From food futures to food action – investigating the link between foresight and policy

In the face of an uncertain future, more and more people working on the challenges of future food and nutritional security are turning to foresight – a field encompassing various methods for exploring diverse future worlds that might come to be.  However, while foresight can often help think about the future, it does not necessarily provide a link with planning and actions. This link between exploring future contexts and considering future actions has to be created somehow. If foresight is used without any understanding of the best way to combine exploration and action, policy makers, researchers, leaders in the private sector and societal organizations who use it run the risk of repeating common mistakes and missing out on the full potential of foresight processes.

FP7 TRANSMANGO is a European project that aims to use foresight to investigate how transitions to a better food system could be made, both at local levels and at the EU level. A first step in this process is to learn from the past. In a report recently published on the TRANSMANGO website, we present results from a study that included:

  • A review of European foresight activities around the future of food to understand who conducted them, how they were organized, what their links to policy makers were, and which methods were used;
  • A series of interviews with experts involved both in policy and in foresight in the European Commission;
  • And two in-depth national-level case studies, conducted by a team of MSc students at SciencesPo, in Finland and Ireland.

The report contains many insights for the design of foresight that has a better chance of being directly useful for policy, for instance:

  • Foresight processes which were directly targeted at and integrated with specific policy design processes were considered to have the most visible impact.
  • However, more open and less focused processes aimed at considering longer-term questions and strategies involving many actors led to less visible impact but participants in such processes reported that these offered powerful learning experiences for all involved. The challenge is to test such learning processes to move beyond anecdote – for instance, by using tools from social psychology or anthropology.
  • Although a mix of methods (for instance, both stories and models) was preferred, these mixed processes are in the minority in the context of European food.
  • In Finland and Ireland, foresight processes and policy processes, though not purposefully linked, ended up being highly connected, because actors were involved in the same networks and lessons from the foresight naturally found their way into policy. Such relatively independent foresight processes have the benefit of some critical distance from policy – but this kind of interconnectedness can be designed for, rather than serendipitous!
  • From the interviews it became clear that what is needed in Europe is a ‘culture’ of foresight – a paradigm shift toward accepting uncertainty and being able to work with it.

The TRANSMANGO research on foresight-policy links continues and will be further enriched as the project develops, to ensure that we apply foresight in a way that builds on past lessons, and that has the best chance to guide action in Europe toward food system that ensures food and nutrition security for all in a sustainable manner.

At the same time, our aim is to provide historic lessons from throughout Europe as well as those from the TRANSMANGO program itself to improve the impact of foresight – and to empower planners, researchers, citizens and others to face and create new food futures in Europe.

Author: Joost Vervoort – Scenarios Work Package Leader in TRANSMANGO
Food Systems Group, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford


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