Technology Literacy and Strategic Foresight go hand in hand. Created by JEShoots for Unsplash.

The Future is about People *and* Technology: Why Technological Literacy and Strategic Foresight are both Key Leadership Skills

Technological literacy and strategic foresight are vital partners.

Human society is growing more complex and less predictable. This is in large part because of the capabilities and effects of digital technology. Organizational leaders that want to be competitive in this context need two complementary kinds of knowledge: strategic foresight and technological literacy.

Technological literacy and anticipatory thinking are not typically found braided together. Strategic Foresight is a set of mindsets and frameworks that help people anticipate and make decisions about the future. It involves scanning within and beyond your operating environment to uncover potential drivers of future change. Technological developments are likely to be among those drivers. They might include artificial intelligence, connected devices, or passenger drones, to name a few.

Nevertheless, the fundamental thrust of foresight work when done well is human-centered and holistic. It does not privilege technology, nor should it. Rather, strategic foresight looks across the many domains of human activity. It often highlights human behavior at scale as among the least predictable and most powerful drivers of events. Wars, social movements, and innovative approaches to problem-solving are all human ventures that can disrupt otherwise well-established plans.

Technologists, on the other hand, don’t usually find themselves in the position of evaluating the consequences of their output. There is no demand made on those who lead the creation of new technological applications that they, like futurists, consider their long-term or unexpected impacts.

(This is a recognized problem and there are people seeking to solve it. See, for example, this recent conversation between members of the MIT faculty on Ethics, Computing and AI. The college of computing head pledges to develop a “different kind of technologist” and to produce well-rounded graduate citizens.)

Strategic Foresight cannot be practiced well without technological literacy

The purpose of strategic foresight is to anticipate change and adjust plans accordingly in order to maximize benefit and minimize harm. But organizational leaders cannot anticipate the impacts of technology realistically if they don’t have at least a rough vocabulary to say what it does.

Technologists who don’t reflect on the potential consequences of their work will unleash unanticipated and potentially risky effects. These effects ultimately land in the laps of business and government leaders.

The answer to this challenge is to link strategic foresight hand-in-hand with technological literacy.

This is why at Prescient, the foresight firm that I founded, we view technological literacy as a vital aspect of strategic foresight.

We believe that all organizational leaders should have a basic understanding of the technologies that will drive the future of their operating environment. They can develop a concrete skill set that has two components.

Anticipatory leaders need two skills: technological literacy and strategic foresight.

First, develop comfort with technological terminology.

All domains have a specialized language of their own. It is important for those making decisions to gain some passing knowledge of common words: algorithms, artificial intelligence, machine learning. Someone with a good foundational vocabulary will also be able to develop a mental model of the inner workings of a technology.

Learning technological vocabulary sounds deceptively simple. I have been in many rooms with leaders whose job it is to appear knowledgeable and reassuring before their peers, employees, constituents, and shareholders. They do not have the luxury of saying “I don’t know what that means. Could you explain?” Coaching in leadership skills, however, is an acceptable activity. Technological literacy should join the items on the list of skills that leaders acquire over the course of their careers.

Second, use strategic foresight frameworks to normalize your approach to technology.

Much of the language about technology that bombards us in public spaces is highly dramatic. Either it makes outsized claims for the positive power of new technologies or it promulgates fear.

The effort to control this wildly binary thinking (“Technology will save us!” “Technology will destroy us!”) is manifest in business literature. The current linguistic trend is to reassure readers that the future is not about technology and to dismiss the critical role of technology.

Prominent institutions, such as Forbes, the World Economic Forum and the Harvard Business Review produce headlines reminding people that the future is ‘about’ people and not technology.

This discursive flip-flopping that claims power for either technology or humans misses the point. The future is about both. Our inability to consider both in the same frame highlights the need for greater technological literacy and for structured ways of thinking about the role they play in producing potential futures.

Strategic Foresight frameworks offer these ways of thinking and introduce drivers of change across many domains.

We don’t yet have a mainstream language to characterize our future with machines. This paucity in our language makes it difficult to plan ahead. But we can lay the groundwork for a language–and for the institutions and practices we will need–by working now to develop technologically literate, anticipatory leaders.

How Prescient is bridging strategic foresight and technological literacy

Later this month, Prescient and Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society will partner to offer a combined training in technological literacy and strategic foresight, the Foresight Sandbox. This reflects our effort to create a new way to train leaders so that they can grapple with the complexities of our quickly moving world with confidence.

the foresight sandbox combines strategic foresight training with technology literacy
The Foresight Sandbox will combine training in strategic foresight with technological literacy

If you would like to discuss bringing a similar event to your organization, get in touch. I’d be happy to share how our experiment in promoting technologically literate, anticipatory leaders unfolded.

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