Peer learning on foresight: experts meet at the OECD
Meeting people in person remains important, despite the modern means of communication. This also applies to experts who are, or aim to be, at the forefront of foresight, identifying trends and potential scenarios for the future. Several of them, most employed governments or international organisations, came together at an annual meeting hosted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on 8–9 October 2018. Gaston Moonen attended this meeting to listen and learn. Below some impressions.
By Gaston Moonen, ECA Directorate of the Presidency
Stimulating set-up for discussing foresight issues
The public sector discovers foresight. This was literally visible during the 6th ‘Government Foresight Community’ (GFC) Annual Meeting, which took place on 8 and 9 October 2018, at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. The participants’ list showed that this meeting really is bringing together a global community, with several participants from Asia, for instance, and the Americas. According to the OECD hosts, Duncan Cass-Beggs, Counsellor for Strategic Foresight in the OECD, and his colleagues Julia Staudt and Joshua Polchar, there was also a noticeable increase in interest. For me, being neither a foresight specialist nor a regular participant in these events, the eye-opener was how much professional thought goes into foresight and how governments and international organisations have set up foresight capacities to envision future scenarios and possible impacts. Another pleasant experience was the intercommunicative way the discussions were organised, starting with a lively approach to introducing oneself.
A key objective of the GFC Annual Meeting is to share new insights on foresight, meaning exchanges on what participants thought could become a signal for change or an emerging trend, and what the potential implications would be. Clearly an effort has been made to be innovative about interaction here. With almost 60 participants this was organised in break-out groups of around eight persons, where people presented one or two topics which in their view could be on the cutting edge of thinking on ‘futures.’ This informal set-up not only stimulated discussions but was also useful for networking. Each break-out group selected one or two topics to be reported back to the plenary.
After that, the day was organised around 9 presentations with three presentations running simultaneously. Participants could pick three presentations to attend, rotating after 30 minutes from one to the next presentation. Each short presentation was followed by a discussion and participants had to note the most insightful ideas on cards to be shared on a blackboard later on. The last part of the day included a panel discussion featuring presentations from foresight members from Canada, Finland, the EU and Singapore, on their respective systems for embedding foresight in government policy making.
Since I was only able to attend the first day of the GLC meeting I will limit myself to some personal impressions from the rich discussions that took place, focusing on topics that may be of particular interest for us, at the European Court of Auditors:
- the use of algorithms, often aggregated in the private sector, in criminal justice proceedings;
- a shift in pollution perception: people start to be more conscious of the possibly polluting effects of their daily life choices;
- increasing risks of conflict of interest in use of data by private operators — from the internet, aggregated from cameras, etc. in view of privacy rules, if such data is available at all;
- trend towards social disorientation because of access to information leading to anxiousness about changes and amount of choices.
Takeaways from the presentations of foresight studies and foresight capabilities are:
- embedding foresight in the very grain of parliamentary life and engaging with other layers of governance: a case study from Estonia showed the impetus for foresight studies can come from government but also from parliament, can be driven by budget constraints or concerns about remaining relevant and different visions of what kind of role government should have in society;
- foresight as an anticipatory policy tool and as element in the toolbox for better regulation;
- potential of audit as an incentive for government to include foresight in policy decision-making;
- the role an audit institution such as the U.S. Government Accountability Office takes in mapping trends and possible implications, for example for science and technology;
- the future basis for taxes: how to ensure tax income for governments, also in view of corporations operating globally and taxation often happening on a national basis;
- the potential of foresight to depoliticise the policy process and the need for politicians to have foresight expertise … and vice versa, since what is the use of foresight if it has no impact on policy decision-making.
Global trends, global solutions…
Overall, it was clear that foresight is being integrated in public sector organisations in many ways. And that foresight can go into different directions, from descriptive foresight — on what could be — to aspiration foresight — on what you would like it to be. The peer learning exercise also showed how global the trends and potential futures are. And that often scenarios to address these challenges need to be global too and foresight experts should aim to translate this into practical solutions for policy- and –decision makers. The foresight community that gathered at the OECD this month clearly shares a common interest and concern for the future and the ambition to make policy decisions more future proof.
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.