Develop Contextual Awareness 

Who is this for: Programme leaders, people supporting programme design process, people guiding project processes

When to reflect on context and futures: While developing research programmes, getting them started, or periodically reviewing and resetting programmes. Also of value when developing work in new research areas or needing to develop a strategy. 




What do we mean by contextual awareness and why is it helpful? 

Contextual awareness involves knowing broadly what’s happening in your area of research (a problem, value chain, sector, or other system), as well as considering what could happen (due to your research or other influences). These two aspects could be described as context and futures work. 

Completing context work helps to avoid duplicating other research and initiatives, learn from others’ experiences, and develop awareness of which kind of research may have the greatest influence/impact on the problem. Futures work helps to consider desirable, possible, or unlikely but impactful futures, which in turn can: 

  • Open up thinking 
  • Generate ideas 
  • Indicate shortfalls of research 
  • Identify opportunities and challenges research may need to address.


What tools can support contextual awareness? 

When wanting to get a sense of what’s happening in the current context and what may happen in the future, there are many general approaches and specific tools that can be used. The right approach or tool will depend on whether you need brief context or deep exploration, as well as the centrality of this to the project. Will this process generally inform your thinking or are you wanting it to create change or solve problems? 

If you need a brief context for your topic or problem, it may be sufficient to read review papers, brainstorm about contextual factors as an individual or team, or consult reports written about the possible futures facing your area. However, if you want to go more in-depth, you may need to engage in a larger or more formal process. 

Potential general approaches you could use are shown in the table below. 


 Approach  What it covers   Use when you’re wanting to...  
 Systems analysis using multi-level perspective  Looking at different aspects of the system surrounding your topic – what is the dominant way of doing things, what innovations are challenging this norm, and what are the wider factors and trends?  Get a big picture of what’s influencing your topic area and how your research could contribute to change 
 Horizon scanning  Searching literature, reports, and media to develop a broad understanding of the topic and changing factors  Develop awareness of what’s happening in a new topic area, particularly one that’s not well-reviewed or needs to be explored from a particular perspective 
 Trends analysis Examining current trends to determine key influences  Look at broader influences on your topic area 
 Perspective-gathering Talking to key stakeholders or influencers about their views and vision  Know what key players in topic area are thinking 
 Scenario building Developing scenarios based on trends or other variables, whether continuing present factors or exploring possible differences  Explore future possibilities, as a basis for discussion and opening up thinking 
 Wild cards  Developing scenarios around low probability, high impact future events  Stretch thinking and prepare for worst case scenarios 
 Road mapping and backcasting Developing a path between the present and the future  Identify steps that could help with achieving a desired goal or imagined future. Often used in conjunction with visioning.
 Visioning Imagining an ideal, but realistic future  Create something to inspire a project or initiative and give people something to work towards. Often used in conjunction with backcasting.