Most national development strategies start by analyzing the current problems and challenges a country faces, and end with approaches to address them. They are based on experience, which comes from the past and we use it—combined with data—to extrapolate our understanding of the present to improve in the future.
It’s a good method to understand gradual change, and what I call the "used future" – we create a vision of the future from what we know from the past.
But if we look back to the past, we start to see that certain aspects of our lives, for example technology, are changing rapidly. Look at how we use our mobile phones today: they are now used as computers, cameras, and networking tools!
However, a developing country like Timor-Leste may have full mobile and data coverage, but the use of the technology is mostly for entertainment and not to create new opportunities for economic development. Why is that?
Technology is changing much faster than cultural norms and values. This limits our ability to make optimal use of it, which is probably a key constraint for countries to leapfrog development stages.
Without leapfrogging, many countries will not be able to address poverty while reducing carbon emissions and diversifying their economies. They simply can’t catch up. And in a rapidly changing world, the divide between developed and developing countries will continue to increase.
The head of an innovation foundation in Armenia explained it to me very well. If we use the experience from developed countries and apply for example their current education model to our context now, we will never become competitive because in a decade we will have only reached the stage where developed countries are now.
To overcome this challenge, we need to have a clearer images of the future. If we only aspire to gradual change in a national education system, the business-as-usual approach is fine. But if we imagine and want radical change to better deal with major disruptions in technology or social change (migration, aging), today’s education system in developed countries will be obsolete ten years from now in developing countries.
So, what do we advise countries to do? Plan investments for a future with minimal or radical change, or something in between?
This is where futures studies and foresight come into play. They seek to help governments better understand the processes of change, anticipate uncertainties and possible disruptions, and create wiser preferred futures. Futures studies make it very clear that we neither can predict the future, nor is there only one future awaiting us.
Futures studies provide tools that allow us to understand past change and current problems, while mapping emerging issues and trends. They enable us to "see" disruption and sense the future.
By taking emerging issues and developing them into potential scenarios of alternative futures, futures studies uncover uncertainties, fears, and hopes. This can lead to innovative solutions and resilient policies – because we see problems and opportunities earlier.
Futures studies also use a highly participatory approach to align visions for the future. In practice, this means to plan development programs and projects with perspectives and insights that are expected to be relevant in the future.
Lastly, futures studies create a path from the preferred future to the present. "Back-casting" helps understand which policies, investments, and actions are required to reach the preferred future. This path empowers governments to enact changes for the future they desire.
What I really like about futures studies is that they combine data with culture, worldview, and story via causal layered analysis. This set of tools helps to understand why certain countries and people change faster than others, as well as to identify the obstacles that prevent change.
Over the past three months, we conducted a number of futures studies workshops with our government counterparts in Armenia, Mongolia, and Timor-Leste. While the participants learned about these tools to develop their "futures literacy", and applied them in their own group work, they all agreed that these methods are lacking in their present work, which is often too busy with the present.
Futures studies allow for outside-the-box thinking to develop new ideas, approaches, and concepts that can be crazy and appear impossible.
Other countries have realized the wisdom of using futures studies to inform their long-term strategic societal planning. Finland, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates are among many others. At the local government level, consortiums of cities like the Asia Pacific Cities Summit are applying futures and foresight to urban planning.
Malaysia has used futures studies to guide its long-term education sector transformation. Almost all vice-chancellors and deans have gone through the process, and the government is also exploring futures studies to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Likewise, the Government of Thailand has established a futures studies institute under the national innovation agency, which hosted the Asia Pacific Futurist Network conference in August 2018.
The private sector is interested, too. There is evidence that profitability and market capitalization jumps significantly for those corporations that engage in futures thinking.
As the world around us changes so quickly in many aspects, Professor Sohail Inayatullah, UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies, urges us to use our imagination of the future as an asset to drive the change we want to see. Nothing we do can change the past, but everything we do changes the future.