Planning for the future a key role of any government
In 1965, Royal Dutch Shell endeavored to craft stories about how the world would look in the coming decades. Scenario planners produced reports on long-term outlooks, alternative futures, and the new millennia. These scenarios and insights alerted the managing directors, well ahead of time, about the likely perplexing and complex events of their times, such as the 1973 oil crisis, the 1979 oil shock, the 1986 collapse of the oil market, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the rise of Islamist terrorism, and the intensifying pressure on companies to partake in solving social and environmental causes.
Because of the valuable insights derived from strategic foresight, the company’s leaders, as well as governments, businesses and academics, were better informed and made better decisions, which saw them through some pressing yet triumphant periods in history. Not only that, but decision-makers were also encouraged to break out of their comfort zone and defy the status quo. This allowed room for innovation and preparedness — two vital elements in embracing the future.
The UAE government, in collaboration with the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, recently published a 2050 trend compendium, listing 100 trends that will significantly impact the world in the coming decades. The trends span diverse areas, such as the economy, infrastructure, natural resources and the environment, security and defense, demographics, citizens, knowledge and employment, government, and advanced technologies and sciences. Some of these scenarios can be described as disruptive, perilous, opportunistic, and groundbreaking.
It mentions demographics as one of the drivers of change in the future. The global population is projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. Almost a quarter of the population in Europe and North America will be aged 65 or over, putting cost pressures on public health care systems, pension funds, and income taxation on the younger workforce. Additionally, nearly 70 percent of the global population is set to live in cities, which will see the evolution of more mega-cities. Cities would consequently have to ensure proper planning of infrastructure, the use of natural resources, and public funding.
Then there is the discussion on the “sheconomy,” where women are attaining higher education, working in more skilled jobs, earning higher incomes, and enjoying stronger spending power. According to one report, researchers simulated a scenario in which women held an identical role in the job market as men, and concluded that as much as $28 trillion could be added to global annual gross domestic product by 2025.
Such scenarios are intended to propel governments and businesses to take part in creating the future by introducing the necessary policies and interventions ahead of time in order to shape desired outcomes. This will also ensure problems are expected, risks are mitigated, and actions are not too late or too costly. It is also important for governments to remain agile, relevant and responsive to emerging trends, and act in their citizens’ best interests.
This will ensure problems are expected, risks are mitigated, and actions are not too late or too costly
Strategic foresight has already been established in many governments, such as Finland, Canada, Japan, Singapore, the US, and the UK. In the case of Finland, the government has a dedicated unit within the Prime Minister’s Office that spearheads foresight work on a national level in coordination with government entities and the private sector. The government publishes a special futures report once every electoral period, focusing on key strategic issues and recommended policies for the upcoming 10 to 20 years. Its latest futures publication revolves around the theme of transformation in the workforce. The report highlights issues such as digitization, globalization, demographic changes, urbanization, automation, the platform economy, and the sharing economy. In response, the government has recommended a policy package that takes into consideration the regulation of platform enterprises, support growth, mobility and labor immigration, incentivizing employers who invest in employees’ continued and varied skills development, reskilling in emerging sectors, and maintaining the relationship between higher education institutions and graduates to promote lifelong learning.
Similarly, within the UK government, the Government Office for Science and the Cabinet Office work jointly to integrate futures work into policymaking. One of its key priorities is the Foresight Flood and Coastal Defense project, which offers a 30 to 100-year view of the future of flooding in the UK. The findings impel policymakers to change environmental policies to protect the lives of people in 2 million properties and the £200 billion ($241 billion)-worth of assets in flood risk areas in England and Wales. This has included doubling funding for coastal defenses and passing legislation regarding flood and water management, which ensures new buildings and construction projects abide by flood resistance standards.
Last year, Public Health England, a government agency responsible for the nation’s health and well-being, published a strategy focusing on infectious diseases. One of its key strategic priorities was to strengthen the response to major incidents and emergencies, including any influenza pandemic. The government has been planning and preparing extensively over the years for such scenarios, clarifying roles and responsibilities among various stakeholders, ensuring stockpiles of medication, and harnessing the media to educate the public about infection protection. The coming weeks will reveal the efficacy of this planning, as the coronavirus outbreak ensures the UK, along with the rest of the world, is facing one of the worst public health crises in recent history.
History has taught us that black swans and wildcards can appear unexpectedly to disrupt and even threaten countries. However, with deliberate foresight and planning, governments can respond proactively and, in turn, create a future worth looking forward to.
• Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.