Learning in the 21st century: Citizenship, complexity and foresight

Liège, 22 September 2017 [1]

Foresight is firmly on the agenda in Wallonia for the educational year 2017-2018. In Liège, at the instigation of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum of Liège Creative, companies such as Engie and Citius Engineering, operators such as GRE and Liège-Métropole, the University and the Institut Destrée will gather on 2 October for an event on Foresight as a tool of transformation in a context of economic and territorial change [2]. In Charleroi, the Opened University, The University of Mons and The Destree Institute are launching a university certificate devoted to operational foresight this academic year [3]. In Namur, the Regional Foresight College of Wallonia has, since 26 August, marked its resumption of activities after Summer at the Cercle of Wallonia with a seminar dedicated to R&D and the challenges of innovation for Europe and Wallonia. Also in Namur, the foresight work of the Wallonia Territorial Intelligence Platform has fuelled the strategic thinking of the Territorial Development Unit and the Standing Conference on Territorial Development (CPDT) to contribute at the beginning of 2018 to the development of a new Territorial Development Plan. In Liège, again, the Strategic Intelligence Research Group (GRIS) at HEC will on 4 October be considering ‘Interpretations of reality and decision-making. The shape of intelligence for tomorrow, in collaboration with the Digital Café, IWEPS and The Destree Institute [4]. Not to mention the Academic Pole Liège-Luxembourg which, at the beginning of September, held a seminar at the Château de Colonster to define a vision for 2030, led by the last spin-off of the Institut Destrée, Pro Te In. Clearly, raising an issue such as research into teaching young people foresight (the Young Foresight Research initiative) is essential today and falls on fertile ground.

Jindra Kratochvil – Wallonia Young Foresight Research


Useful concepts and required skills

Citizenship, complexity and foresight, which we consider in this paper, are among those ‘useful concepts’ that are described by Philippe Meirieu as illuminating our experience and enabling us to organise, understand and control it, ‘rather than whatever external factors compel me to refrain from doing so, or artificially complicate my problems. A “useful concept”,’ the educationalist writes, ‘does not replace previous knowledge, although it may shake up my thinking: it gives form to my experience, makes reality easier to grasp and enables me to act on it’[5].

Citizenship refers to the recognition of a person’s participation in a community, in the form of a legal status with associated freedoms, rights and duties, of a share in sovereignty and of political legitimacy. The notion is historically conditioned and profoundly subject to evolution, and we may therefore join Dominique Schnapper in considering how it should be revisited to ensure ‘that it effectively organises collective behaviour in societies open to the world, where the economy now plays a preeminent role’ [6]. Foresight is a process of cross-disciplinary collective intelligence, which works with long term, temporality and the analysis of complex systems to act on the present and bring about transformations [7]. Complex thinking develops a multidimensional knowledge of systems, discerns the ways in which they are incomplete and the uncertainty of their evolution, and recognises and distinguishes the interaction (and retroaction) between their elements, yet avoids considering them in isolation from each other, from their context, from their antecedents and from their likely future [8]. The analysis of complexity is without doubt a form of insurance against over-simplicity, off-the-peg intellectualism, the pressing certainties of the immediate, and the commonplaces of the digital gurus who would have us believe that any form of future intelligence of any importance can only be artificial. In a now famous lecture given at UNESCO in 2016, Edgar Morin emphasised that complex thinking has the virtue of providing a potential response to the crisis of thought. What makes it so necessary, said the author of La Méthode, is its four capacities, the fact that complex thinking is simultaneously:

– able to grasp the relationships between numerous different processes,

– able to detect antagonisms and complementarities,

– able to expect the unexpected,

– able to scrutinise the probable and the improbable.

This is why, said Morin, complex thinking has now become both urgent and vital [9]. We may add that these four qualities are also among those we recognise in foresight.

André-Yves Portnoff was obviously right to point out, almost fifteen years ago, that a revolution in intelligence, which he had already identified twenty years earlier with Thierry Gaudin, preceded and encompassed the digital turn. This revolution in intelligence was of course not just technological, just as the current transformations are clearly not just technological. In fact, the intelligence revolution primarily calls into question and challenges our human capacities, our skills, our ability to use knowledge and expertise to obtain a desired result. Such skills, he said, enable us to produce more and more value by processing the growing mass of information available. As Portnoff notes, it is skill that gives value to information [10]. Of course, it has become commonplace today to distinguish knowledge from both understanding and information. The first relates to elaborate cognitive abilities and mobilises creativity in the form of concepts, methods, theories and so on – all the rules that cannot be simply codified once and for all, or for which information cannot be obtained or stored in bulk. It is here that the human being will remain superior to artificial intelligence, for a long time to come. Understanding (savoir) takes the form of both attitude (savoir-être) and know-how (savoir-faire), and focuses on the production of applied knowledge and learning abilities. Information is merely the raw material of knowledge. We must submit it to rigorous and methodical criticism before any use is made of it [11]. Robots will be able to help us in this task, but again, our confidence in them must remain a matter of dispute for a long time to come.

Who could believe for a moment that the skills required in the 21st century are and will be the same as those needed in the societies of the past? No one doubts that these skills will be supplemented by others. Nevertheless, our analysis is that however they evolve, foresight and complex thinking will remain necessary skills for future generations. Systems have, as Donella H. Meadows has done well to remind us, the property of self-organisation, the capacity to develop themselves, to create new structures, to learn, to diversify, and to become more complex [12].

Teaching foresight

The study day organised by The Destree Institute on 22 September 2017 at the Economic and Social Council of Wallonia marks the end of the first phase of the interuniversity research project on new prospects for the development of foresight in Wallonia. It focuses on the question of the acculturation of young people to foresight and on the learning of the processes and methods of studying the future in secondary and higher education [13]. This initiative is inspired by and is forming collaborative partnerships with similar experiments developed in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States and now France. Synergies have been established with the work of Peter Bishop at the University of Houston (Texas) and of Erica Bol in Europe around Teach the Future, whose highly innovative initiatives we have followed from the start. Links have also been formed with the experiments developed by Michel Lussault, former director of the French Institute of Education, who has trialled a course in prospective geography at three academies – Lyon, Lille and Aix-Marseille. The objective of The Destree Institute is to come up with a robust methodological framework as well as a series of credible proposals for implementation in Wallonia and Brussels. The research builds on our previous experiments with young people in connection with Wallonia 2020 in which, together with my futurist colleague Pascale Van Doren, we involved a class of the Institut Félicien Rops of Namur, three classes of the Athénée of Soumagne and a class of the Institut provincial d’Enseignement technique of Nivelles from 2002 and 2003 onwards. On the initiative of Engelbert Petre, we continued this experiment with an arts centre, the Maison culturelle d’Ath, and a dialogue – not a very fruitful one, it must be admitted – with the Minister of Education at that time, Ms Marie Arena. We also knew about the projects and findings of Young Foresight in the UK and Jugend denkt Zukunft [14] in Germany, which our colleagues Gordon Ollivere (RTC North, Sunderland) and Henning Banthien (IFOK Berlin) had sent us at that time. We have of course stayed in touch with them. The current research, Wallonia Young Foresight, also builds on the work carried out over the last year by an interdisciplinary team of researchers consisting of Chloë Vidal, a geography PhD and philosopher, Fabien Moustard, a graduate in earth sciences and political scientist, and Michaël Van Cutsem, a political scientist and urban planner. They have formed international contacts, notably on the basis of several relationships identified within European programmes previously carried out by The Destree Institute, in particular ForLearn and the Mutual Learning Platform. All these efforts have been supported by the Minister for Research and Higher Education, Jean-Claude Marcourt. The very concrete objective of this initiative is therefore to draw up a review of experiments at the international level, to identify European actors and to found a network of these actors who recognise the growing importance that foresight activities can play in the work of science (teaching or research) and the shaping of public policy. The common denominator of the various projects identified will be that they draw attention to foresight as a form of civic education that promotes the learning of science (territorial, political and social sciences). This twofold challenge – both educational (enabling young people to become the drivers of their own learning and authors of their own knowledge) and developmental (guiding young people to become citizens) – calls for a multidisciplinary and multi-factorial approach that assigns an important role to the humanities and the arts; input is thus also provided by initiatives such as the biennial event Nos Futurs, launched by Théâtre Nouvelle Génération in Lyon in autumn 2016, or the exhibition A Temporary Futures Institute, organised at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp in summer 2017.

To help it carry out this task successfully, the Institut Destrée has the support of three universities of Wallonia and of the intellectual forum of the Regional Foresight College of Wallonia, which is open to actors from business, research, the public sector and civil society. Three university representatives have agreed to get involved in supporting this research and contributing to its interuniversity character:

– Christian de Visscher, Professor of Political Science and Public Management, President of the Institute of Political Sciences of Louvain-Europe, Co-Director of the Montesquieu Centre for Public Policy Studies, Catholic University of Louvain;

– Didier Vrancken, Professor of Sociology, Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Action, President of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Liège;

– Giuseppe Pagano, Professor of Economics, Vice-Rector for Institutional and Regional Development at the University of Mons, Director of the Public Finance and Tax Service and General Coordinator of the University of Mons for the Charleroi site.

Three functions of thinking

The same design has been used for the study day of 22 September 2017 as that recommended in our foresight exercises; in other words, it uses the triple functionality that is at the heart of Thierry Gaudin’s Discours de la méthode créatrice, itself inspired by the works of Georges Dumézil. Thinking, according to this interpretation, is based on a triple recognition which constitutes the principle and process by which the mind returns to the vicinity of where it has been and recognises:

  1. recognition of things, in which we dance around the object in order to determine the facts; the mind focuses on that which exists, on gathering data, on establishing reality, on analysis;
  2. recognition of others, in which we dance with other subjects in order to deliberate; the mind focuses on interaction, on the deliberation that takes the researcher or actor further with his or her thinking and allows other points of view to be compared;
  3. self-recognition, in which, by a kind of withdrawal, we dance with ourselves, we conceptualise: this is the dance of the neurons, writes Gaudin, the waking dreams in which illumination arises among the members of a nucleus, and key concepts emerge.

This tri-functional approach is a powerful cognitive tool [15].

Thus, all our actions are structured firstly on exposition, analysis and criticism of the facts, then on deliberation, and finally on the work of conceptualisation.

We also wish to recall the ultimate goals of all our efforts. We defined these throughout our Wallonia in the future process culminating in the charter of The Destree Institute; they were last revised in 2013 and are formulated as a twofold objective: an exemplary democracy – today we might use the term ‘open’ – and better development, which we specified as being ‘sustainable’. As we conceive it, following Gro Harlem Brundtland, such development is systemic, links together all spheres of society, represents a long-term approach and leads to concrete action. Understood in this way, there could be no better way to embrace such development than through foresight.

Philippe Destatte



[1] This paper is a revised version of the opening contribution to the study day Wallonia Young Foresight Research, Learning in the 21st c.: citizenship, complexity and foresight, organised by The Destree Institute and the Regional Foresight College of Wallonia with the support of the Federation Wallonia-Brussels and held at the Economic and Social Council of Wallonia in Liège on 22 September 2017.


[2] http://www.liegecreative.be/event/index/detail/id/538/lang/fr#.WdoBjYZpG8o

[3] https://portail.umons.ac.be/FR/universite/admin/aff_academiques/formationcontinue/formation_par_domaine/sciences_economiques_gestion/Documents%20CU%20en%20prospective/Brochure%20CU%20en%20prospective.pdf

[4] http://www.hecexecutiveschool.be/colloque-gris-2017/

[5] Philippe MEIRIEU, Apprendre, oui, mais comment…, p. 27, Paris, ESF, 24th ed., 2016.

[6] Dominique SCHNAPPER, Citoyenneté, in Encyclopaedia Universalis, vol. 5, p. 915-917, Paris, EU, 2002. – D. SCHNAPPER, L’esprit démocratique des lois, p. 46ff., Paris, Gallimard, 2014. – Thierry BALZACQ et al., Fondements de science politique, p. 103, Louvain-la-Neuve, De Boeck, 2014.

[7] Philippe DESTATTE, What is foresight?, Blog PhD2050, May 30, 2013. https://phd2050.org/2013/05/30/what-is-foresight/

[8] Edgar MORIN, Introduction à la pensée complexe, p. 11-12, Paris, Seuil, 2005.

[9] E. MORIN, Congrès mondial pour la pensée complexe, Paris, UNESCO, 9 December 2016.

[10] Pierre-Yves PORTNOFF, Le pari de l’intelligence, Des puces, des souris et des hommes, p. 7, Paris, Futuribles, 2004.

[11] Pierre MUSSO, “Révolution numérique” et “société de la connaissance” in Ena hors des murs, p. 48, 1 April 2014.

[12] Donella H. MEADOWS, Thinking in systems, A primer, p. 81, London, Earthscan, 2009.

[14] Jugend denkt Zukunft https://www.ifok.de/projects/dialogveranstaltungen/jugend-denkt-zukunft

[15] Thierry GAUDIN, Discours de la méthode créatrice, Entretiens avec François L’Yvonnet, p. 77-79, Gordes, Ose savoir – Le Relié, 2003.

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