Using Imagination, Information, and Insight to Prepare the UN for the Future

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How foresight is shaping a culture of transformational leadership and radical hope in Cambodia.

It’s often said that hindsight is 20/20: We can see and understand something much more clearly after it’s happened. But what about foresight – envisioning the future one wants to create? It’s not a crystal ball one gazes into, but instead a viable strategy for imagining, planning, and creating a better future, not just of an organization but its leaders in the years ahead.

This is why foresight is just one of the tools being used to build the UN of the future. It’s no longer good enough to maintain the status quo or even try to keep up with the rapidly changing world, which is nearly impossible. Instead, UN agencies and partners must imagine what the future might bring in terms of issues the agencies may face. Perhaps even more important, it’s essential to build the kind of transformational leadership and collaborative strengths the UN needs to remain a relevant and thriving contributor to the world’s humanitarian aid, human rights, development, and so much more.

“It’s an experiment, but we are working to build our capacity in foresight,” says Pauline Tamesis, Resident Coordinator in Cambodia, who is among the early adopters of foresight and related strategies. “It’s one of the important tools in creating the appetite, the attitude to better anticipate change, events, and uncertainty, and to be able to make sense of that.”

To Tamesis, this includes looking at what’s happening in a bigger, broader system, and understanding what any change might mean in both the immediate and longer term. After all, she says, change is always happening, whether quickly or slowly.

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“It’s about how willing we are to open our hearts and minds, to be able to go beyond what we know and what we assume we know. As the pandemic taught us, there is still a lot to learn and we must continuously adapt.”

– Pauline Tamesis, Resident Coordinator, United Nations

Using Imagination, Information, and Insight to Prepare the UN for the Future 2

“How do we start anticipating and understanding and making this easier for us all?” she says. “It’s about how willing we are to open our hearts and minds, to be able to go beyond what we know and what we assume we know. As the pandemic taught us, there is still a lot to learn and we must continuously adapt.”

To practice foresight in a meaningful way, she says, it’s essential to have the evidence, data, and feedback to know if what the organization is trying to do makes sense – a measure of clarity. This includes information and analysis from sources that haven’t been listened to in the past, including the people experiencing the impact of various crises to which the UN responds.

Significantly, it’s also about breaking down the silos that exist within the UN family as well as with its partners. Tamesis considers this “the only way we can get the most out of our collective parts” – coming together and delivering development in a way that improves people’s lives, which is a significant objective of the UN’s 2030 Agenda.

Using Imagination, Information, and Insight to Prepare the UN for the Future 1

“Most often, people think of foresight as prediction. But I’ve learned from the innovators who have taught and inspired me that the best way to predict the future is to design it.”

– Pauline Tamesis, Resident Coordinator, United Nations

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“It’s really about our willingness to listen to others and question our beliefs and assumptions,” she says. “Most often, people think of foresight as prediction. But I’ve learned from the innovators who have taught and inspired me that the best way to predict the future is to design it.”

Tools for designing the future

Tamesis emphasizes that to design the future, you must have the right tools, which include information, knowledge, analysis, understanding, and teamwork.

Back in 2018, the UN launched two Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Leadership Labs in Cambodia and Uganda. Tamesis describes the SDG Leadership Lab – and all of Cambodia’s work in foresight – as a journey toward embedding foresight into the kind of transformational leadership the UN needs to design for the future.

Working with outside experts, participants spent six to eight months in the SDG Leadership Lab learning to go beyond existing systems to change their own ways of thinking, to question their assumptions and values. Tamesis admits that for all the good that came out of the first lab – opening hearts and minds, changing behaviors, culture, and systems, and prototyping innovations for programming development projects in new ways – the experiment “failed” because people went back to their old ways in their assigned positions, and the prototypes they created didn’t align with those of the organization. But in reality, it wasn’t a failure at all, but instead the beginning of building a different future.

“It created a great deal of leadership, goodwill, and team spirit,” she says. “And I will say that without the foundation of the SDG Leadership Lab, we wouldn’t have been able to mobilize quickly and put away all our previous assumptions and experience about responding to a humanitarian crisis like COVID.”

The SDG Lab inspired a new phase in this work: Cambodia Futures Lab, which has expanded the work beyond the UN country team. They’ve brought in next-generation leaders – who Tamesis describes as the next possible Ministers – civil society, and the private sector.

“Civil society and government need to do better at talking to each other; it’s a very hierarchical and political context,” Tamesis says. “We began building an understanding that we can create a safe space to be free to share our ideas without being judged. It’s a starting point of open conversation, which is the basis of moving forward with transformational leadership.”

What’s more, bringing together people with so many unique perspectives reflects the UN’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Although Tamesis admits more needs to be done across the UN to achieve true diversity and inclusion, identifying gaps – and opportunities – is part of that commitment. She sees foresight as one aspect of that work.

It’s also important to note that the SDG Leadership Labs were never intended to be held only in Cambodia and Uganda. The Development Coordination Office, which oversees UN country teams and Resident Coordinators, has launched the second phase of SDG Leadership Lab pilots in 20 countries, building on the initial learnings.

Backing imagination with information and data

Although the work of the SDG Leadership Labs is largely human-centered, it requires data and analysis to evaluate if their experiments are yielding any valuable ideas. UN Global Pulse (UNGP) Finland is playing a significant role in that. In addition to supporting Cambodia’s organizational change efforts and a country team retreat being held in February, UNGP is also providing technical rigor.

For example, Tamesis recognized the need to move beyond “blue-sky thinking,” as she calls it, and look at evidence. She asked UNGP Finland to run a series of experiments with the team in Cambodia to become more data-informed and anticipatory in not only strategy, but also planning and implementation. To do that, UNGP Finland broke down various areas of work. One was building future scenarios to broaden the team’s understanding of plausible as well as emergent opportunities and threats.

Tamesis says this began with their existing crisis risk dashboard, which looks at traditional risks such as conflict, civil strife, disasters, health, and more. But then they began overlaying that data with indicators of poverty, vulnerability, and human rights violations. UNGP Finland is also weaving in data from sources including the government and social media to gain a more diverse view of the data landscape.

“We mapped it with different multidimensional indicators that will allow us to see vulnerability, poverty – where we should be focusing in a different way,” Tamesis explains. “We’re using data in ways we’ve never used it before, and are mapping it across SDG indicators as part of the effort to see how we can use information, data evidence, learning, and artificial intelligence. We’re not there yet, but it’s a culture of experimentation and building new tools.”

UNGP Finland is also helping Tamesis and her team sharpen their ability to anticipate future scenarios, through what’s known as “threatcasting.” This activity looks at an emerging issue – such as the upcoming 2023 general election in Cambodia – and conducts exercises with stakeholders or people taking on the role of those stakeholders. The goal is gathering the widest possible range of assumptions. Exercises are run multiple times to see how people might react to different actions or major events, much like a test run. The goal is to develop intuition, habit, and more healthy reflexes to be prepared to address alternative futures as they emerge.

In addition, UNGP Finland is helping Cambodia’s country operation develop a long-term vision, looking at issues such as global catastrophic risks like climate change and climate security. The goal is to make sure the data ecosystem can support decision-making – including foresight-informed decision-making. But UNGP Finland is equally invested in Tamesis’ goal of partnering with other organizations, especially around data innovation and the use of real-time data sets. Ultimately, it’s part of a broader effort to see how foresight can support a variety of UN contexts, including the Common Agenda.

Uncovering optimism and hope for the future

There have been other simple experiments, too, including a game Tamesis led when giving a talk to a group of young Cambodians. In the game, participants are asked to stand in a quadrant that ultimately reveals who feel most optimistic and empowered about their future, and those who feel pessimistic and least able to change course, or somewhere in between.

“Guess who had power and optimism? Young people,” Tamesis says. “This is the quadrant for ‘radical hope,’ and it’s the young people who have radical hope. It’s my inspiration. So if it is about the next generation, how can the UN create this enabling environment for the young generation not to lose hope and optimism, and give them the tools that will continuously expand their power?”

Building the UN of the future will require every area of the UN development system to move toward new ways of working, innovation, and systems change – to have foresight. What’s more, it’s not only the UN. It’s also the governments and partners the organization works with. UNGP Finland is working on ways to measure the success of the various experiments so far.

Although she’s eager for results, too, Tamesis remains keenly focused on the power of transformational leadership.

“I want us to use transformative leadership through collaboration, learning, and innovation,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s about the difference we make in the quality, impact, and reach of our programs. Being able to identify who the most vulnerable populations are – and building relationships with people in positions of authority who can influence outcomes – while continually being able to better anticipate and shape the future is what will make a difference in people’s lives.”

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