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  • Writer's pictureHans

USING FORESIGHT TO EXPLORE NEW POLITICAL ARCHITECTURES

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

TO ENSURE THE SURVIVAL OF A ROBUST AND HEALTHY DEMOCRACY


Image source: Shutterstock

Today’s companies, government entities, and citizens are learning to function in a highly partisan political system, in which decisions and news are largely transparent and shared in real-time. The challenge, however, is that it is difficult to verify the information and build trust.


Through this lens, our democratic republic faces the challenge Walter Russel Mead described in 2018: “In many cases, citizens of democracies around the world today find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of the postbellum generation: facing problems whose origins cannot be fully understood, and whose solutions will ultimately require intellectual and political architecture that does not yet exist.”


This fluid and tempestuous environment prompts the question: Should the United States (or other democratic countries that face similar trust issues with their citizens) explore new political architectures to ensure the survival of a robust and healthy democracy?


If the answer is “yes,” then we need a tool or process to help us explore those new possibilities. And that’s where foresight comes in. I think foresight could serve as a critical tool in helping both our country’s political leadership as well as U.S. citizens imagine what might be possible and make changes to ensure our continued success.


WHAT DOES FORESIGHT DO?

At Toffler Associates, our foresight efforts focus on helping organizations prepare for uncertainty. We believe in preparation, not prediction. As we remind our clients when thinking about the future, it is better to be ready than to be right.


Foresight as a tool challenges assumptions and opens our eyes to possibilities we might not necessarily imagine on our own. In 1980, at his commencement address to Connecticut College, the well-known actor Alan Alda warned: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”


Our job as futurists is to help organizations scrub those windows on a regular basis – not simply to let in the light, but also to ensure that people can see clearly through them to the outside world.


We regularly help our clients across Executive Branch agencies use foresight to look 10 to 30 years into the future to understand why and how the world is changing (in particular, the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community heavily leverage foresight for their longrange planning). Imagining the world of the future, “living in the world” to understand the implications, and then returning to the present allows these organizations to make decisions about investments in technology, their workforces, cyber/physical security, and their overall strategies. Many in government already know foresight works.


But what about the Legislative Branch? Congress regularly makes decisions in the present that will impact the future, but – other than the financial assessments that come out of organizations, such as the Congressional Budget Office – citizens rarely see an assessment or exploration of what those decisions might mean for the economy or society 20 years down the road. We see a critical need for foresight within the Legislative Branch.


HOW CAN FORESIGHT HELP CONGRESS?

Organizations benefit from foresight in seven distinct ways, ways we suspect would benefit our lawmakers:

  • INSTINCT-BUILDING: To mentally prepare for decisions, even in the absence of a plan

  • SENSE-MAKING: To co-create and share mental models, rather than simply butt heads

  • FRAME-SETTING: To shape the debate, rather than have the debate

  • STRATEGIC PLAN-MAKING: To make well-reasoned choices about goals, priorities, and plans

  • FUTURE-MAKING: To take an active role in creating the future, rather than waiting for it to occur

  • EMPATHY-DEVELOPING: To embody an alternate persona and see things from another’s perspective

We start every foresight project with a question. In this case, we would ask and explore with Congress: How should America’s democratic republic evolve to reflect how our citizens consume and use information? How might foresight help the very institutions on which America is founded get better at evolving?


FIRST, LOOK BACK TO UNDERSTAND HOW WE GOT HERE

We may believe that we find ourselves at a unique juncture in American democratic history. True, aspects of what we’ve experienced during the last few years are “firsts,” but we know from history that our form of democracy is not sacrosanct. Hindsight helps us see how democracy has already evolved:

  • Before the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Industrial Revolution, the Constitutional system functioned largely the same: white, male landowners would head to the Capitol, casting votes on behalf of their neighbors. American elected representatives would travel long distances to make deals, pass bills, and govern for their constituents. Local needs defined national policies. And days or weeks after votes were counted, the news would reach the citizen population via word of mouth or newspapers.

  • 20th-century technology changed the content, medium, and speed at which Americans learned about political and electoral results. Radio and television in living rooms granted unprecedented access to the national information impacting their well-being. Citizens and constituents were granted more opportunity to understand and engage with issues and representatives in a timely manner. Even then, however, that access and response were primarily retrospective in nature.

  • In 2022, politicians strike deals whose finer details are more-or-less known before the ink dries. We have nearly unprecedented access to “behind closed doors” deliberations, unnamed sources, and global political leaders who engage in debates in 280 characters or less. The populous serves as witness and party to the debates on the merits of legislation, budgets, and even going to war.

  • Today, it isn’t unimaginable for elected representatives to change positions before voting because their Twitter feed is full of users (some fake) who demand something different. Anonymous sources leak “secret” details of trade agreements that impact stock markets. For better or worse, phone cameras and other small recording devices compel many of our representatives to act as if they are being recorded at all times.

IMAGINING THE FUTURE OF OUR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

Helping Congress find the answer to the question of modern democratic structure begins with answering three initial questions:

  1. How has transparency impacted our democracy thus far, and what can we expect in the future?

  2. What is the significance of "trust" in a transparent democracy - both in terms of how we define it and how we rely on it?

  3. How will speeding up the flow of information and news impact the ways our democracy makes decisions and our ability to act?


To start to answer those questions, imagine that our democratic future lies on a spectrum between extremes:


Image source: Canva

Scenario One: Zero Trust -- Trust in our legislative bodies is depleted. U.S. citizens have wrested total control and influence from elected representatives and own all facets of the governing process, voting on every piece of legislation. The scenario isn’t all far-fetched: trust in government, according to Pew Research, has eroded since the 1960s, and, those identifying as Republican or Democrat have less faith in our government if the party with which they do not identify holds the presidency. In other words, society has the perception that their representatives are not representative of them. Alvin Toffler foresaw this potential in his 1980 book, The Third Wave when he wrote: "Many of the decisions now made by small numbers of pseudo-representatives may have to be shifted back gradually to the electorate itself. If our elected brokers can't make deals for us, we shall have to do it ourselves.”



Scenario Two: Trust the AI -- Leaders and constituents put great faith in technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). We rely on – and trust – computers to make (or at least inform) optimal decisions on our behalf. Even knowing every political decision fundamentally results in winners and losers, we believe technology will yield objectively optimal decisions. Again, the scenario isn’t far-fetched. Already we allow AI to help make medical diagnoses. Is it too much of a leap to imagine leveraging a version of this very same technology to identify the best location to build a new bridge, the most advantageous tax structure, or satisfactory carbon emission standards?

Image source: Canva

Scenario Three: Privatize (Some) Government -- The non-government sector (for- and not-for-profit organizations) assumes more responsibility and accountability for providing society’s basic needs: security, protection, and enforcing the rule of law. In a 2018 Gallup poll, big business garners some level of trust from 70% of Americans; Congress, meanwhile, gets only 52%.


Given the demonstrable lack of trust we have in those we choose to represent us and the relative nascence of AI, this third option seems especially provocative.


MORE QUESTIONS

Considering scenarios that envision different architectures for our democracy can lead to more questions, such as:

  • Should we orient our future toward a true democracy, where everyone gets to vote directly on the issues?

  • Do we continue to rely on big business to fill the gaps the government can’t or won’t?

  • How do we contend with the proliferation of technology and disinformation?

These scenarios are but three of multiple plausible futures. Looking across scenarios at what is common could enable Congress to shape a democracy to flexibly weather the unknown.


Pierre Wack, one of the gurus of scenario planning at Shell Oil, likened dealing with the future to shooting the rapids in a boat: you know the general direction of travel, but not the exact path. The trick is to be able to respond quickly, not a trait for which our Legislative Branch is known. As American democracy continues to evolve, this is perhaps one critical point where it is important to tweak our Toffler Associates phrase: We need to be ready to get it right. Our futures depend on it.


For additional reading, Davies recommends the following books:

 

Hans Davies

Hans Davies (he/him) has been with Toffler Associates since 2007 and currently serves as a Director. His focus is on helping organizations design imaginative futures that explore the nexus of humans and technology and their impact on security and protection. His specialties include security and resilience in the converging cyber and physical environments. Among other career highlights, Hans has served on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, adhoc Committee on the Future of Encryption, presented to the U.S. Army Mad Scientist community about learning models for the jobs of 2050, and was featured in Sports Illustrated’s 2019 “Future Issue” (“See Change”). Hans earned a B.A. in History from Williams College and an M.A. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he starred in the 2002 production of “Free Trade, Tough Love”.

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