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Anticipating the Unpredictable: Government Applications of Foresight to Build a Better Tomorrow

When we think about the future, we may imagine a utopian society where everything is perfect or an extremely catastrophic environment. That makes it vital to understand that the future is full of uncertainties. While we can't predict the future with complete accuracy, by using strategic foresight techniques, governments can prepare themselves for a wide range of possible scenarios and make informed choices that pave the way towards a better tomorrow. In this blog, we explore how governments worldwide are leveraging this approach to anticipate the unpredictable and build more resilient societies that thrive in uncertain times.

Government leaders increasingly recognize the value of foresight in an age of rapid change and global uncertainty. It can help governments identify emerging issues early on, understand their implications, and develop strategies for dealing with them. In particular, government applications of foresight can help to:

Government application of foresight diagram, © Asma Zainal, 2023


There are several approaches that government agencies can use for foresight. One common approach is scenario planning. It involves creating different possible futures and then planning for each one. The Singapore government is known for its foresight-driven approach to governance. The government has established several institutions and initiatives dedicated to future studies and foresight applications, such as the Center for Strategic Futures (CSF) and the National Research Foundation. They use scenario planning and strategic dialogues to anticipate and prepare for future trends and disruptions in the areas of economic development, healthcare, and urban planning. Similarly, the Finnish government is also known for its successful utilization of scenario planning.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has invested heavily in foresight-driven policymaking to support its goal of becoming a global hub for innovation and sustainability. They have established several institutions and initiatives dedicated to foresight. The Dubai Future Foundation, a government agency, aims to shape the future of Dubai and the UAE through innovation and foresight. It engages in scenario planning and research to identify emerging technologies and their potential impact on society and the economy.


Application Obstacles

Governments today face a myriad of challenges in applying futures and foresight methods and strategies. One major obstacle is the sheer complexity and uncertainty of the future. It can be difficult to anticipate and plan for a future that is constantly changing and evolving, especially with the rapid pace of technological advancements and global events such as climate change and pandemics. Despite these challenges, governments must continue to prioritize developing foresight strategies to ensure that they are well-prepared for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.


Overcoming Challenges

There are strategies that governments can employ to surmount the challenges of resistance to change, limited resources, and the unpredictable nature of the future. To overcome resistance to change, build a strong business case for foresight. By clearly articulating and communicating the benefits of foresight, governments can demonstrate its value and gain buy-in from stakeholders. The UAE is one of the countries that promotes foresight through open and shared dialogues with other governments, like the World Government Summit. Another is Scotland, where the government uses foresight methods to inform its long-term planning and decision-making—through workshops, online forums, and surveys—to ensure that the perspectives of all stakeholders are being considered.

Limited resources can pose a significant challenge to the implementation of foresight methods. The government of Costa Rica has used foresight methods to inform its national development planning through a participatory foresight process called "Horizonte 2030" to envision the country's development trajectory and prioritize strategic initiatives.

Another key strategy is to leverage technology to support foresight efforts. This includes using predictive analytics to analyze large amounts of data and identify emerging trends and issues. The Singapore government has been a leader in this area, using foresight methods to inform its long-term planning and stay ahead of the curve. The UAE Government has launched a national AI Strategy 2031, which aims to position the country as a leader in the development and application of AI.


Strategy for Implementation

A government armed with an efficient foresight strategy can preemptively navigate change, spot favorable openings, and detect potential dangers, leading to well-informed decisions about the future. However, for this approach to bear fruit, foresight must be seamlessly integrated into the decision-making mechanism at every tier of government. There are a number of steps that government organizations can take to implement an effective foresight strategy:


Government application of foresight diagram, © Asma Zainal, 2023


Insights and Recommendations

As a futurist, I've seen firsthand the importance of embracing futures research and foresight thinking as tools for anticipating and preparing for the future. It's not enough to simply react to what's happening in the present; we need to actively seek out and understand what's coming down the pipeline. It’s crucial to use the methods and tools that are appropriate to specific contexts and objectives. Whether it's Delphi, Horizon Scanning, Scenario Planning, Backcasting, Strategic Dialogues or combining these approaches, you can create a comprehensive anticipatory view of the future.

The most important thing is involving stakeholders from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. By bringing together experts, policymakers, citizens, and private sector partners, we can create a shared understanding of what the future might look like, build consensus, and work together to co-create solutions. It's also important to recognize that the future is not a static entity; it is constantly evolving and changing. That is why it is vital to regularly monitor how the future is unfolding and update our foresight strategies to ensure that they remain relevant and effective for the current state of the world.

So whether you're part of an organization, a government agency, or simply an individual interested in shaping the future, embracing futures research and foresight development is essential. By using multiple methods and involving diverse stakeholders, we can work towards a better tomorrow.


Conclusion

The future is not set in stone, and it's up to governments to lead the charge in shaping it for the better. By embracing foresight and actively working to anticipate and prepare for what's to come, governments can help create a future that is sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous. It requires collaboration, creativity, and a willingness to listen to a wide range of perspectives. By involving experts, policymakers, citizens, and private sector partners in the foresight process, governments can build consensus and co-create solutions that benefit everyone.


References:

https://www.dubaifuture.ae/

https://www.sitra.fi/en/topics/national-foresight-network/

https://agenda2030lac.org/en/countries/costa-rica

https://www.csf.gov.sg/

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ijmr.12119

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652618321465

https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170814000342

https://www.oecd.org/gov/ethics/Strategic-Foresight-for-Government.pdf

https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_memoranda/2008/RM5888.pdf

https://government.ae/en/about-the-uae/the-uae-government/government-of-the-future/the-uae-national-agenda

https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/bitstream/JRC108255/jrc108255_h2020_hse_guidance.pdf

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Riel Miller
Riel Miller
Jun 19, 2023

Hi Asma, thank you for this cogent overview of 'foresight' for a better world. Based on my own experience, your pitch will resonate with many clients and individuals trying to think about the future. That said, I have also found that the foresight as problem solving for a better future perspective often confines people's imaginations. Today it seems to me to be essential to point out that there are different kinds of futures - imagined not-past, not-present worlds - that are not confined to 'better' or 'likely'. Nor do all uses of the future perpetuate the delusion that humans can 'create the future'. Something that is important to take into account at a time when the arrogance of efforts to…

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