Introducing this week’s theme: participation and foresight – putting people at the heart of the future

The School of International Futures take many different travelling companions from a position where they face a confusing present through the process of integrating futures into their work. This week, we find out more. 

Cat Tully Allie Bobak
21 April 2017

Thanks go to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for this image from a foresight session.

Two key principles drive our work at the School of International Futures (SOIF).  First, the act of reflecting on the future collectively – and the capability to do so – is valuable for all communities and countries at all times. It is not a luxury: it is a necessity, an endeavour that builds vision, resilience and empowerment in an uncertain world. Second, any effective foresight process must be designed to benefit the decision and decision-maker, and use insights about the future to create change in the world today. As an integral part of this process, it is essential to confront different views, engage the periphery and ensure broad participation, particularly by those not usually listened to. The key to unlocking the transformative potential of tomorrow is through empowering citizens and holding today’s decision-makers accountable to future generations.

SOIF is an independent, not-for-profit organisation based in the UK and operating around the world, where government officials, business leaders, and activists imagine the future together. In an increasingly uncertain and volatile world, the School of International Futures exists to support communities and organisations who use foresight to impact decision-making today.  

“Foresight is not just a dialogue for the elite or decision-makers. It should aspire to give voice to the excluded, whether marginal views in organisations, or those in refugee camps and rice fields. And those voices need to be given space to be heard... Citizens across the world are asking for more participation in deciding their future.”


When openDemocracy invited us to examine the link between democracy, participation and the future through a guest week, we jumped at the opportunity. It is a timely and important topic to explore with you and with our colleagues from around the world. 2017 is a year where challenging long-standing trends are manifesting themselves very clearly – from crises of democratic legitimacy to concerns about social and economic inequality and global inter-connectivity; from volatility and uncertainty in global markets and security to the spread of populism. Yet 2017 is also the year after the 2030 Global Goals and Paris Agreement on Climate Change entered into force. We face our future with both great apprehension and hope.

The stories that we tell ourselves about the future matter. Narrating a positive story in which we can see our children and grandchildren thriving is key, especially in a world where bogeymen and fear reside, fomented by political and community leaders who wish to reap the benefits and latitude that anxiety, division and crisis confers. The act of developing stories about a collective future together is also a deeply political act. It is an act of reclaiming political agency – of empowerment and resilience in a world of turbulence where traditional forms of political representation from the local to the national level, no longer seem fit for purpose.

2017 is the year to harness the power of strategic foresight. We can double down on authoritarian and top-down decision-making processes, as one response to those challenges and uncertainties. Or, if we want to build on democratic processes, we need to engage with the future together. Participative strategic foresight is a key component of system stewardship: a 21st century vision for democracy, that can move beyond our outdated post-WWII governance model that relies on narrow representational forms of delegated legitimacy, and command and control policy processes; and instead act as a platform upon which citizens and communities can harness their insights about their past, present and future.

So the purpose of this guided walk is to explore these issues from different perspectives and different sectors around the world.  We are interested in what might help or hinder our quest for a prosperous, secure and meaningful future.  We want to explore how the challenges and opportunities provided by changing technology, demography and values might play out across the economy, humanitarian fields and government; how we go about doing the business of engaging with the future; and how we tell the story.

Allie Bobak, our coordinator, and myself have invited several of our colleagues and collaborators to co-create this passionate and analytical journey. They are all people who are engaged in preparing for the future ­– and have more than one role as practitioners, civil servants, politicians, business leaders and activists. We chose a wide variety of different people: Esuna Dugarova, whom we met when exploring together the future of her region, the Buryatia Republic in the Russian Federation; Henrietta Moore, UK professor and anthropologist on the future of global prosperity; Aarithi Krishnan who looks at the future of Asia-Pacific humanitarian challenges; Sergio Bitar, a Chilean minister under both Allende and Bachelet; Betty Sue Flowers, American storyteller and narrator of the future extraordinaire; and Peter Davies, the first Sustainable Futures Commissioner for Wales.


Monday: Introduction to stategic foresight

We start the journey today with Ann Mettler, the European Commission President Juncker’s lead strategy advisor; Marius Oosthuizen, who works with a network of secular and religious leaders in South Africa to re-establish a joint platform to create a positive vision for South Africa, 25 years after the Mont Fleur scenarios; and Banning Garrett, from the Singularity University on the US’ west coast, whose job is to examine the impact of technology trends on security and domestic public policy.

They will talk about the past, present and future use of strategic foresight as a core function of the political process – Marius looks at the use of “Foresight as a Governance Tool to Navigate Co-Created Futures” from the perspective of South Africa; Ann examines what this looks like for a region that is deeply considering its own future: in “Where do we go from here? Designing the future of Europe”; and Banning explores the role of technology in “Peak globalisation and the future of democracy”. 

Tuesday: Building prosperous and inclusive futures

On Tuesday, we discover that a prosperous future can have many forms and meanings. The Institute of Global Prosperity, directed by our first contributor, Henrietta Moore, advocates that a prosperous society is just and fair, rather than a mere engine of economic growth. In her piece, Henrietta investigates trends in work, automation, and compensation, and how these trends and the policies behind them have favoured an unfairly distributed economy, and disempowering work trends such as automation and non-contractual jobs. She argues that there are benefits and consequences of such trends that can favour the worker and need to be brought to the forefront and collectively advanced by the citizens in order to produce positive change.

Our next contributor, Chris Yapp considers what the future of work, skills and education may be if we do not have the inclusive conversations and visions of the future that Henrietta argues for. Society must ensure that the future of technology will support social innovation and the wellbeing of all citizens. An important part of preparing for technology is a deep look at the future of education and an inclusive dialogue around it.

Both contributors emphasise the important role that citizens must play in creating their future. We close the day on a positive note with Managing Director of Foreign Policy Analytics, Claire Casey and Bradley Shurman Director of Global Partnerships at AARP. Nations such as China and Israel have established programs that benefit both the growing populations of those aged 65+ and also the societies they are a part of. What will make the difference between having a dystopian or utopian future is citizen engagement and societal preparedness. Education and skills policy is a critical and strategic intervention area for governing the resilient societies of the future.

Wednesday: Foresight for humanitarian response and development

Our guided walk shifted from a focus on prosperity to explore the role of the future and participation in humanitarian and development responses. Critically, how do we ensure we can build resilience, even when we are in crisis mode?

The United Nations Development Programme is our first candidate and Esuna Dugarova explores the need for broad participation on SDG16 – between citizens, civil society, business and “effective, accountable and inclusive institutions” – through the lenses of inequality and gender. As Esuna writes ‘In a world of interdependence, no country acting alone can fully manage the range and scale of risks and challenges that exist today’.

Our next contributors, John Sweeney and Aarathi Krishan, from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Michel Maietta from Action Against Hunger, explore the need for futures thinking in humanitarian responses, to build resilience but also to anticipate risk. As you read this, consider Michels’ view that the anticipatory work being done in the humanitarian space while important "is relatively short term – 3 month windows are the most common, with some organisations planning 6 or 9 months ahead", and John and Aarathi’s call that "if we do not adapt, we risk running irrelevant programs that are unwanted by the communities we serve."

Our final contributor, Imanol Castrellón, from the Peruvian National Centre of Strategic Planning (CEPLAN) provides a case study of foresight and participation. In the context of the recent floods and humanitarian crisis in Peru, Imanol’s call for long-term investment and planning is more relevant than ever. He argues, that Peru is in an ideal position to build on its strengths and deliver on the SDGs, but only if they invest in the long-term, in infrastructure, processes and governance and work, participatively with their communities.

So what mechanisms help drive the long-term? Esuna mentions how Brazil and India have built futures and participation into their constitutions. Other great international examples of how these approaches can be built into government exist, whether the legislature, executive or judiciary (for instance, on Friday you’ll read about the Welsh Future Generations Act).

But we also see a growing interest and demand for foresight in situations where there are constrained resources and little time – the focus of our new ‘Lean and Agile foresight’ project. To find out more, get in touch.

Thursday: Leadership and storytelling

We take a different angle on Thursday – looking at the role of leadership and story-telling in leading to future transformation. Tricia Lustig and Martin Hazell recount large-scale visioning programmes in Nepal  and Aruba, Betty Sue Flowers writes about a country-wide visioning and scenario-building initiative commissioned by the Slovenian government, while Amy Zalman recognises the Thanksgiving festival in the United States as a story-based set of actions and rituals that reinforces the shared narrative of the American people.

None of them is satisfied that our current stock of narratives is being replenished properly. Storytelling is the ultimate generator of shared histories, identities and meaning. The ancient Greeks came to understand themselves as a people through sharing Homer and Hesiod’s narratives, and well before then tales told around a camp-fire probably forged tribal identities. From the time of the Enlightenment, we have found new heroes in philosophers, scientists and revolutionary leaders, around whom exciting new narratives were created of human rights, democracy, and material advancement.

Is it then the case, as Betty Sue Flowers claims, that these Enlightenment stories are no longer inspiring? Are we ‘over them’; as inequality and the influence of money on politics increases, do they ring hollow? Of course, the ‘strong hero’ story has remained with us (particularly on the screen) and may be making something of a political comeback.

Amy Zalman invites organisations to articulate “intentionally composed, compelling and inspiring stor[ies] that explain the enduring values shared by members of an organization, their origins as a collective, and what they want to achieve in the future - and how,” but that may be putting a lot on their shoulders. Perhaps the seeds of the new stories are already there, as Flowers suggests, and just need to be told more convincingly, by different groups of people, until they become what she calls ‘common sense’ because their meaning is clear to all.

Expect an element of ‘we can do it by ourselves’, as in Martin Hazell and Tricia Lustig’s Nepal and Aruba experience, and the abiding influence of heroes, winners and losers. But the emerging narrative, which foresight and scenario-building should listen out for and might help foster, could be from “the web of life in which we are all interconnected” and might “honor both the dignity of the individual and the health of the global community as a whole.” (Flowers) There are gardens of Eden, lands of milk and honey, feeding of the five thousand (updated to take account of population growth) that call for a modern equivalent, and what is especially needed to create a more prosperous future are stories of the how this abundance is shared out variety, so that many gain while few have the sense that they have lost anything.

Friday: How governments can take this agenda forward

Let’s look back to the start of this week where we suggested that “the act of developing stories about a collective future together is a deeply political act”. We have spent the week exploring what this looks like: in villages and cities, in workplaces and schools, with the young and old, in the changing economy and during crises, in refugee camps and across regions. A common theme throughout has been that government institutions, policy-making processes and investment need to support this endeavour. And yet democratic governments seem to struggle with the longer-term now more than ever under conditions of volatility, when 24 hours, a week or a year seem impossibly far away – let alone beyond the next election cycle.

So today’s closing collection of stories are perspectives from country governments: a former parliamentary commissioner, a civil servant and a minister who come from three nations that are international leaders in engaging with the future.

Peter Davies, guardian of the Future Generations Act in Wales, describes the value of this innovative legislative solution to encourage the government apparatus in Wales to steward for the future as well as the present. The Act, signed in April 2015, introduced a legal duty upon all public bodies and civil servants to take the longer term into account when developing or implementing policies. A Commissioner acts an ombudsman to hold the government accountable, leads an ongoing nation-wide conversation with citizens about the future of Wales, and publishes a report about the future trends, opportunities and risks facing the country a year before elections to inform the political debate.

Aaron Maniam, Director of the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Singapore and first Head of the PM’s Centre for Strategic Futures, writes us a letter from 2037. The Singaporean Civil Service, under the excellent leadership of Peter Ho, has built both deep commitment and ability around the central importance of policy-making for the longer-term. And Aaron shares some of his thoughts on good citizen foresight practice for impact.

And finally, Sergio Bitar, Chilean Minister of State under both Allende and Bachelet, has spearheaded the recent use of strategic foresight in his own country and across the region of Latin America. He has been championing this at both the highest strategic level while also opening up spaces for conversations with citizens, including the young. We would like to end the week, with words from Sergio taken from this report: Global Trends and the Future of Latin America: Why and How Latin America Should Think About the Future:


"Foresight and strategy studies should be regarded as a planning tool... and they should be the government’s responsibility. Governments and international organizations should demand that their main programs and projects be assessed under a spectrum of long-term scenarios, with sensitivity analysis included... A Latin American network for global analysis must be enhanced, based on previous experiences [including setting]  up a strategic center that can coordinate activities geared to long-term goals...


The political discourse must include medium- and long-term outlooks, a narrative that makes it possible to chart a course and to facilitate agreements...        


Foresight could also be promoted as an instrument to protect future generations. In some countries, in fact, there have been proposals to designate advocates or an ombudsman for future generations...   


These ideas could materialize to the extent that citizens are better prepared and informed. If the essence of politics is to create a better future, foresight studies offer support to inspire action and mobilize society toward the desired outcome.”                                                           

Our final contributors show us it is possible to integrate citizen foresight into the heart of government as well as our communities. We leave you with our thanks for your interest and an invitation. If you would like to continue this journey together, please do get in touch: tweet us on @soifutures and #wethefuture, if you have questions, ideas, or would like to share your experiences and examples of doing similar work.

Thanks go to Peter Glenday and Alun Rhydderch for their contributions to rolling out the journey for this week.

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