How to plan [development work] when you don’t know what is going to happen? – asked Duncan Green in a recent, must-read blog post. I cannot refrain from copying the money quote:
In denying complexity [one] is obliged either to seek islands of linearity in a complex system (vaccines, bed nets), which may not always be the most useful or effective places to engage, or to lie – writing up project reports to turn the experience of ‘making it up as you go along’ that epitomizes working in complex systems into the magical world of linear project implementation, ‘roll out’, ‘best practice’ and all the rest. That not only wastes a lot of staff time and energy, it also reduces the ability to learn about how to work best in complex systems.
As usual, Duncan does not limit himself to critiquing, but also proposes some concrete solutions and tactics for development organizations to deal with unpredictability.
This however still raises the question: is there any point at all for development practitioners to think about the future in a world where volatility and transition seem to have become the norm and we are often reminded of the inanity of our efforts to anticipate black swans (e.g. with the financial crisis)?
A recent Nesta report Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow: a modest defence of futurology, though mostly focusing on government and business, provides some useful guidance.
“Government and businesses need foresight capabilities in order to address systemic challenges” is one of the conclusions, which hark back to Noah Radford’s manifesto for policy-making in the 21st century (another must-read):
Complexity and collapse, volatility and transition – these will become the defining experiences of our decade … Thankfully, there are a range of useful tools for addressing long term planning under uncertainty that mainstream planning and public policy have hitherto mostly ignored…The challenge for 21st Century professionals is to successfully apply these tools, and the lessons they produce, in the context of stiff organizational resistance and political fear. Our job should be to facilitate events and environments that help institutions understand and prepare for rapid transformation under conditions of surprising, disruptive change.
So what are some of the approaches that we can use to build foresight capability? The report identifies at least three:
1. Data-driven forecasting – the hype du jour, this approach is particularly effective for short term forecasts and events that people are likely to talk about before they happen.
It is an area that, the report acknowledges, requires further experimentation (see, for example, the widely reported shortcomings of Google Flu). In the development sector, the UN Global Pulse has conducted some pioneering work in this area, as recently recognized by the Computerworld Honors programme. In a recent big data for development event with the Global Pulse and the World Bank, we also started dipping our feet into this territory, looking at issues such the possibility of anticipating cases of fraud and corruption. We also explored big data as a way to augment political risk analysis.
2. Imagining plausible future scenarios through foresight tools such as quantitative modelling (the report introduces a fascinating example related to US renewable energy futures). At UNDP, we have been inspired by the work of the Institute for the Future and projects such as Catalyst for Change (imagining 18,000 scenarios for paths out of poverty) and Connected Citizens (on re-imagining the future of government).
Other initiatives we have come across in this area include the Africa Foresight for Development initiative and the UK Foresight Project focusing on natural disasters in developing countries. We look forward to learning about new approaches in our upcoming Policy 2.0 workshop in Dublin.
3. Creating preferable futures by creating and sharing stories. While the two approaches mentioned above have the glitz of high-tech, this goes back to a basic human trait – the need to tell stories in the face of uncertainty (think of science-fiction). A story about the future, the report notes, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sort and mobilize people towards realizing the future.
And even though this area is grabbing fewer headlines compared to the above, personally I found the insights of this section of the report particularly relevant to our work. See for instance:
When dealing with deeply uncertain and emotional futures, stories say more than surveys. But there remains a serious challenge: to help more people to play out their desires and fears for the future in enough detail that they could motivate change today.
We are also very much interested in exploring approaches like the Extrapolation Factory mentioned in the report.
This is just the beginning of a journey for us so we are very keen to get in touch with other organizations that are further ahead in developing foresight capabilities and experimenting with new approaches in this area.
Interested? Please let us know!