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Looking forward...

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Nine Grand Challenges

by the PROSPER Network


As the French Government is appointing a specialized Committee for marine, maritime and coastal research (COMER), whose initial work will focus on the role of research in the national strategy for the sea and the coast -that the Government intends to adopt in 2014-, it seemed useful to PROSPER Network to publicize the results of a foresight analysis, led in 2013, resulting in an original reference work for “renewing the way of thinking future issues related with the sea. “

In autumn 2012, the PROSPER Network attention was drawn to the great fragmentation of approaches to the marine field, poorly suited for the renewal of research topics from the past. Although awareness about the major interest of marine ecosystems for humanity as well as interstate conflicts for more strategic marine spaces, have been accelerating. Territorial conflicts in China Sea, the claim over Arctic seabed by different countries or negotiations on fishing quotas are examples.

This led the PROSPER Network, with the help of  Futuribles and the financial support of Ifremer , to undertake a comprehensive foresight exploratory study, which aims to review all future issues linking oceans and society in the time frame of  2030. The objective was to provide the scientific community, which should help by providing answers, with key global readings, allowing it to review the adequacy of its priorities on the basis of a renewed vision of major marine challenges.

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How can we build more efficient representations

of the future for collective commitment?

The collective and individual decision-making skills we use to guide events in a way that seems desirable are based on our representation of the world and the forces acting within it. If our representation of the world is incomplete, biased or changed, then our decision-making abilities will be limited. Foresight specifically aims to provide methods that overcome these limitations.


Individually, our representation of the world is based on personal experience. Essentially implicit, it is rooted in our unique path, which in turn is formed by the surrounding cultural context. In the same way that a map is not real land, our representation of the world is not a universal reality but the translation of that reality through our framework of thought. If our representation of the world is different to that of others (and this is generally the case), we will ascribe a different meaning to observable facts: then we will no longer be able to understand each other.

Collectively, efficient action therefore requires a shared representation of the situation, to ensure that the collected facts and data are all given the same meaning by everyone involved. The issue of developing a shared representation is central to forward looking activities. It is particularly important as these activities deal with the future, a purely imaginary creation based on our representation of the present, which itself is built on our past experiences.

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The key to shaping an energy future that, with everyone's approval, must be different to the past, lies with the foresight methods used. The use of quantitative forecasting, with models fitted to the past, raises several issues relating to the validity of any underpinning hypotheses. The qualitative exploration of rapidly breaking trajectories also raises several questions relating to the large-scale investments and life spans of energy facilities. How can the two, often opposing approaches be reconciled to create more relevant and acceptable scenarios?

Energy issues are at the core of any discussion on the future of society. Growing tensions surrounding fossil fuels, combined with the impact on climate caused by their use, have led to the need for an “energy transition” at all levels. Everyone feels involved and, in open debates, everyone has their own scenario that demonstrates the validity of their point of view. Yet how solid are the forecasting arguments being put forward? How can the level of confusion among decision-makers be reduced in the face of contradictory forecasts?

The PROSPER Workshop, held on 5 July 2012, focused on the actual performance of energy forward looking activities, including their credibility and ability to correctly inform discussions and public decisions. More concretely, the aim was to use a number of specific examples to evaluate the ability of forward looking projects to meet their targets and to formulate – where necessary – recommendations aimed at improving their capabilities.

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The battle of scenarios

Professional federations, NGOs, governmental administrations, public organizations, citizen groups, etc. Everyone is having their say on the future energy scenario(s) for France. Relying on their figures, everyone is proving beyond dispute what the best energy mix is for the future of our country. And, without any surprise, the calculated results of their numerical model reinforce everyone's opinion on what is the best possible option.

We should be both satisfied and worried that foresight is being used in this way.

Satisfied because the increasing role of energy foresight in the public debate shows that we are interested in preparing the future, that people are becoming aware of the non-sustainability of our economic model, what is deftly resumed in the phrase: "Business as usual is not an option".

Worried because there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding in the current debate on foresight: the assessment of the scenarios is essentially technical, whereas" the substance of the debate is mostly societal. The debate is first and foremost the confrontation of different visions of the world, and not technical options in a static societal model.

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"Merchants of Doubt"

"How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming"

When scientific results involving economic interests, political or ideological research may be faced with deliberate maneuvers to skew its findings or maintain doubt on their validity with the public and policy makers.

The question of the future of the trust that society places on science is obviously a matter of exploration interest our network.

On this subject, reread with interest the article reference written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M.Conway published in the journal Nature in 2010, which dissects the mechanisms of these doubts about the scientific results from the effects of tobacco health to the issue of global warming. The French version of the book was published last February. One can also visit