New Year notes: Arriving at 2020

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Cat Tully writes: The year 2020 is full of a kind of futuristic resonance for many of us — somehow a little like living in the future. Seeing 2020 on the calendar this January summons specific memories for me of my time a decade ago as a Strategy Director in the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. At that time, 2020 served as a useful mid-term time horizon to ask clients and colleagues to imagine themselves into, to help design future scenarios and tease out the policy implications. As if in a heartbeat, we’ve reached that moment, and the hop-skip-and-jump of those ten years only underlines how soon the next ten will go until we reach the 2030 deadline for achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.

The SDGs are universal in intent, and aspire to improve outcomes and life chances for citizens in all countries, including — but not limited to — the global South. Yet, as is well documented, the gains in the decade since 2010 have been incremental and patchy at best. In planning terms, ten years seems like the long-term to many government administrations and international organisations. But at today’s pace of change and with systemic and intractable challenges to grapple with, it’s a blink of an eye. It’s already all too easy to imagine looking at our 2030 calendars with a mixture of disbelief and despair.

Now is the time

So we find ourselves at a turning point. We are in the year of the UN’s 75th anniversary, five years into the SDGs’ 15-year time horizon, and already need to start looking towards a robust post-2030 framework that can prove the continued value of international cooperation in turbulent times, ahead of the UN’s centenary in 2045. For these reasons, now is the time for governments to adopt longer-term planning and strategy approaches (in a word, foresight) to avoid massively undershooting on our ambitions before the SDGs deadline in 2030 and — reaching further into the middle and end of this century — to lay the foundations for a fairer, sustainable world for future generations.

In my advisory work for UNDP and the OECD, I have made the case that SDG 16 — on good governance and democracy — is ‘the one to bind them all’, the development condition that underpins all other progress. Foresight alone can’t fix poor governance or instil the will to govern in the interests of the many, of course. What it can do is to promote longer-term thinking, encouraging governments to consider their longer-term legacies and the interests of future generations. In terms of life outcomes for whole populations, investing in better strategy and planning within governments offers the best returns. As I said in work I did for for UNDP in 2015, governments need to reconceptualise their role as being ‘system stewards,’ tending the long-term wellbeing of their countries and citizens (present and future) instead of pursuing only short-term political advantage. They need to make plans and strategies resilient for decades ahead, to weather the uncertainties and turbulence of their global operating environment and the changing future needs of populations.

More visionary planning

That’s why my focus as we move into this new decade is on unlocking more long-term, visionary planning from governments. There is increasing appetite for this work, but it is poorly resourced and funded.

Over the last decade, demand for foresight work within governments has grown, with far-sighted administrations from Malaysia (where I’ve just come to the end of my tenure at UNIRAZAK) to Singapore, Wales to Finland, leading the field with key appointments and institutions such as the Welsh Future Generations Commissioner and the Finnish Parliamentary Committee of the Future. SOIF’s Government Advisory practice has taken on projects such as the Oman 2040 Scenarios and the UK Government’s 2040 Global Governance scenarios, while our sectoral-specific work on better public service delivery has included projects in Malaysia on Higher Education futures, and with the Health Foundation in the UK on healthcare futures.

Within international organisations too, there’s been a welcome recognition of the need for foresight to help guide thinking about focal areas for interventions and future planning. SOIF has played a significant part in shaping this conversation, championing the swift uptake of foresight within the UN system, the OECD and elsewhere, joining the UN’s advisory group on SDG 16, advising UN Development Group’s operations division on foresight, advising UN-Habitat and ECLAC (LatAm/Caribbean regional grouping), and contributing to the OECD’s 2018 Development Cooperation Report on how to mobilise development efforts with foresight.

Finding the funding

We need a much more widespread uptake of long-term approaches. Government foresight work is too often concentrated in those administrations which already have (a) the strategic vision to recognise that they need foresight and (b) the resources to support their vision. It’s time to go big, to lay the foundations for a fairer world for the generations to come.

The appetite for stronger foresight capability exists in the global South, but funding is needed to support such interventions. If we can begin bringing futures thinking to a wider cohort of countries, we can improve national planning and ultimately ownership of development outcomes.

Donors who want to make a difference should therefore be looking to support foresight efforts in the ‘global South’ and beyond. There are specific building blocks which will have an impact:

1) Support national governments to develop national strategies that are far-sighted, comprehensive, and ‘systems’ focused (factoring in the complex interactions between future trends). Effective national strategies must move away from linear beliefs about the future (reliant on past data or dominant ‘official’ narratives) towards a more ‘emergent’, adaptive and agile planning approach.

2) Build a senior leadership cadre with foresight capability across key government ministries. Upskilling across the governance ecosystem is key to ensure coherence and tight coordination of the national planning process. Participants in any programme should include the Prime Ministerial/ Presidential office or equivalent (the coordinators and enforcers of central decision-making) and ministries of planning and finance. The national parliament and national auditors can also play a key role, when properly equipped, holding the executive to account and acting as guardians of the long-term national interest.

3) Instituting mechanisms for regular strategy refreshes and reviews. To nimbly navigate change, assumptions and plans for the future must be continually under review, with inbuilt responsiveness to emerging signals and changing trends.

4) Building a lasting foresight culture and mindset by mainstreaming futures literacy and setting up networks and peer groups to refresh skills.

Why now?

The decade ahead is the key window of opportunity to turn around development outcomes for our planet. If we undershoot on the SDGs, then we fail billions of people and undermine the credibility of the international system. If we fail to curb damaging climate change in the next ten years, then (as the IPCC has warned us) by 2030 it will be too late to stop devastating long-term effects; to a world in crisis, the development efforts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries could seem a remote time of indulgence. On climate change, on development, and on intergenerational justice — we can build a more equal, sustainable world if we only think seriously, systematically and routinely about the future. Foresight must be the norm — not an occasional nice-to-have.

And focusing for a moment on the UK — where we start the New Year with some clarity on our near-term political future — I will be spending 2020 building the constituency to introduce a different and better type of national planning to our policymaking: a new kind of comprehensive national strategy, with the interests of future generations at its heart — a National Strategy for the Next Generations. SOIF is excited to be working with our partners at British Foreign Policy Group and Kings College London on this project. Watch this space.

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