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Koffi Kouakou

“Scenarios are an extraordinary exercise of breathing in and breathing out. You take a big breath in of what is happening in the world and breath out an image of the future.”

 

Koffi Kouakou

Senior lecturer on scenario planning at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa. Long Now futurist, author, storyteller and social commentator.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with self proclaimed measured optimist Koffi Kouakou—senior lecturer on scenario planning at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa Long Now futurist, author, storyteller and social commentator—to chat about foresight. In honor of this month’s focus on peace and foresight the interview tended to veer in that direction.

The interview opened with a conversation about why we care about the future. According to Koffi, the beauty and importance of thinking about the future is that “hope and possibilities are the currencies of the future. If you don’t have both of them, you have no future, or the one you construct will be terrible. You of course have to have the low road with the high road, but most great futurists have to be optimists because you need to know you are going to be alive or better futures will unfold. Futures really mean something to systems that are alive. There is always some light in the future, do we have a chance to live again?”

He says that he is a “rebel rouser of the mind about the future. I’m a brick in their minds; I just hit them so hard about the world. Anybody who doesn’t think about the future is standing still, and that is a call of death, you just don’t grow. The future stretches you forward and makes your mind think ‘omg, I’m going somewhere and I’m about to reach somewhere better.’” Yes! This is good news to me, but I wonder if there is a way to prove this empirically since we live in a world where statistics and numbers matter. In building a Foresight for Peace initiative, is it enough to go to organizations with anecdotal description of the powers of foresight to change a mindset from a destructive one, to one that seeks to live in the future and therefore build a positive foundation? Unfortunately, to date there is no empirical research that has proved what all foresight practitioners know. We simply have the stories of experiences like what Koffi described above.

For Koffi, it is the hope associated with futures thinking that keeps him motivated. And “the thrill of being able to construct something new and fresh. The human mind has so many great thoughts, especially if we focus on opportunities instead of sticking to low road thinking—which humans tend to do. But we have to hope to think about the future.” Koffi also sees hope in the future of Africa. But it is not giants like South Africa that hold the future, it will be small countries that are forcing themselves to think in new ways. It will also be the women of Africa, they will find new social power. He also sees an Africa that will be, “youthful and female and bold, colorful. Noisy and raucous and Vuvuzela (is a plastic horn, about 65 centimetres (2ft) long, which produces a loud monotone note). In your ears and in your face.” That is a future I can get behind, it is definitely the world I see in Joburg and parts of Nairobi.

Speaking about the uptake of foresight in Africa Koffi thinks that, “the field or the subject is over technical. It has been institutionalized to the degree that it has created a barrier to entry. The field is so sophisticated that other people are fearful of joining it. We need to make a concerted effort to demystify the sophistication and the complexity of the field.” Koffi then demystifies the field a little bit for this budding futurist by telling me that his “skill for anticipating change has increased from being aware and keeping track of signals. You can build the ability over time but it requires tireless reading, knowledge acquisition and practice.” Futures thinking is not for the faint of heart.

Koffi continues, “we made foresight so complex that the subject of foresight has become a methodology rather than a simple way for us to determine the best thing for our lives. People worry more about the step and the methodology rather than the output and the usage. Most important for foresight is the rational or logical thinking, and the logic dilutes the complexity and people start to enjoy it. You can use poetry and art and songs to tell the future. The methodology has become centerpiece, and it shouldn’t be. The mindset should be the centerpiece. A centered mindset about the future, not where everything is good or bad, but grounded and open.” In essence, through foresight we are shaping minds, not creating complex processes that we then use to mystify the foresight we create.

In fact, “countries should benefit (from foresight), but the deeper benefit should accrue to individuals. You don’t want to bring a consolidated benefit to the government alone because it rarely trickles down. The real benefit of foresight will be to the individual when they see how it applies to their lives daily. The value of foresight will lie in the personal utility function of scenario thinking or thinking about the future. People are becoming a bit more aware of futures thinking. A key issue is the tendency for us who want to be taken seriously to institutionalize these things in academia, instead of making it democratic so that everyone can use it. When people wake up in the morning they should think not just about today, but get a sense of their future.”

During Koffi’s class he has a simple trick to get his students aware of the importance of futures thinking. He sometimes begins the class by passing around a bar of chocolate, once it reaches the end of the class he then asks if there is any left. Inevitably the students say it has been eaten. When Koffi asks about tomorrow the students jump up laughing. “Their minds are always on the present.” An avid Zen practitioner, 20 years strong, Koffi understands the importance of the present, but finds the need to think about tomorrow and the next day, and the next decade to be just as important.

In his courses on scenario planning Koffi utilizes the 3-ring worldview: (1) Where you are physically, South Africa (2) The space around, Africa (3) The rest of the world. This approach ensures that things are linked; we do not live in isolation of our neighbor or the rest of the world. “The 3-ring world view forces us to see the large signals and drivers that normally we don’t see because we are too small, it enables us to see our blind spots.”

For people interested in entering the futures field, or building on their skill at generating foresight Koffi has a Zen based approach, “in Zen there is something called the 10 bulls, the 10 steps on how to come to appreciate yourself, better yourself. Use the 10 bulls as your journey to foresight. At times I feel like I don’t know anything because everything has just disappeared. In Zen, the 8th step is called the nothingness of the 8th picture. It is the point where you’ve started to understand so much that you see you understand almost nothing. Then you scramble back again and start with the ‘beginners mind’ because if you know so much then nothing can come in.”

He also warns, “it is just a personal learning curve, you have to learn a lot and read voraciously. Create a personal learning strategy on foresight, understand the methodologies, get to know the remarkable people who matter, the places that bubble with the new ideas. Connect with people in the field. Join a foresight community. Today that community can be online. Join the collective brainwave of foresight. And be in contact with the vast field of anything. Gain a 360-degree knowledge base. Know about art, history, geography, psychology, anthropology…”

Although Koffi found talking about what his personal foresight goals are a bit pretentious, he would like to “get government and people to think long term. Resources are so poorly allocated that it can be difficult to think long-term. Despite the difficulties of working with government for the benefit of the people, if governments were to really implement long-term thinking into their development strategies, then things could really change.” And sticking to his chocolate metaphor, he says, “we don’t have to eat everything today.”

Koffi’s suggested selected foresight reading list and web resources for beginners:

  • The Art of Long View by Peter Schwartz. Updated 2nd edition.
  • Scenario Planning Handbook: Developing Strategies in Uncertain Times by Ian Wilson and Bill Ralston
  • Thinking About the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight edited by Andy Hines and Peter Bishop.
  • Global Business Network
  • Wired.com

About the author of this article

Tessa FinlevTessa Finlev is a research affiliate with Institute for the Future. She is also pursuing her masters degree in International Political Economy and Development from Fordham University in New York. Her current work is focusing on designing a futures thinking process to contribute to the conflict resolution and peace-building field. For more information about her research see here.

 

Contact Tessa in the following ways:

  • Twitter: futressa
  • Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Read Tessa's blog: Foresight for Peace; an odyssey to my future.

 

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