Foresight: Harvesting shared wisdom – Canadian Government Executive

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May 7, 2012

Foresight: Harvesting shared wisdom

What can you say about the future of long range public policy planning that hasn’t been captured on Twitter? Making the business case for long-term planning has never been easy. Foresight, a methodology to systematically explore a range of credible futures, may provide a solution.

Even as we come to appreciate the complex interconnection of technology, sociology and demography, the temporal pressure point – in public policy terms – has shifted from the next election to the next budget to the next quarter. The very notion of reflection has taken on an air of indecision.

Thinking through the long-term threats to any system, say 20 or 30 years hence, is not for the faint of heart. And yet, the cost of being unprepared can be staggering. For most complex challenges, understanding the range of possibilities transcends the knowledge base of any one stakeholder, any single department, or any professional perspective. To launch a credible exploration of complex challenges requires a shared determination across a spectrum of expertise. It’s not a guarantee of success but it is the hallmark of one approach to long-term planning called “foresight.”

Foresight steers clear of making predictions. Its strength is seen with the insights derived from a considered exploration of multiple plausible futures. A thoughtful, long range look at a variety of future scenarios allows policymakers to plan for multiple options, and helps steer a course toward a desired destination.

Typical foresight projects are built upon the premise that complexity is the defining characteristic, or driver, of the future. By constructing a range of possible futures, informed by diverse expertise, ideas and viewpoints, it is then possible to discern the policy implications across departmental boundaries and alert us to early signs – termed “weak signals” in foresight lexicon – of what might lie ahead.

The foresight toolbox is populated with familiar planning techniques like technology horizon scanning complemented with more novel techniques such as scenario-building and causal layer analysis. Foresight projects are broadly inclusive, not by accident but by design. Successful projects bring both champions and challengers to the table, and may draw on an intriguing range of non-traditional sources – from ethicists to science fiction writers.

With roots dating back 20 years in some countries, foresight is now an established practice in more than 20 nations around the world. The United Kingdom has been one centre of excellence with a robust foresight program that reports directly to the Government Science Advisor and the Cabinet Office. The U.K. foresight centre seems to have an eclectic policy focus, working on national challenges as varied as obesity, cybercrime and food security. The thread that ties these issues together is their complex character and trend lines heading in the wrong direction.

Bringing together the broadest range of expertise to explore a given policy challenge is central to the foresight process. What might be considered thinking “outside the box” to experts in one domain might well be “old hat” to another. Foresight creates the much needed platform to share expertise in a structured exploration of a defined challenge.

In many foresight projects, the convening of expertise proves to be a singularly productive venture. It’s often the case that new linkages are being made. While this is, in itself, a worthwhile investment, the real pay-off comes over time. As they say, a fitness program is more than one trip to the gym. The on-going ability to harvest knowledge and wisdom around any complex challenge builds a crucial “capability” for issue management.

Canada has made modest progress in following the U.K.’s celebrated model. The Policy Research Institute, a child of PCO, has been re-focused since 2006 to provide medium- and longer-term support to the policy agendas of major deputy minister policy committees. Within PRI, a very compact forward scanning team houses some of the federal government’s best capacity to conceptualize and generate foresight work. And the practice of foresight within Canada’s federal government family is largely limited to pockets inside policy shops in a few departments such as Health, Agriculture and Defence.

The strengths of foresight are evident in projects completed and underway around the world. Jack Smith is the co-chair of the Telford Foresight Leadership Forum in Ottawa. The Telford Forum operates as a crucible for advanced thinking and sharing among Ottawa’s elite group of federal government foresight practitioners – providing a venue to share best practices, apply horizontal thinking and push insights toward concrete action. Smith has called foresight “strategic planning plus.” However, “the value proposition for foresight is demanding. A foresight project has to provide short-term results from a long-term perspective, engaging stakeholders in their timeframe of interest,” he said.

There is sufficient experience with foresight projects in Canada to draw some conclusions about the necessary ingredients for a successful project. As Smith notes, the focus may be on long-term planning but attention must be paid to the near-term needs of the project sponsors.

Successful projects also draw upon skill sets that are not always in great supply. A leading champion of foresight within the federal government is Leah Soroka, director of the S&T foresight and science promotion division at Health Canada. “Generating the ideas and finding the creativity to imagine government in the future calls for skill sets that are relatively rare. Quite often, these projects demand a measure of wisdom drawn from tacit knowledge acquired through experience. It’s the ability to apply wisdom and new learnings in unique ways.”

Soroka has been central to many foresight projects in Canada and sees a bright future for its growth in government planning. “We are starting to see more synergy among the foresight projects in Canada, with experiences and lessons learned being shared. Some patience is required to allow this progress to mature, but the required competencies are coming into focus.”

Our own experience with Canadian projects suggests that there are two additional challenges that merit closer attention: fostering alignment strategies and communicating results.

Complex problems transcend departmental and jurisdictional boundaries. As foresight projects move from analysis to action they invariably point to the challenge of alignment. Recognizing the imperative of aligning action among varied stakeholders is, however, only a starting point. Experience suggests the means to that end are far from familiar.

The other shortcoming in many foresight projects is the failure to communicate widely – and to communicate well. Take the U.K. foresight project on obesity. Here’s a challenge that will involve the health system, educators, employers, the food supply chain – not to mention every parent. Whatever wisdom and strategies the project might tap, the momentum for action is married to the awareness and consequent legitimacy of the project’s process.

Perhaps that’s where Twitter’s reach with 75 million accounts might come in handy. Clearly, social media can impact the policy environment in a manner far different than articles published in learned journals. The ability for policy options to flourish across different government departments and among disparate stakeholder communities requires a leap forward in both visibility and transparency.

Canadian policymakers have difficult choices in the face of shifting mandates, limited resources and the trade-off between short-term demands and long-term possibilities. Foresight has gained traction as a relatively low-cost means to face complexity by recognizing and harvesting the shared wisdom th

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