14 mental barriers to integrating futures-thinking in evaluations and how to overcome them


Senior Consultant - Development Evaluation

There are two types of basic human reactions to new things: (1) “Yes, let’s try it!” and (2) “No, I don’t want that!”. We might observe one of these experiences in our minds when thinking about integrating foresight concepts and tools into development evaluation to make it more valuable and responsive to support transformative change. The danger with the first response is a lack of critical thinking about whether the approach is relevant to the situation. On the other hand, the second response might prevent reaching new levels of learning and co-creation. In this blog, I explore 14 types of resistance to applying futures-thinking in evaluation and suggest solutions with an attitude of positive curiosity.

January 4, 2023

Futures thinking is a creative and exploratory process that uses divergent thinking, seeking many possible answers and acknowledging uncertainty. NIRAS is not alone in arguing that evaluation must become more future-sensitive. However, the idea has grown in the evaluation community only in the past few years, and examples of concrete applications are few. Similarly, the foresight community is reflecting on how they could learn from evaluation approaches and methods to strengthen analyses.

A group of 11 futurists got together at a Futurists Imagination Retreat in California in May 2016. During the event, they carried out an exercise to discuss the factors that prevent people from imagining the distant future and. As a result, 14 reasons emerged.

I want to share these with you not only because they are relevant for my work as an evaluator in the development cooperation and policy space, but also because they are generally interesting and applicable in many sectors. I am keenly interested in the interconnections between evaluation and foresight in supporting organisations’ strategic planning and so I have reflected on these mental barriers from a development evaluations perspective and propose solutions for a way forward.

At the end of this piece, you will find two resources we have developed at NIRAS. One is a quick guide to concepts and terms in evaluation and foresight. The second contains some easy-to-implement ideas on how to make evaluation more future sensitive.

Now on to the futurists’ list!

The first six examples explain why some don’t want to embark on an exercise to imagine the future. Conversely, reasons 9-14 refer to situations where the person does not manage to think creatively about the future despite their best efforts.

Reason 1: Urgent matters in present

Hunger. Violence. Fear. Poverty. Too many pressing present-day problems. Lack of time.

This list sounds familiar to development practitioners, including those who commission evaluations, reference group members, and consultants. But unfortunately, we have seen too many examples where the donors’ programming strategies are based mainly on the best-case scenarios. Recent examples include Afghanistan and Myanmar. In Afghanistan, the best-case scenario included a vision that the Taliban would not gain back power and the positive trend of women’s and girls’ rights would continue. In Myanmar, the assumption was that democratic development and economic growth would continue steadily. Unfortunately, an undesirable scenario – a coup d’état – materialised in both cases.

Suggestion: Include futures thinking in strategy development and evaluation (at least gradually). Ask the question, can we afford not to do so?

Reason 2: Fear of being wrong

Not wanting to look stupid or be embarrassed by making incorrect predictions.

In any field, it feels uncomfortable to raise new ideas without knowing how colleagues or clients will react. Furthermore, evaluation has developed into a profession with high standards in the past few decades. Proposing something creative might feel uncomfortable.

Suggestion: Start small. For example, open the door to futures-thinking by extending the scope of the evaluation to the next five years. Then, consider only the known future events, such as the end year of critical strategies or the dates of significant events. Finally, discuss the implications of those elements in the analysis. This approach leans on the idea of “future-as-time” versus “future-as-image”. While it is not an “advanced” form of futures thinking, it is a practical start to spark discussion. See “Start here! Evaluation and foresight – your quick guide to basic concepts and terms” for more information.

Reason 3: What’s the point?

Belief that futures thinking is a waste of time. That it’s unserious or unproductive. It doesn’t feel practical to me.

The field of evaluation is relatively developed methodologically and process-wise. Disruption in that culture might generate nervousness about not delivering on all the quality expectations and over-burdening the team.

Suggestion: Demonstrate examples of how global evaluation leaders are also adopting foresight methods in evaluation, for instance, IEG’s evaluation of the World Bank Group’s renewable energy portfolio. See also “Evaluation must become future-sensitive – eight examples and easy-to-implement ideas on how to do it in practice” for practical, easy-to-implement options.

Reason 4: Difficulty proving its value

Even to those who personally believe there may be value in far-future thinking, the lack of impact measurements and quantifiable results make it hard to commit their own personal or organisational time and resources to the activity.

Quality evaluation is based on evidence gathered from the past. It is triangulated and transparent. Evaluators and clients might consider that futures thinking is based on unscientific brainstorming that does not involve the same level of methodological robustness as evaluation. However, that is not the case; foresight is an established discipline. Besides, evaluation is also “only” an interpretation of the past.

Suggestion: Provide training on foresight concepts and methods. Or, recommend the children’s book Telin Tutkimusmatka (The Explorations of Teli) by Tähkäpää & Rybatzki. The book explains in a fun way what futures thinking is about. Unfortunately, it currently exists only in Finnish. For English speakers, there is an excellent affordable online course on futures thinking developed by the Institute for the Future.

Reason 5: Lack of agency with respect to the future

The belief that I personally can’t affect the future, so why think about it.

Development practitioners might feel overwhelmed in the face of all the global challenges. On the other hand, there is evidence that some aspects of sustainable development have improved, such as extreme poverty and literacy.

Suggestion: Ask the evaluators or those who commission them to think of an evaluation they are familiar with. Discuss examples from those reports demonstrating how something has changed over the years and how different factors and actors influenced the phenomenon.

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Reason 6: Lack of hope or optimism that things can change

The belief the future can’t be different. Belief that the world is fixed. A lack of understanding of the past (and major changes).

Related to the above, development practitioners engage with poverty and inequality so intimately that they might lose hope that change is possible. Some might forget to take a longer view of the past and appreciate how the world has improved (or worsened). Change is constant and inevitable.

Suggestion: Remind your colleagues that we can only do our best. Listen to short audio drama recordings together about the future and discuss your thoughts, ideas, and the feelings they evoked. These pieces are available on Sitra’s website.

Reason 7: Lack of encouragement to think imaginatively about the future

This is particularly true in our schools!

The retreat participants reflected this point in the context of US schools. It is probably true for the schools in most countries – and workplaces.

Suggestion: Introduce futures thinking to colleagues through games. Try, for example, the Equitable Futures Card Game developed by the Institute for the Future. Also, the Finnish Future Fund Sitra has launched a card deck for imagining desirable futures. For now, they exist only in Finnish, but Sitra often translates their materials into English, so stay tuned!

Reason 8: Lack of role models who think about the future

There are few, if any, specific well-known futurists in popular culture or within various intellectual communities. This is a particular problem for women and people of colour; a recent collection of essays by leading futurists consisted of essays by 17 white men.

This is an interesting point from the perspective of sustainable development, where reducing inequalities is a central paradigm.

Suggestion: Google “afrofuturism” or start from the related Wikipedia article. Alternatively, get inspired by Forbes’ “50 Leading Female Futurists”. Include experts with diverse cultural backgrounds and genders into evaluation teams and provide methodological training on foresight regardless of the level of prior exposure.

Reason 9: Lack of exposure to future thinking tools

There are well-established methods that futurists use, like the development of scenarios and forecasts, but there are scarce formal opportunities to learn and practice these tools. Lack of guidance or mentorship in futures thinking.

The internet has lots of content about foresight tools. However, the amount of information might be too intimidating to start exploring without any reference points.

Suggestion: Google your favourite institution’s name together with the word “foresight” and see what comes up. You might be surprised that many development agencies are already exploring the applications of futures thinking. For example, see examples from the UNDP or ADB. I also warmly recommend the IFTF Futures Thinking Specialisation online course.

Reason 10: Not aware of the transformational forces (or what futurists call “signals”), so they can’t see the directions of change

If someone is not exposed to leading-edge technologies, science, demographic shifts, market shifts and other “future forces”, the futures they imagine will not be grounded in the reality of what is likely to influence the future.

Identifying signals is a skill. Further, relatively few signals examples exist of the “marriage” of foresight and evaluation. But there are some. For example, at the European Evaluation Society Conference in June 2022, a keynote speaker, Hans Bruyninckx, the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, raised the question of whether “evaluators should be future-oriented agenda-setters”? Similarly, the conference programme included several sessions where the integration of foresight and evaluation was discussed.

Suggestion: Follow signals from the future of your favourite topics and give examples to colleagues to make your point. Our discussion paper “Evaluation must become future-sensitive – eight examples and easy-to-implement ideas on how to do it in practice” also demonstrates practical cases. Alternatively, google the sentence “the future of [fill in the blank]” and you might find out some new thinking around your favourite topic.

Reason 11: Rigid ideology

In nations, organisations or cultures with rigid ideologies, they may be too close-minded to accept that dramatic changes are possible and even likely in the future.

Cultural differences are richness in development cooperation work. At times, however, finding common ground on specific topics might be challenging. It might even be difficult to reach a point where everybody is on the same page regarding concepts and terms.

Suggestion: Before launching a futures literacy workshop (or other in-depth futures thinking session) with a group of people from a very different culture to yours, prepare your approach with time and dedication. A key concept of futures literacy is the democratisation of the future; i.e. it is even morally wrong that somebody from outside comes and tells people how they should imagine the future of their society. Find local champions and train local cofacilitators who will moderate workshops and discussions. Explore the method of Futures Literacy Laboratory by UNESCO to learn more.

Reason 12: Too much influence from pop culture

When some lay people think about the future, they are over-influenced by dominant science fiction ideas. They repeat ideas from Star Trek, The Matrix, Minority Report, etc.

This phenomenon is normal. When I first took a deep dive into futures thinking, I could not get the image of David Bowie out of my head.

Suggestion: Do not laugh at people who bring these images to the table but celebrate it as open-mindedness to explore futures thinking. Another option is to build on existing evaluation tools, such as the theory of change, by combining it with scenario-building. It might help participants to stick to the real-world phenomenon at hand.

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Reason 13: Futures thinking requires time, more time than may be available

The group agreed it takes at least a day or two to switch mental models from the present or near-future thinking to far-future thinking.

Point me to the development practitioner who has too much time on their hands! I dare to argue that they do not exist.

Suggestion: Sitra’s Futures Frequency Workshop modality is designed to be implemented in a minimum of three hours. Participants have reported that major aha-moments can take place in such a short time. One lesson learned is that asking people to imagine alternative futures is more effective than simply telling them what the method is about.

Reason 14: Neurological hindrances

It is known, for example, that Alzheimer’s patients have difficulty imagining the future. The same is often true of depressed patients.

We will unlikely encounter colleagues with Alzheimer’s at work (I certainly hope not many are depressed either). However, it is helpful to be aware that futures thinking is a muscle of the mind that requires stimulation.

Suggestion: Remain humble, exercise your mental muscles and invite others to do so. Pro tip: do not tell your client that they have neurological hindrances if they don’t buy your ideas on the first go.

Petra’s background is in the implementation and evaluation of development cooperation and policy in multiple sectors. In past years, she has taken courses on futures literacy and foresight with the Institute for the Future and the Finnish Future Fund Sitra. In December 2020, she acted as a core team member in implementing a Futures Literacy Laboratory on the Future of Evaluation in Society. The event was organised jointly by UNESCO, the European Evaluation Society, and NIRAS International Consulting as part of Unesco’s High-Level Futures Literacy Summit. 

Final thoughts

There is a profession titled “Futurist” and they might be members of communities such as the Association of Professional Futurists (APF). However, not everybody can or should become a professional futurist. Nevertheless, every citizen holds the mandate, right, and responsibility to take ownership of the future. In that process, it is helpful to understand basic concepts of futures thinking and exercise the mental muscle of futures literacy.

But, where do the evaluators and clients stand in this landscape? In the context of development policy and cooperation, they should facilitate learning from past experiences and anticipation of possible futures. This “dual” approach can better support the work of duty-bearers in evidence-informed decision-making, risk management, and strategy development. At the same time, the voice and agency of rights-holders is strengthened.

Integrating foresight and futures thinking in different fields is an emerging trend. Evaluators should not fall off the wagon.

Do you have other examples or experiences about bringing futures thinking into evaluation? How did you overcome the challenges? You can reach me in my email below.

NIRAS' evaluation and foresight services include:

  • Exclusive training workshops on evaluation and foresight and their integration;
  • Guidance to evaluation commissioners on how to integrate future orientation in evaluation terms of reference (or any other type of MEL assignment);
  • Implementation of future-oriented evaluations / MEL assignments;
  • Planning and implementation of futures literacy workshops tailored to the client’s needs based on the Futures Literacy Laboratory method developed by Unesco or the Futures Frequency Workshop by Sitra;
  • Foresight services, such as analysis of megatrends and weak signals in the context of sustainable development worldwide, either from a broad perspective or zooming into a specific sector or jurisdiction.

Evaluation & Foresight: A quick guide to basic concepts and terms

Evaluation Must Become Future-Sensitive: easy to implement ideas on how to do it in practice