The Montpellier Workshop and Next Steps

With the Foresight4Food Initiative’s second workshop successfully wrapped up and follow-up activities underway, this post reflects on the event as a whole. Hosted in Montpellier with the excellent support of MUSE, CIRAD, GFAR, and ACIAR, the workshop brought together individuals from a diverse range of foresight institutions, organizations, and projects from around the world.

Exploring what foresight entails formed the foundation of the workshop, exemplified by a set of presentations on past and on-going foresight initiatives by workshop participants on the first day. Participants agreed that ‘foresight’ encompasses a host of different processes and steps, and instead of being solely combined to predicting the future, it provides the opportunity space of accomplishing many things. For example, foresight identifies trends and drivers within the food system (and others), weak signals, tipping points, ‘steam trains’, ‘black swans’, and unintended consequences of actions. It reframes narratives and problems that allow decision-makers to consider broader perspectives that include factors like technological, socio-political, and governance issues linked to the problem. Foresight allows one to acknowledge and understand the existing boundaries and rules of the system, and thus create a well-defined space within which actors can create creative opportunities and solutions.

This discussion on foresight is and what it can be then benefited from an exploration of the issues impacting methodology. A panel with stakeholders from CIRAD, IIASA, and IIED sparked a discussion about choices made in developing foresight methodologies and their impact on developing models and scenarios. Questions around stakeholder expectations, decisions on the timeframe and spatial scale of analyses, and operating with the differing agendas and priorities of the collaborators and stakeholders were raised and discussed. The value of open and accessible communication of foresight models and research was emphasised, but limitations around communicating complicated language to the wider public and policy-makers were explored, along with the underlying assumptions of different models.  While the lack of data in certain contexts can be a problem in creating useful models, the trap of too much data and its role in impacting economic results was also examined. The panel in discussion with the workshop summarized the issues with an emphasis on process instead of tools and results, the inclusion of technological change, social innovation, and the geopolitical dimensions of food system issues, and the value of bridging disciplines and approaches in future foresight approaches. The questions and themes raised in this panel proved valuable in thinking through the themes around the future of the Foresight4Food Initiative on the second and third days.

In discussion with the panel, and with Jim Woodhill’s framework for foresight approaches, ‘solutions’ to the methodological issues were explored. Creating emotional incentives for change, or the increased potential of the ‘emotional economy’, in combination with the difficult questions that foresight actors need to (but might not) engage with can be a useful way of encouraging the use of foresight in decision-making. It is however, important not to keep the focus on policy-makers only, but ensure a rich diversity of stakeholders, such as the private sector and youth groups. The value of instilling ‘future literacy’ in people, to ensure that the underlying anticipatory assumptions are acknowledged and managed at participatory foresight sessions, and to more broadly have the level of future literacy to have foresight oriented decision-making at all institutional and spatial levels. A common underlying theme to the discussions throughout the workshop was the value of food systems thinking. The significance of food system drivers (such as population growth, migration, climate change, etc.), the impacts of system-level shocks in the short and long-term, and the increasing number and magnitude of food system concerns in terms of health, environment, ethics, and economics influence the process and outcome of all major foresight initiatives and projects.

After a series of foundational plenaries and panel discussions, the workshop was focused on advancing the Foresight4Food Initiative. Working from the concept note and the outcomes of the first workshop in Oxford, the workshop organizers were keen on establishing future directions for the Initiative. Going into the working groups for each thematic area, the workshop had determined the following key principles and areas of interest for the Initiative:

  • Considering foresight as a process towards achieving broader objectives
  • Synthesis is a useful way of underlining differences and alternative approaches and narratives
  • The Initiative must ensure that the right questions are being asked for the foresight process
  • Interactions in a foresight process are better served by being circular and iterative instead of linear
  • Creating ‘safe spaces’ within pathways for actors to find creative transformative opportunities and to reduce risk

The working groups then spent the major part of Day 3 at Agropolis International developing a detailed work plan and objectives for each thematic area. The outcomes from each working group can be found in the Workshop Report. In summary, the working groups concluded that there is great value in the Foresight4Food Initiative in continuing, but shifting its role towards a coordinating body with strong linkages with other convening bodies (such as CFS and GFAR), to accomplish its various stated goals. It was determined that future meetings with Foresight4Food must deliver on one of the objectives and themes and the time in between best served with determining funding sources and establishing a governance structure and advisory board for the Initiative. The workshop report, the outputs from the working groups, and the energy and momentum for the Oxford and Montpellier workshops will be taken forward with the help of the Steering Group towards transforming the Initiative to best serve the needs of the foresight community.