Futurist and SCENARIO writer Nicklas Larsen explores how the future can be a source for hope, social innovation, and sustainable development together with pioneers in the field.
Q&A with Shaun Hazeldine, Head of Innovation & Foresight at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world’s largest humanitarian network, reaching 150 million people annually through 192 National Societies and the work of almost 14 million volunteers. The global humanitarian force has contributed to the well-being and aspirations of vulnerable and marginalised people by improving humanitarian standards as partners in development, responding to disasters, supporting healthier and safer communities and fostering a culture of peace throughout the world. In 2019, the IFRC celebrated 100 years of bringing hope to communities in desperate need, and of bringing the voices of the world’s most vulnerable people to the highest levels of government and international diplomacy. In celebrating the past, the organisation looks to the future in a fast-changing world of unprecedented humanitarian needs.
How do you work with the future at IFRC?
Four years ago, we started using foresight and futures work as a catalyst for innovative thinking and agility in the IFRC, but it has quickly developed into a strategic organisational tool as well. Just about two years ago, the general assembly of the IFRC decided to have the new 10-year strategy designed by our foresight team using a wide range of methodologies. Since then, literally 10,000 people have been consulted, and Strategy 2030 — A Platform for Change, Local Action, Global Reach was unanimously adopted in December last year. It’s largely about continuing to provide cuttingedge thinking on humanitarian trends and needs, but it’s also about supporting the National Societies to develop their own strategies, and supporting foresight teams to use these approaches to develop long-term humanitarian futures strategies at national level.
Please define ‘humanitarian futures’ …
As a term, ‘humanitarian futures’ refers to changing types, dimensions, and dynamics of future humanitarian crises. It concerns transformation for social good, which will only truly be effective if it involves a systematic interrogation of all drivers of change, including those that are less obvious, and if it is representative of all peoples and all futures, and clearly linked to strategic reform. A challenge is that foresight, as we call it internally, is relatively niche in this sector and nascent for the IFRC, which is more than 100 years old. So there’s an interesting juxtaposition at the practical disaster response level that is being powered by access to much better data, enabling the anticipation of disasters, more anticipatory disaster management and the release of funding ahead of disasters for earlier action, while there’s this recognition of the need for much more anticipatory strategic thinking as well.
What are the most pressing existing and emerging risks that confront the humanitarian and development sector?
The changes of the 21st century have produced complex and inter-related global challenges. We are seeing the impacts of the climate crisis as a growing reality for millions of people, as well as new and unexpected health threats that are contributing to driving migration and displacement at a time when compassion for people on the move is at an all-time low. Without action on both climate and environmental degradation, the impacts of these will place increasing pressure on scarce natural resources, including food, water, and clean air. Although there are areas where can be optimistic, such as developments in certain technological areas, people are continuing to face an ever-more-complex mix of interconnected risks to their health and well-being as a result of multiplier effects from population movements, pandemics, conflicts, non-communicable diseases, natural and technological disasters, and climate change. Adding to that, the number of migrants globally has grown significantly since the year 2000 and is projected to go on rising, notably because of conflict, poverty, and a lack of quality employment opportunities. In the future, it is projected that climate and environmental crises will make some regions uninhabitable, forcing people to move en masse. Further, the pace of change is leaving many political, regulatory and welfare systems unable to cope. The benefits of economic and technological progress, while driving significant gains and opportunities, are not being shared equally. Space for principled humanitarian action is shrinking and is even criminalised in some parts of the world. These global changes risk creating a more disconnected, less inclusive, and less empathetic world.
How do you make sense of the current crisis that we find ourselves in, and how will it impact your work going forward?
This particular crisis has brought many important transformations to the fore: the need for digital transformation, something the sector has lagged on, but as many have observed has achieved more in the past two months than might otherwise have been possible in two years; the criticality of strong local actors, as this has been largely a domestic response in many ways; the importance of trust in institutions and experts; and the value of solidarity and compassion for others. As one of our volunteers in Spain recently put it: “For the first time I saw an entire town looking in the same direction, and it moved me.” The question will be: Can we capitalise on these opportunities and ensure they grow and continue over time and help us to transform into a better society?
What do you think will characterise future vulnerabilities?
Well, vulnerability in the future can be seen as more common, more concentrated, more complex and more costly. Disasters due to extreme weather events and climate/environmental disrup- tions are predicted to increase. By 2030, almost half of the world’s poor are expected to live in countries affected by fragility and conflict. The people least able to cope with disaster will be the ones most affected. Beyond traditional drivers of disaster and crises, our increasing dependence on technology is bringing new, complex risks and vulnerabilities, including potentially unforeseen cyber and digital threats. In addition to all this, increasing population density in urban and particularly informal settings is likely to result in significant deprivation and more hazard exposure. The combination of common, concentrated and complex disasters means that when a disaster strikes — be it a seismic or weather- related event or an infectious disease outbreak — the impacts are multiple, the ability to provide immediate assistance is low, and the costs of providing assistance in such complex environments are higher.
What role does the future play in strengthening prevention, preparedness, and response capacities?
Futures work is certainly not a panacea and nowhere near as effective as a lot of other development interventions and programmes for helping the support of supressed people, but it can be a useful tool for helping people to gain a better understanding of the shifting context around them and to take action, to have and feel some agency, which can be quite rewarding. In contrast to the practical disaster response level, most of the futures work can be very much up in the air, and humanitarians don’t have a lot of time for it if they can’t see how it changes what they do on Monday. It can for instance be very hard to do futures work in an environment experiencing protracted conflict. We did do some, but when people aren’t sure whether they’re going to make it through the day or where things are going to be in a few months, it’s very hard for them and very traumatic for them to think about the future, so we must take a very nuanced, kind of careful approach to that sort of thing. So the hard part is to turn futures into actionable change, and get people away from the paralysis that big trend conversations can bring.
Could you give us an example?
Forecast-based financing, for instance. The idea is that you release funds and take action before a disaster hits, which is a bit of a no-brainer when you think about it conceptually, but institutionally it’s quite a difficult thing to do, because you have to convince donors to let money go out for something that may not happen, which can look like spending in vain. So there’s been a huge amount of dissonance very deeply integrated into our global disaster response mechanisms. However, in Togo my colleagues worked with operators who were releasing water out of a dam, which ended up flooding downstream communities. Here, historical data of rainfall combined with knowledge of when the dams were released gave some sort of analytics that we could forecast, right? So, based on that assessment, we could release financing ahead of time and if the likelihood of flooding was low, the funding was accordingly low, but as the likelihood went up the more funds would be released, and the greater the action required — as in distributing water purifiers and moving people to higher ground. That worked with some degree of accuracy and has been applied across a whole swath of natural disasters around the world now, but it is still developing. The science is getting better, but the trickiest thing of all is not forecasting, but shifting the systems. The Red Cross and Red Crescent have been working on this approach for a decade now with other partners, but it has only now moved to the centre of our organisation and become a core component of our work with disasters. This long timeframe was in part because systems needed to change, but in contemporary times we can’t take a decade to shift to something that is so obviously effective.
How are you using futures work to aid leaders of humanitarian organizations and volunteers to make sense of a rapidly changing world?
We have established the Solferino Academy, which aims to help the Red Cross and Red Crescent network anticipate, understand and adapt to trends and emerging issues through advanced analysis of social, political, cultural and economic issues impacting vulnerability and the humanitarian and development sectors. The Solferino Academy fosters engaged spaces and learning opportunities to understand the impact of change on the effectiveness of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in meeting humanitarian and development needs now and in the future. The Academy deploys and coordinates a range of futures and foresight tools and methods, such as horizon scanning, trends and emerging issues analysis, scenarios and forecasting analytics, for example to help leaders steer change at local, national, regional and global levels. The Academy helps the network to gain fresh insights, fast-track idea generation and decision making, and inspire better outcomes. Lastly, the Academy works in partnerships with the private sector and academic institutions, entrepreneurs, start-ups, and others who share similar values.
In what ways do you wish to see the impact of your work?
What I want to see is a situation where local communities have much more power and agency in their lives, much more capacity, and much more inclusive futures where people have the opportunities to thrive, right? Not just this ‘resilience agenda’, which always sounds so under-ambitious to me, in the sense that you should be able to bounce back from a disaster, from a great tragedy in your life. We recognise that there is much more to humanitarianism than just supporting people to survive and recover from crises, and we want to go beyond resilience, to ensure that individuals and communities can thrive in an equal and compassionate way. That’s the end goal with our newly implemented Strategy 2030, which is above all a strategy of hope in the power of humanity to mobilise for good and create a better world. The values and principles of our National Societies are a powerful force for humanity with our unparalleled global volunteer base committed to driving positive change throughout the world, to ensure that all people matter and that, collectively, we are ready and willing to make the changes that are needed so that we can all have opportunities to thrive.
How would you advise your future self?
First of all, I’d say to myself: ‘Shaun, don’t stress so much and spend more time with your family and friends’, but I’d also like to take inspiration from the futures work, and remind my future self about this when times are tough. There is an easy temptation when doing foresight work in the humanitarian sector to paint fairly bleak scenarios and dystopian futures, because you can very easily look at climate change, migration, pandemics, health issues and rising levels of inequality. Yet there are also many people the world over who want to make their lives, their communities and their world better. Many previously marginalised voices are now calling for greater agency and involvement in decision-making. In many countries, there are influential efforts to secure recognition and equality for all persons, regardless of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation. There’s tremendous capacity for humanity and hope in the world, and we see it now even with the ongoing pandemic. You hear all kinds of amazing stories of solidarity and see examples of people on the front line, or people just keeping basic services going, at risk to themselves, in the face of this sort of adversity. We once did a crowdsourced foresight exercise, and I like to remind myself that what we saw there was ingenuity, kindness, solidarity and compassion as well, and the capacity to evolve and adapt, even in the face of crisis.