An interview with Cat Tully

Cat Tully is Managing Director of the School of International Futures (SOIF), an independent foresight practice that focuses on building the capacity of business leaders and policy-makers in governments, international organisations and NGOs to design and deliver intergenerational planning, strategy and policy, through the use of strategic foresight.

Cat Tully is one of the most impressive futurists operating today, although I'm sure she would prefer the description of strategist to futurist.

Her résumé is impressive and unique.

She spent much of her 20s working in the development sector across Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia before moving to the private sector via Proctor & Gamble. By 2006 she was in the UK Prime Minister's Strategy Unit working as a senior policy advisor. And strategic planning seems to have been the common thread across all these roles:

"I've always done strategic planning, around how you engage with the changing environment (especially in the international context) to make better decisions today".

"What I really care about is the transmission, the supply of foresight and how you use the tools effectively. There's no lack of insights about the future out there. The gap is in using them for effect, and that is the area I am particularly interested in".

Cat left the UK Government and set up The School of International Futures (SOIF) with a colleague in 2010. But she hasn't left behind policy or politics or her deeply felt passion for democracy:

"In a world in which we're facing a choice between either a return to authoritarianism or a radical reformulation of what democracy really looks like, I actually think foresight as a field, as an approach, and as a set of tools and capabilities is integral to that conversation about what a radically transformed democracy is."

Cat mentions the idea of action a lot, and talks about people, community, bringing people together almost all the time. One gets the impression of someone who is a galvaniser, who can enrol others in a vision and follow through - a leader in the field who will shift people from talking into doing, from policy into initiatives and form ideas into action. More than that though, she unleashes the potential of leadership in others.

"The capacity of a community to come together to discuss their alternative and possible futures is a deeply empowering and political act. The process of letting go of the states quo, getting people to acknowledge certain truths is something that needs to be done in a community, in a way that is very well designed. It has to be a process of emergence, of holding conflicting points of view in a very safe space. "

How does she get people to do this? It seems that there is a four stage approach to i) putting aside assumptions; ii) identifying drivers of change; iii) mapping the implications; and iv) integration. That's the design, but the real skill is in taking people on the journey in a way that is safe but expressive in order that very complex systems can be talked about and tackled in a positive and practical way.

Imagine working with the UN or national governments. The complexity of those systems and individual agendas must require a deft strategist who can connect with people. And she, and the SOIF do connect, in fact people who attend the retreats always stay in touch, establishing a network all over the world from Colombia to Ghana.

Which brings us to a relevant topic.

"80% of the applicants for last year's retreat were women. I've noticed a huge growth in young women being interested in foresight and women in organisations being very motivated to use foresight to create transformation". Cat and I hypothesise that this is largely because foresight is a way to create a different environment in the future, one that women will more naturally enjoy when it is not one they are merely trying to fit into.

Cat then mentions a number of female futurists and strategists who have inspired her over the years. By no means an exhaustive, she lists Rosemarie Forsythe, Ann-Marie Slaughter and Onora O'Neill, Wendy Shultz and Victoria Ward. Some are close to SOIF, Rosemarie is on the Advisory Board. But there is also a fantastic group of women she now works remotely with, some of whom she has never even met in person, like Maree Conway and Anita Sykes-Kelleher in Australia and Fatima Azevedo in Portugal.

"I just think its amazing how this group of women in particular are so supportive of each other in a virtual context, it's really interesting".

So what is the mission of SOIF?

"We're in radical times with both huge opportunities, coming from the technological innovations like in the health and food sectors, but also there are huge risks coming from social fragmentation around radical inequality. Strategic foresight as a tool for policy and for helping the world at an international, national, and local level engage with these kind of challenges is really important".

"Our ambition is to help that journey along by doing three things really. One is through working with the next generation of foresight practitioners, and supporting their activity around the world because they're the next generation. You know, we can move to the new future more effectively if we listen. They're the activists identifying what a positive third horizon looks like, and if we enable their voices to get to policy makers more quickly that's great".

"Then I think there's the opportunity to take a few key areas like human rights, or water and showing how foresight can radically help policy-makers develop new policies in those spaces".

"Then I think there's something around around infrastructure and how national strategy and the institutions of government for example Parliament, the parliamentary committees, the executive, how they all need to be much better at maximizing for intergenerational fairness."

Fascinatingly she tells me of a live project with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to create a methodology to assess policies for fairness across generations. She explains the particular task we have is to design a methodology so that when government comes out with a policy, there is a way for people to say 'yes, that's fair' or 'no that isn't fair, go back to the drawing board'.

"If you look across various different countries from Wales to Canada to all over the world there is a real interest in innovation and promoting effective long-term thinking in government structures" she says optimistically, and she is clearly passionate about harnessing the thoughtful opinions of citizens to make that one of the ingredients in a successful policy when it lands and takes effect. In fact, without citizen opinion properly baked-in, how could you ever expect policy to successfully take effect.

She explain why foresight is the important change-making approach to intergenerational fairness:

Graham Leicester says "we need to be the midwives of the new horizon or new system, but there's also a hospice service to the old." Letting go of the old system is often the hardest, but it must come to pass that space is made for new ideas to make their way into the future.

What advice does Cat have for the next generation that she so obviously champions in her work?

"Don't necessarily think that you need to have a big plan, a grand plan, but spending time with people that support you, and trusting yourself, I think."

"It's also really important to spend some time, moving around different organisations, and around different sectors - civil society, business, and government - and spending time in communities where there's very little resource and being part of that life. Just seeing the world from a very different perspective, I think is very important, building the internal, mental, spiritual, and emotional ability to be independent and resilient, and observant. Those are really powerful skills to have, and you need to be immersed in true diversity."

There we are again, community, diversity, empathy. At heart, Cat's approach to foresight is a humanitarian one. Foresight is social, and it has a social purpose. So how can you do it without engaging and bringing people together as a group? It's something she feels that women can excel in, especially in the virtual environment and comments on how good female strategists and futurists are at leading virtual groups and projects. We agree that women are at home in networks and in fact excel there, because essentially their lives are networks. Cat sums up beautifully the strands of a wide-ranging discussion:

"The most powerful thing you can do is have close mentors, because their purpose is to build you up and affirm you. Otherwise, you're constantly looking externally for validation on the conclusions of your work. The most important thing as a futurist is to be open, be divergent, be connected…and then follow your intuition and have confidence in that intuition".

The next generation of futurists will have to go a long way to get a better piece of advice for life, than that.

The School of International Futures runs an annual five-day residential retreat for international- professionals and policymakers from business, government and the third sector to learn the science and art of strategic foresight; you can register your interest in attending here. As practitioners in intergenerational fairness SOIF also run an annual award recognising the next generation's endeavours in shaping the future: you can apply for the Next Generation Foresight Practitioners’ Awards 2020 here. Follow SOIF on Twitter @SOIFfutures or visit the blog here.