EXPLAINER

Why Foresight Matters for Policy Makers


Published: 22 January 2021

Strategic foresight tools can help policymakers adopt a more proactive approach to solving problems.  

Introduction

From global politics and economics to communications, transportation, education, construction, agriculture, and even fashion, the world is undergoing fundamental shifts. More and more systems of knowing and methods of doing are becoming out of date—unable to adapt to a dramatically changing world.

This makes policies that can meet present and future multiple economic, political, social, and environmental or climate change challenges even more critical for governments. Policymakers need to identify emerging issues, negotiate uncertainties, articulate scenarios, develop a common vision of the desired future, introduce innovation, and design robust policies and strategies often despite limited resources and a complex environment.

One way for policymakers to efficiently map the future to gain a better sense of direction is through futures strategic thinking and foresight tools.

This piece was adapted from an Asian Development Bank report, Futures Thinking in Asia and the Pacific: Why Foresight Matters for Policy Makers.

Why are futures thinking and foresight beyond prediction?

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic demonstrated the need for early warning and anticipatory systems for nations and the world economy. This is an example of where futures thinking and foresight tools can be useful in understanding trends and possible issues and disruptions to reduce risk and avail of new opportunities.

These strategic tools aim to describe change 20 to 50 years into the future. This makes them different from traditional analytical and planning tools at the disposal of governments, corporations, and individuals. They extend the time horizon. Horizon 1 is the present, the site of often-contested strategic decisions. Horizon 2 is 5 to 20 years forward, the site of uncertainty and of disruption. Horizon 3 is 20 to 50 years ahead—the emerging vision.

Futures thinking is not only used for describing possible futures; it is also used to develop a vision of the preferred future. Preferred futures are visions for the longer term. They are not an impossibility but a shared vision of those involved.   

Futures thinking and foresight tools promote design and systems thinking.  Design thinking is a nonlinear, iterative process that seeks to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems, and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Meanwhile, systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way a system's constituent parts interrelate and how systems work overtime and within the context of larger systems—the opposite of thinking in silos.

Policy planning with these tools involves looking at measures to mitigate the risks of uncertain futures, understanding data and analytics from the past, creating new financial and technological opportunities, and considering views and imagination of a wide range of stakeholders, such as government officials and representatives of industry, civil society, and academia. Because these tools are participatory, they can strengthen cross-sectoral links, encourage the emergence of integrated solutions, and empower people to create the future they desire.

The process of exploring emerging issues and trends and developing them into potential scenarios of alternative futures leads to innovative solutions. Instead of attempting to solve challenges as they are manifested or forecast based on historical data, strategic foresight encourages decision makers to explore the likely nature of the challenges as they may manifest themselves in the future and evolve strategies that are more resilient to change.

What are the often-used foresight tools?

Figure 1: Backcasting

Source: Authors.

It can help policy makers move from the scenario stage to an action plan, executable in the present. The preferred future is considered as having happened. Policy makers can then backtrack the potential steps that occurred. These steps can eventually become possible strategies or action-learning experiments.

It can also be used to discern what needs to happen to avoid a particular future.

Focusing on strategic steps that the policy makers can create are advised.

Figure 2: Four levels of causal layered analysis

Source: Authors.

Developed by Sohail Inayatullah, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization chair in Futures Studies, it identifies the causes of various issues from the tangible to the intangible. It is often depicted as an iceberg with the problem represented by the visible part and the causes by the submerged parts.

It can be applied in a variety of ways, depending on the goal of a project. All these applications have a common premise: when you change the underlying metaphor, deeper and long-lasting transformation can be achieved.

Figure 3: S-curve of emerging issues analysis

Source: Authors.

An analysis of emerging issues allows policy makers to identify which problems or issues require immediate solutions or longer-term planning. Emerging issues may or may not develop into fully manifested issues or phenomena.

Figure 4: Futures triangle

Source: Authors.

This tool allows policy makers to identify broad movements of push from the present, pull from the future, and weight of history. It can identify the key message toward a desired future, such as lightening the weight, capitalizing the wave of push, or making vision compelling.

Figure 5: Futures wheel

Source: Mei-Mei Song.

Developed by futurist Jerome Glenn in the late 1960s, this tool uses creative and logical thinking to develop implications of an emerging issue. It articulates first- and second-order implications of a particular issue and anticipates what a particular change might lead to.

Figure 6: Scenarios

Source: Authors.

It is arguably one of the most widespread tools used in futures studies. The information gathered and frame of mind developed are harnessed to create vivid alternative scenarios of the future.

How is foresight integrated in government strategic planning and monitoring?

Governments around the globe apply foresight to a wide range of policy domains. The practice has been institutionalized in most countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and in OECD itself, other developed economies, and, more recently, developing economies.

Finland’s political and administrative leaders and experts, who regularly interact to explore long-term futures (50 years), have a foresight mindset, which gave rise to universal basic income and education reforms. The Prime Minister’s office has taken the lead on foresight.

Singapore’s experiments with military and national security scenario planning have evolved into a fully institutionalized and decentralized network of foresight practitioners that spans the public service and frequently engages political decision makers, experts, interest groups, and citizens. The Centre for Strategic Foresight (within the Prime Minister’s office) manages national scenario development, hosts international conferences, produces knowledge products, and engages the most senior leaders. A decentralized network of practitioners has regular formal and informal exchanges on trends, challenges, and opportunities.

Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Malaysia have created centralized institutions specifically for science and technology foresight, while some go beyond their mandate and engage in other topics.

Development agencies have followed a similar path. The International Labor Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund have tool kits. The United Nations Development Programme has evolved a lean approach to foresight in public service. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, OECD, United Nations Environment Programme, and World Bank have produced comprehensive studies and thought-leadership products. ADB is looking at foresight as an integral element of its innovation agenda, and it is testing its benefits.

Is foresight a luxury the developing world cannot afford?

In times of slow or minimal change, futures thinking, and foresight are luxury planning approaches. However, in times of rapid change, they are critical for not only the success but also the very survival of an organization, a corporation, or an institution.

Foresight can help promote resilience, agility, and responsiveness by:

  • providing pathways for flexible planning, influence, and intervention;
  • making public institutions adaptable;
  • deepening organizational skills and enabling public dialogue;
  • creating inclusive platforms for shared vision; and
  • realizing intergenerational justice.

Traditional planning thus needs to expand to include the long term to use the future to change today and develop a robust strategy to create a better tomorrow. The present shows that the world has focused for too long on short-term gains and that some solutions in the past could turn into the problems of tomorrow.

Resource

Asian Development Bank. 2020. Futures Thinking in Asia and the Pacific: Why Foresight Matters for Policy Makers. Manila.

Ask the Experts

  • Susann Roth
    Advisor, SDCC and Chief of Knowledge Advisory Services Center, Asian Development Bank

    Susann Roth leads a group who pilots new approaches to enhance country tailored knowledge management; tests new ways for better multi-disciplinary collaboration and problem-solving; and supports teams to apply best practices in knowledge management to enhance ADB's development effectiveness, innovation capabilities, and client satisfaction.

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  • Arndt Husar
    Senior Public Management Specialist (Digital Transformation), Digital Technology for Development Unit, Asian Development Bank

    Arndt Husar facilitates the effective use of digital technology in ADB programs, focusing on digital transformation, startup ecosystems, and cross-sectoral partnerships. He is an Innovation Task Force member and supports ADB’s futures thinking and foresight activities. Prior to ADB, he was senior advisor and deputy director of the UNDP Global Policy Centre in Singapore where he focused on Technology and Innovation (2019) and Public Service Excellence (2013–2018).

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  • Asian Development Bank (ADB)

    The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) or its Board of Governors or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this publication and accepts no responsibility for any consequence of their use. By making any designation of or reference to a particular territory or geographic area, or by using the term “country” in this document, ADB does not intend to make any judgments as to the legal or other status of any territory or area.




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  • Susann Roth
    Advisor, SDCC and Chief of Knowledge Advisory Services Center, Asian Development Bank

  • Arndt Husar
    Senior Public Management Specialist (Digital Transformation), Digital Technology for Development Unit, Asian Development Bank

  • Asian Development Bank (ADB)