Tackling tough problems

Last minute preparations

We’re doing the last minute preparations for the annual SOIF Retreat. It is the eighth edition this year, running from 5th-9th August in Hartwell House, in Buckinghamshire in the the south of England. The Retreat enables people to learn how to apply futures and foresight tools to create change in their organisations and beyond. For SOIF, it is one of the high points of our calendar, a chance to work with an experienced and committed group of individuals who want to use futures effectively to make a difference.

For the first time, we’ll be posting daily summaries of the Retreat online on Medium, and not behind their annoying paywall. The summaries will be assembled by Chris Skelly, who is a member of the facilitation team. 

The Live Challenge

One of the most important building blocks of the week is the ‘Live Foresight Challenge’ which lets participants tackle a current, ‘live’ international issue by applying foresight techniques. Each year,  a real organisation sets a real problem for our Retreat participants – a diverse group of international policymakers and practitioners. They work on the Challenge in groups,  applying the foresight tools they are learning. On Friday, the last day of the Retreat, the organisation that has set the problem returns to hear participants’ analysis and recommendations. Typically, the Challenge looks out over the next 10-30 years, taking a long view of an international issue with geo-political implications.

Hard to frame, hard to address, hard to communicate

The real-world Live Challenges we choose are, deliberately, tough problems: the kind of problems where applying foresight tools can make a difference, and even lead to breakthrough insights.

Our 2017 Challenge, for example, was set by Jamie Shea, then Deputy Assistant Secretary General at NATO, who used the outcomes to inform the development of the new NATO strategic concept for 2030. Last year’s Challenge was from Moeletski Mbeki of the South African Institute of International Affairs, which wanted to understand how the relationship between China and Africa was likely to evolve. Participants re-perceived the relationship, from one that was  extractive to one of mutual benefit.

This focus of this year’s Live Challenge is about how to govern and manage digital technologies “in pursuit of the ‘common good’.” It has been set by Luminate, a global philanthropic organisation which empowers people and institutions to work together to build just and fair societies. We may end up talking about how to resolve tensions around liberty, security, and surveillance, but one of the features of the Live Challenge is that it throws up surprises.  We’re looking forward to the challenge.


The image at the top of the post is of British police photographing demonstrators. It is by James Stewart on Flickr.The image top right is by Susan Melkisethian, also on Flicker. Both are used with thanks under this Creative Commons licence

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