Now is the best time to embrace the futures: SDGs and strategic foresight | Blog by Cat Tully

This blog first appeared on silofighters.org (28 September 2016).
(CC BY-ND 2.0) Salvatore Vastano / Flickr

(CC BY-ND 2.0) Salvatore Vastano / Flickr

 

2016 is a unique, exciting time for the global development agenda. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are now underway and UN country teams face the huge task of implementing them. So, who will get the best outcomes by 2030? My money is on countries that use strategic foresight. This blog will explain why, and how.

Foresight

Foresight is a form of strategic planning that enables us to think about futures*. We will never have hard data about what might happen in years to come, but in a volatile and rapidly changing world foresight can provide us with principles for understanding complexity, building resilience and setting direction.

Foresight is essential to achieving development goals because it enables us to implement policies based on a thorough and informed approach, as opposed to a set of assumptions.

Foresight and the UN

As the SDG agenda fires up, we embark on an entirely new policymaking approach, and UN country teams have the exciting opportunity to become leaders in the field of emergent strategic planning. This positions the UN in a unique, if not daunting role: to support communities and countries globally to implement strategic foresight. So how do we begin?

Foresight is not something that can be added on top of existing structures; it can’t be thrown in as a tick-box exercise. If we want robust development policies, the UN must embed foresight within UNDAF processes. This requires gradual, structural change in order to be successful.

First and foremost, decision makers must make sure processes are emergent. This means that they are participative, with governments acting as facilitators of other actors, as opposed to top-down controllers.

In general, there are five key principles of emergent strategic planning that stand any organisation in good stead:

  1. Examine the strategic context. Analyse trends and drivers of possible futures contexts, along different time horizons, e.g. one year, five years and 15 years, so it can inform but not be captured by budget and operational planning decisions.
  2. Openly engage with a wide set of views. Seek the opinions of the public, especially vulnerable and extremely poor citizens (i.e. the key “beneficiaries” of development policy design).
  3. Look at a set of issues with multiple lenses. Diversity and alternative perspectives are important for understanding and identifying weak signals, as well as developing common knowledge and ownership.
  4. Identify possible futures and trends. This includes trends that are desired or otherwise, that can be highlighted either through complete pictures of scenarios or snapshots.
  5. Build on policy implications. Reviewing what genuine strategic alternatives look like, and enabling resilience as well as pushing for desired outcomes.

Being emergent is vital. In our uncertain world where we face big, long-term threats like climate change, traditional policymaking and government structures fall short. The role of government is shifting and in order to effectively plan for the future in a strategic way, governments must move from being commanding controllers to “system stewards”.** The UN plays a key role in making this happen.

System stewards facilitate a network of multiple actors with different perspectives: they guide an emergent, inclusive policy-planning process, which effectively plans for and responds to opportunities and risks. System stewardship is the only sustainable alternative to the traditional command-and-control government structure that currently fails to deliver for citizens.

The role of the UN in transforming government

The SDGs actually mandate the UN to transform the role of government in this way: SDG 16 demands “effective, accountable and inclusive institutions”. This is effectively describing a system stewardship model, but as you can imagine, this won’t happen automatically. Governments must first build the capacity to use strategic foresight to take the longer-term into account, and the UN is in the perfect position to help make this happen.

If implemented properly, SDG 16 has the exciting potential to transform the role of government for the long-term. System stewardship will enable governments to navigate an increasingly complex world, whilst keeping citizens at the centre of processes and long-term plans that genuinely work.

Ultimately, the success of the SDGs depends on our ability to start using foresight as soon as possible. The UN must seize this intervention point to strengthen governments as stewards, and ensure wider participation is integrated into strategic planning processes.

Foresight resources

Everything in this blog comes from a recent guide on how the UN Development Assistance Frameworks process can make better use of foresight. It was informed by consultations with development professionals (both within and outside the UN) and provides tools for improving processes and introducing strategic foresight into UNDAF.

The guide also includes examples of foresight and other public sector innovations to improve multi-year strategic planning, as well as case studies from UN in-country teams (Laos, Montenegro and Rwanda) who have begun to apply foresight to their UNDAF planning process.

To discover how to apply foresight, and to access a list of practical resources, download the guide here.

*We speak of “futures” in the plural, because there are many different alternatives for where the world might be in the next five, ten or 50 years.

**See Tully, C. Stewardship of the Future. Using Strategic Foresight in 21st Century Governance.  2015.

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