Using Strategic Foresight to Shape Our Futures

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We need to be able to anticipate, envision, and use the potential futures facing our world to transform the United Nations into its best version and to address the complexity of challenges that we will face moving forwards. To help with these efforts, we added a new stream of work to our portfolio and designed a Futures and Foresight programme. In this blog, we discuss what that looks like. 

The climate crisis is upon us; the world reacted too late. Mass migration across multiple borders is upon us; the world reacted too late. Conflict induced by competition for resources is upon us and has been for some time now, just more widespread and visible across broader expansive geographies such as the Sahel. The COVID-19 pandemic—although highlighted systematically by the leading risk foresights—still took us by surprise as we failed to take the necessary preventive measures on time.  

The list goes on, and each item added to it becomes more intricately and intimately linked to other items. What we know for sure is that those who are already in disadvantaged or challenging positions are at risk of even greater challenges. We cannot ignore these emerging issues. We need to move from a reactive mode to future-proof ways of working by turning foresight into insights and actions. 

Enter a workstream dedicated to futures and foresight 

For all of us at the United Nations to be able to keep up and stay ahead of such complexity, we need to be able to respond to challenges that reach beyond mandates and that require more joined-up approaches that move beyond short-term responses into long-term anticipatory and transformative action. This requires changing our mindsets, ways of working, ways of making strategic decisions and using and making sense of data and information around us to formulate actionable insights.

Whilst COVID-19 has thrown the world into havoc, it also presented an unforeseen opportunity to transform the ways we work to change the future. This is our momentum to accelerate positives and to anticipate emerging threats, plan for more uncertainties and take preventive action to build a better, more equal, and inclusive world. The UN Secretary-General has placed great emphasis and investment in being able to transform the UN into an organisation that can do all of the above, and much, much more. 

This means shifting from single-point and mandate-driven innovation to creating value and innovating with and within global networks and driving deep connections with the broader ecosystem of UN and non-UN stakeholders. We believe the UN can build the platform, processes, systems, and expertise that enable connected innovation, driven by insights of what’s coming. Building strategic partnerships—for the system level benefit—will be at the very core of this strategy as will be connecting the different levels of impact value chain with feedback loops to accelerate learning. 

How do we at UNGP plan to contribute? 

To help these transformation efforts UN Global Pulse recently added futures and foresight as a new stream of work. What does that look like? 

First, we’re adding to elements that already exist by supporting the Secretary-General’s strategic priorities, working together with groups like the Foresight Network of the High-level Committee on Programmes to contribute to assets and tools. In addition, we’ll be bringing new foresight expertise into UN Global Pulse to target the SG’s priorities by building capacity in his own office. This work includes operationalizing strategies like the Data Strategy and Innovation Agenda, providing new frameworks, models and standards to work as one, including practical issues like sharing data across silos for better outputs. 

Second, we’re going to build foresight capacities through a needs-based service offering. A service to the UN System and beyond. To do this, we can play to our existing strengths and use new technologies such as ML and other AI tools to modernize the foresight practice. We will explore new ways to help us make sense of the world, sharing what we learned and asking questions to understand what the disruptive changes mean to each mandate. 

We will also work to help build capacities in terms of methodologies and processes. This will involve building awareness and educational approaches that help decision makers, managers, and others know when and how to use this service for maximum value, like in resource allocation exercises or policy formation. We’ll do this through simple steps, like making people aware of what futures and foresight is, or by making sure that insights and sensemaking carried out in one part of the UN are shared with other parts. 

Third, we’re going to test what works and what doesn’t. We plan to practice what we preach and use innovation processes and methodologies to experiment: against testable hypotheses, challenging our own (and others’) assumptions around the most useful approaches. We will share learnings of mistakes as well as successes, and where we create insights and sensemaking we will share outputs and products with the broader system — across silos. Ultimately, we want to see these efforts played out and used in strategies and actions within the communities we are here to serve.

Finally, futures and foresight efforts need to be grounded in inclusion, diversity, and ethical practices. So the fourth area of work will ensure that this is the case. We will drive the use of best practices in the uses of futures and foresight, making sure that awareness and capabilities in ethical practices are used widely. We will ensure that frameworks, practices, policies and guidelines have data accountability and interoperability across the system. Where we do carry out exercises in sensemaking or in the design of data gathering exercises we will use diversity and inclusion as guides and tools to help us create the best insights possible and improve diversity and transparency at each step of the insight value chain. 

The futures concern every individual on the planet, and it is critical to invest in the inclusion of the formerly excluded, disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. Their voices and interpretations will also provide an untapped resource for envisioning and innovating for better futures. It’s a large piece of work and there is a lot we don’t know, but it’s also an exciting and meaningful addition to our portfolio and one we think will drive transformation across our United Nations. So we’re pretty excited about it and ready to start learning.

UN Global Pulse would like to thank the Government of Finland for supporting our futures & foresight work.

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