr Jutkiewicz, we shared a passion for science fiction. This love for science fiction played a role in the formation of 4CF, but it was not the sole determining factor. 

We pursued two faculties simultaneously: Economics and Management. We felt that these disciplines provided an incomplete view of the world, prompting us to add psychology to our academic pursuits.  In hindsight, this decision proved beneficial, as psychology has been instrumental in my daily foresight work.

Interestingly, it was my study of econometrics, at the Faculty of Economic Sciences, that ultimately led me to futures and foresight. Although it may not seem like an obvious connection, I’ve come across quite a few other futurists who embarked on a similar path. Econometrics stood out to me due to its practical implications. Around the same time, Piotr and I were interning at a prominent soft drink manufacturing company in Poland, which ranked closely behind Coca-Cola and Pepsi at that time, quite a large company. We were perceived there as economists, with little regard for our management or psychology skills. We soon discovered they relied on rudimentary trend lines in Excel for sales forecasting. Given our fresh knowledge in econometrics, this approach seemed incredibly outdated and inaccurate. Seeing an opportunity to showcase our skills, we developed an elaborate econometric model incorporating various data points such as average temperatures in Poland, product shelf prices, their competitors’ prices, numeric handling distribution, marketing budgets and other factors. We actually also used the model to win a student competition, which exempted us from taking the much-dreaded econometrics exam. 

Realizing the market potential of such models, we created a simple computer program, basically a front-end for econometric models, meant to streamline the preparation of market forecasts. With this venture in mind, we participated in a business competition and secured some startup funds. We named our company 4C Future, reflecting our goal of predicting the future through quantitative modeling. However, as you might guess, our focus soon shifted away from data crunching and towards fulfilling our clients’ strategic decision-making needs with longer time horizons. This required exploring more qualitative approaches for gaining insights into long-term strategies.

For individuals who have experimented with quantitative methods of foreseeing the future, their limitations are quite apparent. Nevertheless, it is likely that we will soon witness a resurgence in the desire to foresee the future, this time through the utilization of AI-supported models. However, I must caution that even though these models can be considerably more intricate, they still suffer from similar limitations.  Consequently, I believe it would be unwise for 4CF to revert our company’s name back to “4C Future”, which was meant to be pronounced: Foresee Future

Our discovery of the Millennium Project prompted us to join and establish the Polish node. We familiarised ourselves with the methodology and started developing our own tools and methods. This emphasis on innovation remained integral to our company. We always had a lot of ideas. Subsequently, we founded the Polish Society for Futures Studies and became active in other foresight networks. As the company grew, we decided to shorten the name to 4CF since “Foresee the Future” no longer encapsulated our evolving focus. Now, after approximately 17 years, our company boasts a brilliant team of a dozen wonderful experts and a diverse portfolio of hundreds of projects. Nevertheless, we remain driven by new ideas, many of which are currently in development.

Psychology increasingly useful in Futures

Originally, my motivation to study psychology stemmed from a desire to obtain a different perspective from the highly analytical mindset ingrained both in Economics and Management. This decision turned out to be the correct one, as it provided both myself and my colleague with much-needed additional perspectives and deeper insights into the functioning of the world. In our Economics education, we were taught various models that intended to explain the occurrences around us. However, these models were usually laden with disclaimers, assumptions, and complex chains of dependencies. They operated under the assumption that if certain conditions were met, then the model would accurately depict reality. Nevertheless, these models failed to account for the complexity of human beings, who play a pivotal role in shaping the outcomes in the real world. Consequently, the actual outcomes often deviated significantly from what many models would predict. 

Gaining better insights, particularly in understanding various psychological biases present in both futurists and analysts, as well as in the participants involved in collective intelligence exercises, proves invaluable. Being cognizant of these challenges allows us to consistently address them, aiding in the identification of implicit assumptions, unearthing new opportunities, and recognizing previously unknown threats. This heightened awareness of our human functioning greatly assists in processes that extend beyond mere data analysis and instead emphasize the gathering of collective intelligence through effective communication among individuals. That is why I believe it is necessary. Without this awareness, I would likely still be considerably more confined to strictly analytical approaches.

Science fiction, a fairly common trope amongst the Futures Community 

Certainly, my fascination with science fiction and the future has persisted throughout my life. It originated in my early childhood and continues to this day. Initially, it was sparked by my father, who introduced me to science fiction books, particularly those written by Jules Verne. These books provided a wellspring of inspiration, captivating my imagination with thrilling adventures. Concurrently, I found solace in the then futuristic sounding music of Jean-Michel Jarre, quite an unusual choice amongst my primary school colleagues. Science fiction has remained a constant source of new ideas for me, serving as a refreshing contrast to the analytical and data-driven roots of my background, particularly in econometrics. In foresight, the origin of inspiration holds little significance for me. If an idea challenges our existing assumptions and possesses a reasonable degree of plausibility, it merits consideration and exploration. The pursuit of such inspiration can lead to remarkable outcomes or, alternatively, cautionary evaluation depending on the nature of the idea. Any form of inspiration holds value, and science fiction stands as one of the profound sources of such inspiration.

What’s in the 4CF bag of methodological tricks

Let’s start with two methodological frameworks that are not proprietary to our company but are integral to our daily work. I will then draw connections between these frameworks and the tools we have developed at 4CF. One common practice we engage in, like many others in the field of foresight, is scenario development. Although we do not employ this approach in all of our foresight projects, when we do, we typically adhere to the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach to a certain extent. In short, we treat scenarios as a limited set of hypothetical future contexts designed primarily to challenge prevailing assumptions. Along our journey, we have experimented with various alternative approaches to constructing scenarios, including more analytically driven methods. During the early stages of our company, Morphological Analysis caught our attention as a potential approach. However, our current go-to method is what we refer to as Selective Clustering. This involves a small task force which custom-builds scenarios that push the boundaries of their recipients’ imagination while remaining plausible. From our experience, highly analytical and structured approaches to scenario building usually yielded inferior results.

Another framework that we frequently employ, although it is relatively uncommon in the foresight community, is known as Assumption Based Planning (ABP). ABP originated in the 1990s developed at RAND for the United States Army and has greatly influenced our approach. I cannot recall precisely how I first encountered it, but it remains relatively unknown among most futurists unless they have learned about it from 4CF’s work or collaborations with our team. The inclusion of the word “planning” in the name Assumption Based Planning may not attract immediate attention from Futurists. Furthermore, the book describing this framework does not explicitly mention terms like foresight or Futures Studies, which may contribute to its relative lack of recognition in the field. Nevertheless, the authors describe Assumption Based Planning as a tool for reducing avoidable surprises, which aligns closely with the objectives of foresight.

The essence of the framework revolves around identifying assumptions that underlie strategic plans and determining which of them are load-bearing — those whose failure would require significant plan adjustments. Additionally, the framework helps to identify vulnerabilities within them. Ultimately, the process leads to the identification of load-bearing yet vulnerable strategic assumptions, which proves highly valuable, particularly when dealing with implicit assumptions within an organization. We have utilised elements of this framework in various projects for the military, finance sector, energy sector, and beyond, consistently yielding excellent results.

4CF’s proprietary tools and methods

We have developed a comprehensive set of tools and methods that are used regularly in our projects. One such tool is our proprietary real-time Delphi platform called 4CF HalnyX. Over the years, we have explored various alternatives, even including the traditional pen and paper approach, in situations where confidentiality and data security posed significant challenges with online platforms. Drawing from our experiences, we have incorporated many improvement ideas into the development of 4CF HalnyX to enhance user experience and streamline the process of participating in a real-time Delphi survey. A key focus for us was to minimize cognitive overload for participants, which has historically been a concern in real-time Delphis. The implementation of these ideas has proved immensely valuable in many foresight projects.

While Delphi surveys are effective in harnessing collective intelligence for assessments, it is crucial to note that they are not well-suited for collective brainstorming. To address this limitation, we have developed a separate tool called 4CF PnyX. It is an online platform for collectively constructing a tree of arguments. It incorporates gamified elements and draws inspiration from our previously developed foresight board game, Stranger Futures. It is also inspired by the Futures Wheel but offers greater flexibility in terms of applications. The idea was to create a tool that would not only be enjoyable to use but also highly powerful in generating valuable insights. 

Lastly, we offer 4CF FLEx, an engine designed to facilitate what we call Foresight Gamebooks. These are interactive narratives which immerse individuals in scenarios, allowing them to make choices as if they were living in the future. In addition to promoting futures thinking and encouraging innovation, they also help to challenge all sorts of assumptions both in a corporate setting and for individuals. While foresight gamebooks provide a lighthearted and enjoyable experience, they also ensure that the scenarios are taken more seriously by individuals who might otherwise disregard them. 

Organisational foresight culture 

We quickly recognized the importance of close collaboration with the recipients of our foresight projects. Without direct involvement from the employees or decision-makers within the organization, the scenarios we develop would run a high risk of not being taken seriously, which would be considered a failure on our part. Our aim is to challenge assumptions, highlight opportunities and threats that might otherwise go unnoticed. If the outcomes of our work are perceived as completely improbable not only at first sight, but also after the completion of a project, then our efforts have fallen short.

Fostering a foresight culture within organizations is a key aspect of our work, and sometimes it becomes a distinct goal of our projects. We strive to inspire and assist employees in generating bottom-up ideas that can contribute to future success. However, there are instances where our primary objective is to deliver actionable insights. In such cases, we recognize that unless we effectively engage participants in the process, even if we provide valuable outcomes, there is a risk that they may not be utilized. This is why we approach our projects with a focus on interactivity. It is crucial not only to ensure methodological correctness but also to make the process enjoyable for participants. Emphasizing the fun aspect benefits everyone involved, resulting in more enjoyable experiences, increased engagement, and ultimately better results.

Emerging futures of particular interest

There are numerous emerging issues surrounding current hot topics like AI, quantum computing, genetic editing, VR, AR or transhumanism. However, I won’t delve into them extensively, partly because they are already too overhyped, and I’m sure we will hear much more about them in the near future, whether we like it or not. As a matter of fact, at 4CF we are just starting up a new project that will provide policy recommendations related to AI. For the time being, I’d just like to reiterate that I am grateful for our decision in the early days of the company to cease working on econometric models. If we had continued with data crunching or similar endeavors, we would surely be facing significant challenges now. 

One area that particularly inspires me is the potential changes to our living and working environments. We are often so accustomed to their current form that it becomes difficult to imagine major alterations. For instance, it is becoming increasingly feasible that kitchens may cease to exist in our homes and apartments in the relatively near future. It’s one of those things which can sound either absurdly improbable or not-that-surprising depending on when you live. Currently, it would be extremely challenging to sell a property without a kitchen in most of Europe, and many people find the idea unimaginable. This historical convention is connected to traditional notions of family. In many cultures, they are associated with hospitality, it’s important to be able to welcome guests with homemade food. In many places, including Poland, home-cooked food is generally considered healthier than alternatives as well as cheaper at the same time. As a result, selling an apartment without a kitchen is quite problematic, not to mention that its price would be significantly lower. People simply expect a kitchen to be present, even if they don’t use it. It is one of those assumptions that bears considerable weight and is simultaneously vulnerable—a load-bearing assumption that impacts the value of a house.

However, these perceptions are rapidly changing. Just as we no longer sew our own clothes, the need to cook our own meals may also disappear. Professionally prepared meals can already offer benefits such as improved health, cost savings, time efficiency, and the preservation of valuable living space. Similar advantages can be observed in not having to make our own clothes. There are more and more signals that the days of kitchens as we know them may be numbered.

On a somewhat related note, the traditional image of white-collar work typically involves desks and computers, whether it’s in an office building or a home office setup. This arrangement has become even more prevalent with the rise of hybrid work and remote work in the post-pandemic era. However, the need for a desk and computer has remained relatively unchanged since white-collar work first emerged. This is where AI comes into play, as it has the potential to truly transform how we approach these jobs. It could fundamentally alter their nature, especially since many tasks that currently require traditional computers can be automated through algorithms. We may find ourselves spending more time engaging in direct communication with others, potentially moving away from our primitive keyboards. In any case, this shift may lead to a reduced reliance on desks as an essential component of our work setup, and they may no longer be the default option. Signals indicating this change are of course weaker than the harbingers of the end of home-kitchens, but they’re surely there.

If we delve into the realm of even weaker signals that may be worth mentioning, I would like to bring up the concept of free-space holograms or mid-air holographs, a beloved science-fiction motive. However, there are increasing indications that there might be more to it than some of us would initially believe. Although advancements in femtosecond lasers and plasma emission have been made in the field, it remains highly theoretical and far from the mainstream. Yet, it’s possible that we may not require Augmented Reality (AR) glasses for every application. While AR is quickly gaining interest with countless potential uses, there are still benefits to being able to see things with our own eyes. The ability to achieve large-scale mid-air holography, would be incredibly inspiring and facilitate better connection and shared experiences in certain situations. However, achieving this feat comes with a set of challenges, including the technical aspects involved in its realization. Complex computations are necessary and both quantum computing and artificial intelligence may play a role in enabling such advancements. Large-scale holograms could reach the size of stadiums, which would certainly be captivating and enjoyable. But maybe, compared to the simplicity of AR, we would ultimately find that these expensive holograms unnecessary? So it’s not only due to the technological hurdles involved but also because there are lingering questions about the actual need that we can consider this highly uncertain. 

What does a foresighter do?

Earlier, I mentioned the concept of reducing avoidable surprises, which is the essence of Assumption Based Planning. In my opinion, it succinctly captures what we strive to achieve. By minimizing unexpected outcomes and expanding strategic opportunities, we provide valuable guidance. On our website, we express this idea in a more poetic manner. In our company description, we state that we create guidebooks for navigating the future. We emphasize that whether we like it or not, we are all embarking on a journey into the unknown, and having a reliable guidebook is undoubtedly beneficial. That’s where we come in. We offer the creation of personalized guidebooks tailored to your specific needs. We can identify unforeseen possibilities and potential threats, assisting you in leveraging the future to thrive in a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. We can serve as your trusted advisors. This is typically how we explain our services.

Personally, when I go on vacations, I actually dislike having someone accompany me as I prefer the freedom to explore independently. However, this is precisely why a customized guidebook can be appealing. It allows you to choose what is most significant and interesting to you, which opportunities would you like to pursue. That’s where our added value lies. Naturally, while regular guidebooks can be purchased off the shelf, guidebooks to the future require customization almost by definition. After all, assumptions differ from person to person. For guidebooks to the future to be truly beneficial, we must first understand our clients’ vision of the future(s) and their assumptions in order to craft a valuable guidebook tailored to their specific needs.

“How Will We Disgust Our Descendants?” 

Several months ago, we embarked on an intriguing endeavor to explore how our present-day ways might disgust our distant descendants, the people who will inhabit our world a century from now. For the sake of that project, we optimistically assumed that civilization will advance significantly and that humanity will evolve and mature over the next hundred years. Under this assumption, it is quite easy to envision that many aspects of our contemporary lifestyle—those commonplace things we currently utilise and engage in on a daily basis—could be regarded as, at the very least, highly controversial, or maybe even utterly repulsive.

Just as we now contemplate historical practices such as witch burning, slavery, medieval torture instruments, crusades, and so forth, it is not so difficult to imagine that our current way of life may be subject to similar scrutiny. Perhaps witch burning did not occur with daily frequency, and even during its more prevalent periods, it was already considered abhorrent by many. However, some of these practices were so deeply ingrained in various cultures throughout history that they were indiscriminately accepted for extended periods, as was the case with slavery. It was an unquestioned norm for many societies for a significant duration. Thus, if one were to live in ancient Rome, for instance, it would be quite unusual to pause and consider whether such practices are morally wrong.

Engaging in the exercise of exploring such matters is thought-provoking. However, I must clarify that in our project we were not looking for things that are already widely acknowledged as disgusting or terrible in our contemporary society. Issues such as ongoing warfare and the consumption of animal meat are examples of topics where the awareness of their negative implications is already quite prevalent. Instead, our project centered around the notion of identifying “Contemporary Barbarisms” that often go unnoticed. To begin, we devised a questionnaire, which we distributed in futurist networks. The questionnaire posed the question: “What aspects of our present could potentially disgust our descendants?” We received responses from approximately 60 participants from around the world, generating a few hundred ideas. The input we received was truly exceptional and inspiring. To manage the abundance of ideas, we organized them into clusters, as many of them shared similar notions, albeit in different words. Through this process, we condensed the ideas into fewer than one hundred potential Contemporary Barbarisms. Subsequently, we conducted a second questionnaire, wherein we asked respondents to identify the most eye-opening concepts among these suggestions. 

One particular notion that captivated me, although it did not emerge directly from the questionnaire and was not prominently featured in our subsequent infographic, was a remark made during a workshop we conducted for the UNFCCC in Gabarone, Botswana. When we posed the same question to workshop participants and collected their ideas, one individual suggested that our practice of washing ourselves with water might be viewed as barbaric in the future. Without delving too much into potential alternatives, one can envision a range of possibilities. Perhaps, a century from now, people will employ nanotechnology to maintain ideal cleanliness without resorting to the primitive act of daily washing with water. This practice, though ingrained in our current routines, not only consumes significant amounts of Earth’s resources but also falls short of achieving optimal cleanliness.

Topping our list in the final infographic is the absence of legal rights for nature in our present world. While this particular idea did not personally surprise me, it remains of considerable importance. This development is supported by many emerging indications. New Zealand has the distinction of being the first country to grant legal rights to a river. It raises the question of whether our failure to provide sufficient protection to nature may be viewed as a form of barbarism in the future.

The future—a constant process of reinvention

Although the aforementioned work on “Contemporary barbarism” adopts a longer time horizon than what is typically feasible in our commercial endeavors, it is closely aligned with our approach to thinking and the methods we employ to stimulate participants’ thoughts during foresight processes. Our aim is to encourage individuals to consider the future by identifying the aspects that may currently elude their attention, challenging their assumptions, and engaging in self-reframing and critical thinking. This mindset becomes an integral part of how we contemplate the future—a constant process of reinvention and the quest to identify blind spots that may be overlooked when envisioning futures. Hence, “Contemporary barbarisms” project perfectly embodies our philosophy.

One of the initial questions we received following the completion of this project was, “What were the futurists’ consensus on the identified barbarisms? What do they believe will be the prevailing issues?” These questions pertain to the content presented at the bottom of the infographic. While those points are crucial as they are highly likely to be regarded as contemporary barbarisms, they do not constitute the primary focus of our work. When explaining our mission to others, we emphasize that it is not solely about predicting what is most probable; rather, it centers on unveiling the elements that currently elude our awareness. We strive to put those previously unnoticed factors on radar. If these factors are sufficiently plausible, they merit serious consideration.

Discovering such aspects may prompt individuals to realize that they possess the capacity to influence their future in some way and motivate them to pursue certain actions or endeavor to avoid undesired outcomes. Recognizing possibilities that were previously beyond one’s awareness lies at the core of our work. Similarly to many other foresight projects of ours, “Contemporary barbarisms” provided a valuable and inspiring mental exercise. It allowed us to draw inspiration from ideas that would have otherwise escaped our attention. Moreover, it has been quite widely publicized, so if it helped in raising awareness about the value of futures thinking and the importance of questioning assumptions, it served its purpose. Spreading awareness about the necessity of adopting a multidimensional perspective when contemplating the future is personally significant to me. It involves examining the future from diverse angles, distinct from the ones we are accustomed to employing – added value of that is quite obvious, not to mention the fun. 

4CF’s Recent Work

How will we disgust our descendants?

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Foresight for Chemicals – Chem4EU

DG GROW (Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs of the European Commission)

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Technology Foresight on Biometrics for the Future of Travel

Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency

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4CF’s project timeline

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Norbert Kołos 

Norbert Kołos is the managing partner and co-founder of 4CF, a strategic foresight consultancy with nearly two decades of experience in complex foresight projects for a wide range of both private and public sector clients, including UN Climate Change, FRONTEX and the European Commission. Norbert is actively engaged in developing new foresight tools and methods which support futurists in using collective intelligence, analysing strategic alternatives, and gamifying foresight processes. He is the co-chair of the Polish Node of The Millennium Project and a founding member of the Polish Society for Futures Studies. Norbert lectures strategic foresight, i.a. at AGH University of Science and Technology and the Polish Naval Academy. 

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Stay updated! Subscribe to our newsletter:

By subscribing to our newsletter, you consent to the processing of the provided data. The data controller is 4CF Sp. z o.o., its registered office is located in Warsaw, 10/14 Trzech Krzyży Square, postal code: 00-499.

We process your data solely for the purpose of sending information about 4CF Sp. z o.o. and its activities via e-mail. Your data will be processed until your consent is revoked through a  link that will be included in each newsletter. The withdrawal of consent shall not affect the lawfulness of processing based on consent before its withdrawal. Providing your data is voluntary, but necessary if you wish to receive information about 4CF Sp. z o.o. and its activities. We may transfer the data to our suppliers of services related to the processing of personal data, e.g. IT service providers. Such entities process data on the basis of a contract with our company and only in accordance with our instructions. You have the right to request access to your personal data, its rectification, deletion or limitation of processing, as well as the right to lodge a complaint with the supervisory authority. More information about your rights and about the processing of your personal data can be found in our privacy policy.