Governing is all about anticipation and making well-informed choices. As a key player in the Union’s political process, the European Parliament is developing a foresight capacity. Danièle Réchard-Spence is Head of the Global Trends Unit embedded in the European Parliamentary Research Service. She explains what her unit does and how it reaches out both internally and externally to ensure that foresight information gets to policy decision-makers.
By Danièle Réchard-Spence, European Parliamentary Research Service
Developing foresight capacity
Foresight is a proactive approach to help us conceive alternative futures, using established techniques such as horizon-scanning, trend analysis and scenario development. This work begins with factual evidence, but it is not about ‘forecasting’ or ‘predicting,’ it is about understanding what might happen in the future and how we could or should anticipate adapting.
The European Parliament (EP) has long been active in this area. In the 1980s it created the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) panel. Legislators and policy-makers needed independent, impartial and accessible information about developments in science and technology (S&T), and scientific foresight projects were conducted to this end.
After several crises hit the European Union, a further step came in 2015. The Global Trends Unit was set up within the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) to mainstream strategic foresight. This unit is tasked with systematically studying changes in the global economic, social, and geopolitical environment. It seeks to identify the challenges and choices that these may pose for policy-makers over time. The Global Trends Unit focuses on medium- and long-term trends that may not be high on the agenda right now, but have far-reaching and potentially disruptive implications.
Plugging foresight into parliamentary work
How does this work feed into parliamentary work? The annual ‘Global Trendometer’ aims to provide foresight for decision-makers in the EU, by analysing changes in these medium- and long-term trends. The publication does not offer answers or make recommendations; rather, it presents summarised information derived from a range of carefully selected sources (such as OECD, US National Intelligence Council, NATO or World Bank reports). The latest issue of the Global Trendometer (September 2018) analyses long-term trends on India, the labour-share of income, and democracy and artificial intelligence. It also features two-page contributions on geoengineering, remittances, food security in China, economic waves, the US after Trump, public procurement and deep fakes. The Global Trends Unit may also monitor external studies, such as on the ‘Global trends 2030: geopolitics and international power’ or ‘Global trends 2030: impact and implications for economy and society in the EU.’
Publishing insightful written material is only one part of foresight. Another is mobilising collective intelligence and imagination to engage in longer-term thinking about the challenges and choices. To this end, the Global Trends Unit is experimenting with a particular tool, that of the ‘Key Assumptions Check.’ This is a structural analytical technique which allows for a rapid interactive check of a small number of initial assumptions on a specific subject. The goal is to ensure that its work serves its primary ‘client,’ the Member of the European Parliament. The unit also maintains a continuous worldwide dialogue with other organisations, working on foresight or maintaining data sets that can fuel into its work. In terms of being in-reach, the Global Trends Unit for example set up the ‘EPRS Foresight Club,’ which meets on the Friday following a Strasbourg EP plenary session. The setting of this meeting is informal, playful even: a theme is set, most often by a participant outside the unit. After a short introduction to get the ball rolling, participants have the opportunity to comment on the topic from their own perspective. A recent Foresight Club session, in July, explored the topic of space data; a forthcoming session will consider ‘remittances.’
ESPAS: teaming up EU institutions on foresight
The Global Trends Unit’s work serves as a direct contribution to what is known as the ‘ESPAS’ process. The European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) was established in 2010 at the initiative of the European Parliament. It has developed into a permanent process of administrative cooperation at high official level to share analysis of long-term trends facing the Union. The four partner bodies are the European Parliament, the Council, the European Commission and the European External Action Service. The Committee of the Regions, the Economic and Social Committee and the European Investment Bank take part as observers.
The upcoming ESPAS Conference (28–29 November), jointly organised by the European Parliament and the European Commission will wind up the 2015–2019 cycle with a view to publication of the 2019 ESPAS report on Global Trends.
Foresight strengthening democratic capabilities
In today’s world of ‘uncertainties’ and ‘risks,’ democracies need to demonstrate their capacity to set long-term goals, to anticipate what is coming, to mitigate risks and to develop resilience. It is commonly assumed that authoritarian regimes have a kind of comparative advantage in this. This assumption needs to be challenged: there is no better place than a democratic representative institution to put together collective intelligence, find the necessary compromises, and to give a sounding board to dissenting voices. This is where foresight can help.
This article was first published on the October 2018 of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.