Expecting the unexpected
for preemptive policy-making

Using our futures tool, Unintended Consequences, to demonstrate how policy-making can bust the myth that it must always play catch-up to private sector innovation.

Santini Basra
May 18, 2020 · 8 min read
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Written by Santini Basra and Will Brown

TL;DR
Someone told us that policy can only ever react to change. We didn’t agree, and so we designed a tool called
Unintended Consequences, which helps you anticipate change, to prove a point. We also tested out the tool, and have anticipated a series of unintended consequences of autonomous vehicles, which we’ve documented at consequenc.es.

At a Scottish Parliament event I attended recently, one of the audience members brought up the fallout of an unregulated short-term property rental industry on the city of Edinburgh. As a result of the rise of Airbnb, several flats in the city’s centre have been converted into ‘party palaces,’ where 20+ beds are crammed into small flats, causing havoc for neighbours. The attendee questioned why no measures had been taken to prevent this from happening. In response, the MSP who was chairing the consultation argued that there is no way for policy to preempt innovation and change, that there was no way to preempt this as an unintended consequence of Airbnb’s growth. He argued that policy and government intervention could only ever react to change — an attitude which we feel in the context of the current COVID-19 crisis is simply not good enough.

At Andthen, we certainly don’t subscribe to this view and argue that government intervention need not exclusively react to change, and that it can be proactive, preempting and guiding change, such as Policy Lab’s excellent work on the Autonomous Maritime Industry. There are many examples of innovations or major social changes which are currently on the horizon or fringe, but are clearly fast approaching the mainstream in the present day; precision medicine, 5G, CRISPR, an ageing population, or the next billion to come online, to name but a few. We can see these changes coming, so why wait until they have arrived before we take action?

We’re not here to point fingers, instead we look to support the case for long-termist mindsets towards (policy-making and) innovation. There are several examples of where preemptive and anticipatory approaches are being championed in policy around the world, notably Policy Lab and Nesta in the UK, Sitra in Finland, and The Centre for Strategic Futures in Singapore. All have departments, teams, or methods dedicated to foresight and anticipating change. However despite this, time and time again, we come across the prevailing narrative that the future is shaped outside of government (e.g. in the private sector, or through environmental factors as we’re currently experiencing), and that policy-makers must at best keep up with the tide of change, and most likely will always be a few steps behind, as has been the case with Uber in London. Following the mantra of “move fast and break things”, Uber did literally that: breaking (or skirting) regulation and then influencing governments to form new regulations in its own image to the detriment of smaller players — an example of regulatory capture.

Introducing Unintended Consequences

Whilst there are many great approaches, methods and tools that can be used to anticipate change, Unintended Consequences is a method we’ve been working on which is specifically adapted to anticipating the knock-on effects of disruptive change to a system. The method is adapted from The Futures Wheel, developed by Jerome C. Glenn in 1972, tailored to an innovation context, with more focus on extracting clear and actionable insight from the activity. The method can be applied to any social, technological, economic, environmental or political change, is not specific to any particular sector, and can help explore changes in both a public and private sector context.

Reality is messy, being composed of systems that are by definition: complex, interconnected and interdependent. The interconnectedness of society or the economy means that when you throw something new at it — such as a technology like Autonomous Vehicles — it doesn’t neatly swap out one part for another. Rather, it creates cascades of change in places that you wouldn’t expect. A classic analogous example is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. Brought back in the 1990s after 70 years of absence to keep the elk population under control, what was unexpected from the reintroduction of wolves was the cascade effects: as there were fewer elk to eat the saplings, more trees grew, which attracted a myriad of animals back to the park such as beavers, bears and migratory birds. Not only did the ecosystem change, but the landscape also: the trees in the valley reduced soil erosion, and the trees by the riverbank steadied the flow of the river — all of which added to the general health of the ecosystem.

Unintended Consequences is a tool which looks to methodically anticipate and map these various consequences, so that we can take steps in the present day to seize opportunities, and mitigate risks which would have otherwise remained unforeseen.

Armed with our Unintended Consequences tool and in reaction to the MSP’s comment that there is no way to preempt the unintended consequences of innovations, a group of us at Andthen decided to prove a point. We got together one weekend out of passion for this challenge and mapped the unintended consequences of Autonomous Vehicles on the social fabric of a city.

The Unintended Consequences of Autonomous Vehicles

Much of the popular discussion has been focussed on the more surface-level, first-order consequences of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) — e.g. working whilst commuting, decline in vehicle ownership even car sex. To get to some less obvious and therefore more disruptive consequences, we applied the Unintended Consequences tool to AVs to uncover some of the potential, hidden and out-of-category consequences of this technology.

Amongst our core and associate team at Andthen we ran an Unintended Consequences workshop, unpacking the first, second, and third-order consequences of AV’s. Ultimately we selected five of the consequences which we felt had strong implications to public sector activities, and through a ‘post-mortem’ analysis built out each of these consequences to include:

The Consequence
A short story which communicates the impact of the consequence.

How did we get here?
A section which explores how this consequence might come about.

What Policy Makers can do about it
Thoughts on implications and recommended strategies and actions for policy makers.

Analogous scenarios
Examples of similar changes which have happened in other sectors or categories.

Take actions
Recommendations for small to large actions we can all take to help us shape preferable change.

In the pursuit of brevity, for this article we will only provide the descriptive introductions to each consequence. Policy makers and other keen readers can find the details outlined above for each on our Unintended Consequences of Autonomous Vehicles website.

Making the leap into the future

When generating the consequences, we made a few key assumptions around the characteristics of AVs; that is, the core differences between AV’s and our current vehicles and transport systems. The assumptions we made were that AV’s are: faster, safer, have higher utilisation, and liberate the attention of their passengers during transit to do other things.

A full description referenced with data points can be found on consequenc.es.

The consequences

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The death of convenience by proximity

When autonomous vehicles make it affordable and instantaneous to order almost anything online, what happens to our current strategies for retail?

Go to consequenc.es for the short story narrative of this consequence, an argument for how we might get there, what policy makers might do about it, some analogous examples, and a call to take action.

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Not all roads are created equal

When infrastructure guiding the rules of the road move from public to private control, how can we ensure democratic access — regardless of who can pay that little bit extra?

Go to consequenc.es for the short story narrative of this consequence, an argument for how we might get there, what policy makers might do about it, some analogous examples, and a call to take action.

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Sprawling autonomous cities

When commutes are faster and more enjoyable, will we see a return to sprawling suburbia?

Go to consequenc.es for the short story narrative of this consequence, an argument for how we might get there, what policy makers might do about it, some analogous examples, and a call to take action.

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On the move, yet sedentary

When it becomes even easier to get places by car, will it get harder to stay fit and healthy?

Go to consequenc.es for the short story narrative of this consequence, an argument for how we might get there, what policy makers might do about it, some analogous examples, and a call to take action.

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New urban spaces

When urban space previously dedicated to road-side infrastructure is relinquished, who gets the final say in how it should be used?

Go to consequenc.es for the short story narrative of this consequence, an argument for how we might get there, what policy makers might do about it, some analogous examples, and a call to take action.

Pre-emptive policy

Do these sound like futures we want as a key part of our daily lives? What happens if we allow some of these futures to unfold and are unable to backtrack? How might we keep the positives of these futures and mitigate the negatives?

I hope these are some of the questions you might be asking yourselves. If so, that’s a win for policy-making, as we can use techniques like Unintended Consequences to imagine how to steer the development of autonomous vehicles in our cities. We can grow policy with innovation.

In a world that is mired by runaway events that seem out of our control — the climate crisis, Brexit, anger at globalisation, fear of AI development, dare I go on? — we demonstrate that we can take a moment of pause to check where we are going.

Delve into the juicy details of the futures, and have your say here.

Written by Santini Basra and Will Brown. Illustrations and website by Lizzie Abernethy. Futures generated and developed by Santini Basra, Will Brown, Lizzie Abernethy, Zoë Prosser, Lewis Just.

Andthen

We’re designers researching the future — what it could be, and what people want it to be.

Santini Basra

Written by

Futures dork, who runs a team of designers that are researching the future at Andthen. Gets excited about inclusive visioning, and applied futures thinking.

Andthen

Andthen

We’re designers that research. In particular, we research the future — what it could look like, and what people want it to like.

Santini Basra

Written by

Futures dork, who runs a team of designers that are researching the future at Andthen. Gets excited about inclusive visioning, and applied futures thinking.

Andthen

Andthen

We’re designers that research. In particular, we research the future — what it could look like, and what people want it to like.

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