The Dragonfly Journey: Unlocking Our Individual and Cooperative Evolutionary Trait of Foresight & Furtures Thinking to Imagine, Experience, and Transform the Future
Foresight and Futures Thinking has become more popular than ever before, and organizations around the world are implementing a futures-oriented competency and culture as a means to navigate the social, economic, and governmental waters of exponential change. Does the discipline simply offer us a “better mousetrap” in terms of employing data-driven metrics, strategic modeling, and technological roadmapping, or is Foresight an natural element in our individual and cooperative evolution, and our organic transformation beyond the modern techno-industrial landscape? Can we cultivate “holoptic” communities of practice that foster anticipatory imagination in our organizations, governments and society?
The Origins of Future-Proofing: Foresight As Colonial Reinforcement
The year was 1945. World War 2 came to an end with the surrender of Germany in Europe and the infamous deployment of the atomic bomb by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. The United Nations was created when 50 nations signed the United Nations Charter. Science Fiction writer and futurist Sir Arthur C. Clarke first proposed the creation of a geosynchronous communications satellite. The world was rapidly shifting (again, as many have underscored the dizzying change that the early 20th Century introduced through industrial development, communications technologies, and the general concept what some have called the “invention of the future.” In order to deal with this new world of seemingly unfettered entanglement and escalating novelty, the field of foresight and future thinking was officially born. (Hines, 2019)
Of course, foresight and futures thinking has certainly been recognized by many writers, academics and professionals as a philosophy and mechanism for the discovery of preferred, aspirational and provocative imageries that challenge the dominant narratives of outdated decision matrices. However, the field’s WW2 roots emphasized trend scouting, risk management and prediction as its predominant features. At that time, foresight was seen as a means to “future-proof” our outcomes, avoid surprises to the system, and “win the future” before our competitors — all hallmarks of our modern emphasis on simplification, linearization, and mechanization that frame the ethos of Frederick Taylor’s human-efficiency model of Scientific Management.
More recently, corporations, governments and educational institutions have been increasingly leveraging the methodologies found in foresight and futures thinking to ensure continued relevance in the face of massive social and planetary upheaval. In turn, this has resulted in a greater scrutiny by academics, practitioners and external critics alike concerning the role that the field should play in ensuring the resilience of our present-day systems. This scrutiny isn’t related to questioning the validity of the foresight and futures thinking field in general, nor its impact on the usual areas of application such as strategy, change management, innovation, policy, or social and planetary development; rather, the growing collection of voices are evaluating whether the deeper potential and promise of futures thinking is being co-opted by the “powers that be” to reinforce colonized, antiquated and unsustainable models within organizations, governments and social initiatives. This stunting of foresight and futures thinking’s evolutionary development is largely due to the dominance of our world’s positivist philosophy surrounding long-termism, prospecting, and objectification of the future — a system of thought that is confined by big data, prediction and top-down control.
A Shift To Transformational Futures: Foresight As Co-Creative Generativity
Does foresight and futures thinking possess a more significant utility than external trend identification, quantified analysis, near-term forecasting for optimized ROI, or technological roadmapping? How do we instill a more generative philosophy of foresight and futures thinking — one that pivots us away from our modern industrial framing that defines the world through silos and single-purpose outcomes, to a more transformational perspective with a scaffold for promoting creative complexity, anticipatory imagination and emergent novelty? Can embracing an intrinsically-oriented view of foresight guide the much needed work of reframing and redesigning our organizational and governmental models, adopting novel decision frameworks that make those used to ensure short-term profitability obsolete, foster holistic social and systemic change, cultivate higher-order cosmological narratives, and offer dynamic alternative solutions to what many have designated as a planetary “metacrisis”? Can we breathe life into a comprehensive platform of restorative foresight as the central purpose in our organizations, governments and society that shifts our collective narrative from an external locus of control to an “internal locus of capabilities?” Can we adopt a philosophy that directs our foresight research and practice not as an extraneous instrument of change, but rather as a cooperative trait of perception and co-creative transformation? In other words, what if foresight is much more than a set of methodologies to arrive at answers that align with our present-day biases around mechanistic and linear structures; what if instead foresight’s evolutionary capability pulls us into the organic, natural, and transformative unfolding of living systems?
The Biological and Intentional Evolution of Futures Thinking
In an article entitled “Mental time travel and the evolution of the human mind” authors Thomas Suddendorf and Michael C. Corballis addressed these questions by highlighting the evolutionary nature of futures thinking in the unfolding of human consciousness, and even noted how foresight most likely served as a prerequisite for the creation of language and social structures. Addressing the organic nature of futures thinking, the authors stated, “In recent years motivation theorists have come to appreciate that human behavior is not governed merely by internal drives, habits, and external stimuli, but depends very largely on anticipatory cognition. Bandura (1991) writes that ‘even in the so-called biological motivators, human behavior is extensively activated and regulated by anticipatory and generative cognitive mechanisms rather than simply impelled by biological urges’ (p. 70). This is not to say that humans have overcome their biological needs; rather, they have the capacity to integrate the enactment of present and future drives in a complex set of action plans directed at a variety of goals. Only through considering the cognitive component (and the importance of mental time travel) can we begin to explain the evolution of human volition, including such biologically paradoxical phenomena as celibacy or hunger strikes… We believe that the importance of mental time travel as a prime mover in human cognitive evolution has not been adequately recognized. It may hold the key to the evolution of such characteristically human phenomena as agriculture, morality, philosophy, science, technology, and trade.” (Suddendorf & Corballis, 1997)
Continuing their work on mental time travel, Suddendorf and Corballis expounded on the origins and implications of this biological trait in a subsequent article entitled “The evolution of foresight: what is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans?” (Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007). The authors expounded on the previous article by differentiating between our futures thinking activities and the locus of our futures thinking capability as a species, noting that, “Our own terminological preference is to reserve the term “mental time travel” for the kinds of mental activity in which people engage when they remember particular past events or think about possible personal future happenings, and to use some other term, such as “chronesthesia” (Tulving 2002a), to refer to the general neurocognitive capacity that makes such remembering and thinking possible. The concept of chronesthesia was introduced as a specifically time-oriented facet of autonoetic consciousness. The concept of autonoetic consciousness was introduced as a part of the description of a brain-damaged amnesic individual who could neither remember any personal past happenings nor imagine any personal future scenarios (Tulving 1985) This patient was said to have lost his autonoetic consciousness, a kind of consciousness that endows a healthy person with the capability of mental time travel, to “roam… at will over what has happened as readily as over what might have happened, independently of the physical laws that govern the universe (Tulving 1985, p. 5).”
Holoptic Foresight Dynamics: Cultivating the Cooperative Evolutionary Trait of Emergence Perception
Combining research around evolutionary foresight and “futures consciousness” with reinforcing studies from individuals such as physicist Fritjof Capra, systems scientist Anthony Hodgson, writer and educator Nora Bateson, evolutionary researcher John Stewart, regenerative systems thinker Daniel Christian Wahl, theoretical biologist Robert Rosen, cosmologist Robert Lanza, neuroscientist Bonnitta Roy and many others, I first began work over a decade ago on the evolutionary foresight model that has become known as Holoptic Foresight Dynamics (HFD). This work was born out of the revelation and ongoing research that, when coupled with insights from relational biology’s centering of self-reproducing capacity; process ontology’s focus on ongoing change over temporary manifestations; anticipatory science’s future-related actions that manifest throughout all of nature; and a myriad of related studies in living systems, sociology and cosmology, a growing interest in foresight could profoundly transform the human experience. Specifically, HFD explores the recognition of foresight as a cooperative evolutionary trait in humans (and universally through expanding consciousness at various levels) that consequently fosters a deep perception of emerging novelties (i.e. “that which desires to emerge”) and results in the collaborative co-creation of transformational realities.
With this definition in mind, it’s easy to grasp the origin of the Holoptic Foresight Dynamics name. The word “holoptic” refers to the compound eye that can be found on a dragonfly. This holoptic eye covers the insect’s entire head, giving it a “whole-eyed” perspective of the world around it. In other words, the dragonfly can see forward, backward, up, down, and side-to-side, and it can do this all at the same time and within the same field of view. This gives the dragonfly a completely different perspective of space and time than what is afforded by the human eye. For the dragonfly, space and time are slowed down, and this enables the insect to anticipate and make sense of events that are just beginning to emerge. This whole-eyed simultaneous vision is not something that is physically possible for humans, but it does serve as an incredible metaphor for the evolutionary trait of futures consciousness that is elevated through a “cooperative chronesthesia” to grok what is emerging and to act accordingly for transformative change — a metaphor that exists not only in the actual ability of a dragonfly, but throughout the interconnected and anticipatory web of living systems. (To read the 2-part primer on HFD, visit https://thefuturesschool.medium.com/holoptic-foresight-dynamics-an-evolutionary-model-for-co-creating-the-future-part-1-4f56b43e67e2)
Creating Holoptic Foresight Communities of Practice
To promote the collective trait of a diversely convergent “futures-focused whole” as part of humanity’s biological and intentional evolutionary inheritance, the team at the foresight, innovation and strategic design firm TFSX (formally known as Kedge and The Futures School) held the first Transformations of Natural Foresight® retreat in the Fall of 2022 at Bell Valley Retreat in Boonville, California. Organizational leaders, entrepreneurs, social change agents, academics and artists gathered for this unique 3-day experience based on Holoptic Foresight Dynamics, rethinking and redefining foresight as a cooperative evolutionary trait for the perception of emerging novelty and the co-creation of transformational realities through a series of deep-dive discussions, experiential meals and immersive activities.
Once the stage was set during our gathering on Day 1, participants began exploring the evolutionary power of futures thinking to reframe organizational and governmental philosophies, purpose and structures as instruments of cooperative and transformative prosperity, care, empathy, equity, symbiotic reconciliation and love. (If this list of evolutionary qualities sounds too ethereal for “real world” actions and outcomes, it’s only because we have been indoctrinated with the construct of mechanistic approaches to life as being superior to the development of organic, human and living systems.)
During our first evening together, foresight educator, futures analyst and Association of Professional Futurists board member Zan Chandler facilitated a land acknowledgment ceremony to recognize the traditional Pomo tribes and their unceded territory, but to also focus our attention on the necessity of non-colonial voices in creating robust futures consciousness. Throughout the entire Transformations of Natural Foresight journey we made connections between Holoptic Foresight Dynamics and indigenous ways of knowing to unlearn western/mainstream ideals that have greatly influenced modern futures thinking and foresight.
We kicked off with an overview of the personal retreat journal that had been created to guide, immerse and transition participants through the Transformations of Natural Foresight retreat, as well as an high-level overview of the entire HFD model. Our first night continued with a chance to practice our mental time travel as everyone shared about their backgrounds, cultural perspectives and generational connections. We shared meaningful — and at times painful — recollections about our individual family histories. Supporting this time of deep connection to both past and present, participants shared objects and photos that symbolized the meaningful bonds to their family trees. For many of us, it was our first time participating in an ancestral conversation like this, and it proved to be incredibly illuminating and bonding. The night sky above us provided the perfect backdrop to the work of deep introspection around our connection to generational insights past, present and future. Everyone agreed that it was a truly enlightening way to end Day I of the retreat and begin our cooperative journey of transformational foresight together.
We began the morning of Day 2 by setting intentions, reading excerpts from the Transformations of Natural Foresight journal, and focusing on key parts of the HFD definition. After our breakfast together, we practiced our sense-making mindset through a forest bathing activity. During this time of walking through the California hills surrounding Bell Valley, participants were instructed on how to meditatively engage with the anticipatory nature of the living systems all around them, and to intentionally connect with their own autonoetic “inner futurist.” Day 3 began in similar fashion with a group yoga session help atop a mountain overlooking the entire valley. Participants practiced “cooperative movement” that was designed to initiate a deeper grasp of our collective evolutionary sense-making, perception and co-creative capabilities.
We dedicated the afternoons to contemplate the most mind-bending concepts of the retreat: How do we intentionally evolve futures consciousness as an evolutionary trait? How do we scale unlearning to break free from unnatural operations? What does it mean to integrate a deep compassion for living systems? How can we transition from the prevailing metaphor of an Anthropocene to a cosmological image of a Symbiocene? How can we cultivate global cooperation in an era of mistrust and polarization? How does collective cooperation foster a greater ability to perceive emerging novelty? These conversations were so juicy with insights and powerful reflections that it was hard not to sacrifice our free time to continue the dialogue.
On the evening of Day 2, participants gathered in the main hall in the Bell Valley Barn to watch and discuss the 2016 film Arrival (based on 1998’s “Story of Your Life” by Science Fiction author Ted Chiang). Since art plays such a huge role in uncovering and amplifying our thoughts, feelings and emotions, both individually and collective, this movie served as the perfect cultural artifact to open deep conversation around the impact of language in human connectivity; the biological and intentional nature of foresight; the role of empathy, courage, and love in futures thinking; and the use of art and technology in aiding the human evolution toward greater futures consciousness.
Our closing dinner together on Day 3 was a traditional “Stone Soup.” Participants assisted the retreat chef in choosing and preparing the ingredients for our delicious meal. This activity was a beautiful expression of the group’s cooperative mindset to co-create transformative outcomes, and served as a reminder of how the emerging whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Once everyone had eaten, retreat participant and award-winning poet Khary Jackson shared a powerful piece entitled “Tamir” that spoke the generational aspect of foresight that creates a greater connective and cooperative approach. The cumulative impact of the entire retreat was palpable, and by the end of the meal, there was not a dry eye at the table.
In late 2023, we shared the Holoptic Foresight Dynamics approach, as well as the outcomes of the Transformations in Natural Foresight retreat, during the Anticipation Conference at Arizona State University. During our presentation, we were able to share that the cohort from our initial HFD retreat was reconvening online to initiate the first HFD Community of Practice. A major goal of the retreat (and of Holoptic Foresight Dynamics in general) is to democratize futures consciousness as a natural evolutionary trait that can (and should be) unlocked in each and every person, and this continues to be a focus for the team at TFSX as we advise, train and build competency within organizations, governments and social enterprises across the globe.
Our first Transformations of Natural Foresight retreat was a “meta practice” of Holoptic Foresight Dynamics. While we structured the experiences to coincide with key topics, the most powerful moments were completely spontaneous — a manifestation of the emergent novelty and realities that are perceived and co-created through evolutionary cooperation. As we look toward the remainder of 2023 and beyond, we are excited to broaden the HFD mindset and practice through our next Transformations of Natural Foresight Retreat in 2024, extended communities of practice, and HFD trainings in our ever-growing learning ecosystem.
Visit tfsx.com and my.TFSX.com to learn more. Visit here to register for our upcomng Transformations retreat!
About the author: Frank Spencer is the founder and a principal at the global foresight firm TFSX. Throughout his career, Frank has worked as an advisor, competency developer, coach and creative alongside organizations, governments, entrepreneurs, and social initiatives to help them achieve success in areas such as strategy, innovation, and organizational transformation. He has worked on Strategic Foresight projects for companies such as Kraft, Mars, Marriott, General Mills, Lego, NASA, and The Walt Disney Company. He is a prolific speaker, having delivered presentations to groups and conferences around the globe for over the last 20+ years. Frank holds a Master of Arts in Strategic Foresight from Regent University, and is a member of the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF) and the Association for Professional Futurists (APF).
Hines, A. (2019). When did it start? Origin of the foresight field. World Futures Review, 12(1). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1946756719889053
Suddendorf, T. & Corballis, M.C. (1997). Mental time travel and the evolution of the human mind. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 123(2), 133–167. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9204544/
Suddendorf, T. & Corballis, M.C. (2007). The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30(3), 299–351. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17963565/