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Strategic Foresight

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“The vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if we make ourselves responsible for that future.” – Gifford Pinchot


Our unit’s mission is to enhance strategic foresight to improve forest management in the Forest Service, other natural resource organizations, and all stakeholders.

Our goal is to help the Forest Service and its partners prepare for the unpredictable.

What is Strategic Foresight?

“The faster the car, the further the headlights must go.” - Gaston Berger
The need for environmental foresight has increased in recent decades as the pace of change has accelerated and the complexity of change has increased. Some have referred to the period following World War II as the “Great Acceleration,” a time of significant increase in the scope, scale, and intensity of change. The rapid pace of social, cultural, technological, economic, environmental, and political change has created a turbulent and challenging environment for natural resource management agencies and their partners. We need to “look beyond the headlights” and anticipate change.

“640K ought to be enough for anybody.” - Bill Gates, 1981
But anticipating change is exceptionally difficult. Complexity theory is revealing that some aspects of future social-ecological systems are fundamentally unpredictable. Ecological forecasts are filled with irreducible uncertainties due to drivers beyond the scope of ecology, unknown feedbacks, and unpredictable human actions. Experience in the social sciences confirms that predictions of most social phenomenon are notably inaccurate. Traditional scientific forecasting tools are blunt instruments for studying a future that does not exist. Alternative methods and perspectives are needed to develop foresight and resource management options for a future characterized by great uncertainty. 

“Futures studies helps us to ‘prepare for the unpredictable.’”  – Wendell Bell
Futures research is a transdisciplinary field that uses a variety of distinct methods and perspectives to explore alternative futures in terms of what is possible, probable, or preferable. The goal is to anticipate and prepare for potential change, develop a forward view, and use the insights (strategic foresight) gained in organizationally useful ways such as discovering threats and opportunities, shedding light on alternative future contexts for policy and strategy, helping to identify an organization’s preferred future, and preparing for a range of possible futures.

“The vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if
we make ourselves responsible for that future.” – Gifford Pinchot
Natural resource planners, managers, and policy makers have always sought to develop and apply strategic foresight in order to make decisions that are judged to be wise in the long term. But the need for environmental foresight has increased in the era of rapid change and multiple transformations in which we live. The Forest Service Strategic Foresight and Rapid Response Group will enhance strategic foresight in the Forest Service and its partners through a program of applied futures research, communication and science delivery, and spanning boundaries between the futures community and the natural resource community.

Research Focus Areas

Where do you begin to help prepare for the unpredictable? Our unit's research will:

  • Identify key principles for thinking about the future and related strategies for developing foresight to help decision makers successfully navigate uncertainty and rapid change. Apply to National Forest and other natural area planning efforts.
  • Develop or adapt Futures Research methods for land and resource planning.
  • Continue development of the Forest Futures Horizon Scanning System and its application to natural resource decision making to provide useful early signals of change in the external environment.
  • Develop or adapt methods for participatory scenario analysis and apply it to high-priority issues in natural resource management and policy.

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