How futures thinking can help us navigate complexity

Posted in: Culture and policy, Science and research policy, UK politics

Government policy addresses complex, systemic challenges that often defy simple solutions. Policy making takes place in a global context where wider trends play out and inter-react, unexpected events disrupt the best-laid plans and what looks like success to some feels very different to others. Futures approaches help make sense of this long-term complexity and provide tools and techniques to help shape policy that stands the test of time. This is one of the strategic objectives of the Government Office for Science. We asked Ruth Marshall, GO-Science’s Head of Futures Capability, to tell us more about futures approaches and how they can support policymaking.

What is futures thinking (and what is it not)?

‘Futures’ provides systematic methods for thinking about the future. It helps us understand and make sense of possible change and uncertainty about what might happen. The term ‘Foresight’ describes the application of specific tools and methods for conducting futures work. Futures and Foresight are used by governments, companies and research organisations across the world.

GO-Science’s Futures work focuses on exploring uncertainty and building resilience to possible shocks and disruptions, rather than predicting what will happen. However, some organisations specialise in ‘forecasting’, which does involve predicting outcomes, again using systematic methods.

Why is futures important to policy-making?

As GO-Science’s short guide to Futures sets out, citizens expect government policy to deliver long-term benefits. However, long-term benefits are hard to deliver because the future is inherently uncertain and complex. To develop resilient policies, we need to understand wider changes influencing our operational context. For example, even if our focus is within the UK, we still need to take into account global changes (such as wars, technological developments, climate change, value shifts). We also need to consider emerging trends. For example, what could AI mean for how we deliver a particular service? Is our population structure changing in ways that will make it harder for us to deliver quality care for all? We need a clear vision of success, not just in today’s context, but tested against multiple potential scenarios for tomorrow and with different groups in society. We need our proposed solutions to be flexible: resilient to shocks and capable of responding to unexpected opportunities.

Futures helps to address these challenges. Foresight techniques such as PESTLE analysis – which is used to identify the Political, Economic, Societal, Technological, Legislative and Environmental drivers shaping the future policy environment – prompt us to consider our wider operating context and how different factors may shape this over time. (Details are available in the GO-Science Futures Toolkit.) Engaging with diverse groups of experts and the public helps us co-create more inclusive and better supported vision(s) of success. Being conscious of the narratives we use to describe the future can help us become aware of our thinking biases, as both groups and individuals. Do we default to assuming catastrophe or are we over-confident we can transform the world for the better? Does our planning prioritise ‘most likely’ or ‘preferred’ scenarios over a wider range of possibilities or do we consider the full range of risks and opportunities?

What questions might you think about to support long-term, resilient policymaking?

Take the time to think through and log your assumptions about the future – and be conscious of how much can change even in a few years. For example, when I was watching Mo Farah win gold in the 2012 Olympics, Covid hadn’t been heard of, gay marriage was illegal in the UK, and no-one would have suggested I’d be quicker getting ChatGPT to write this blog.

Utilise Futures scenarios and personas to help test the resilience of your plans. Would they work in multiple circumstances, for everyone? Are you stopping to check whether ongoing data is in line with your initial projections? Are you testing your priorities with a sufficiently diverse group of people? Who wins and who loses?

The ‘Seven Questions’ technique is a tried-and-tested approach to engaging with other people about the future. It helps you test others’ views on priorities, critical issues, favourable and unfavourable outcomes, what operational, structural and cultural changes might be needed, lessons from the past and what they would do if they had absolute authority. You can find more details in the GO-S Futures Toolkit. (Look out for the updated version in early 2024.)

Where can you find out more?

Many organisations use Futures to support their long-term strategy. Famously, Shell has published scenarios for decades. The United Nations considers Futures to be critical to delivering its Sustainable Development Goals. The Forces in Mind Trust conducted a Futures exercise to help inform its operational plans for supporting ex-service personnel. Individual government departments and teams use Futures to inform their strategies, risk registers, and investment plans.

To find out more about Futures in government, see the GO-Science resources below:

This blog post serves as a follow-up to an interactive IPR seminar Ruth Marshall ran at the University of Bath earlier this year, involving students from the MSc in Public Policy and the Professional Doctorate in Policy Research and Practice (DPRP).

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: Culture and policy, Science and research policy, UK politics


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