Foresight Engine Asks The Crowd To Change The Future

With a forecasting model that allows for the discovery of social wisdom and the giving of exposure to outlier ideas, the futurist company is showing the benefits of collective problem solving.

Foresight Engine Asks The Crowd To Change The Future
If all these people put their minds to it, could they solve the world’s problems? Flickr user anemoneprojectors

No one can predict the future. Many people working together, however have far better insights than those working alone. The Foresight Engine, designed by the Institute for the Future, takes advantage of this phenomenon to create “microforecasts,” essentially crowdsourced ideas about the future, offering innovative insights about what could be.


Foresight Engine “games,” conducted with hundreds or thousands of individuals, are tackling everything from ways to cure neurological diseases–“How would you advise the President to reinvent the process of medical discovery?”–to ideas for rebuilding the city of Christchurch in New Zealand after February’s devastating earthquake.

The results exceed the scope of anything one could assemble in a single room. The Christchurch question attracted 9,000 people, from students to CEOs. The challenge to advance neurological research, sponsored by the Myelin Repair Foundation, attracted 3,000 ideas from 400 players with ideas ranging from mobile clinical trials to “public knowledge gardens.”

The Institute keeps Foresight simple. A short video explains the question at the beginning of the challenge. Short, Twitter-size statements about the question, called cards, are solicited. Players, who can join online from anywhere on the globe, choose to play the same card as others, or add their own, with a new idea. Thought leaders emerge and organic collaborations coalesce around the most compelling ideas. It’s all about the discovery of social wisdom and outlier ideas, says the Institute.

While future markets place bets on different outcomes, revealing a market vision of the future, and expert planning scenarios anticipate the future based on current knowledge, Foresight is about generating ideas, not prophecy. Its open-ended, broadly defined challenges lead to unconventional explorations. As a result, says Marina Gorbis, the executive director at Institute for the Future, “the best players are not necessarily experts, they are people who are able to make connections between different ideas.”

Despite all the success Foresight has had generating new ideas, its ultimate agenda is different, says the Institute: making the public “future literate.”

“The idea of future thinking is not something that we do all the time,” says Gorbis. We often use the same parts of the brain to think about the future as we do to think about the past, suggests neurological research. “Our ability to think about the future is really limited by the structure of our brains and the way we think.”


But what if we can improve the present, by envisioning our possible futures?

“The whole premise of Institute is that future thinking helps people make better decisions today,” say Gorbis “”Foresight is ultimately about insights; What do I need to do to shape better future for us all or our organizations or myself.”

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.