Building Actionable Knowledge to Make UN’s Vision of the Future a Reality

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A training programme led by UN Global Pulse is creating a community of practice for infusing foresight into every UN agency.

There’s no stopping the future from arriving, and in today’s rapidly evolving world there are two ways to perceive the future: as a runaway train hurtling toward us or as an opportunity to embrace in the pursuit of addressing what the world needs. If we approach it from the latter point of view – which includes understanding there are many possible futures and we have a responsibility to shape what’s emerging – is it possible to use the future in an innovative, strategic, and participatory manner to facilitate collaborative action?

That’s a question frequently considered by UN Global Pulse (UNGP). And now it’s a question being asked by colleagues across the UN who participated in a new approach to professional training created by UNGP. The programme is designed to align with scenarios around the world that are increasingly more complex and uncertain. 

As part of the UN Common Agenda – the Secretary-General’s vision for a future of global cooperation – everyone across the UN must learn to make contemplating the future part of everything the organization does. Embedding the future into the daily practices of planning, strategy, and implementation represents a profound mindset shift for the UN as an institution. 

UNGP already leads efforts to build foresight capabilities of other UN colleagues, and the new training programme is designed to support bringing it to every UN agency. The training is action-oriented, ensuring that learning can be transformed into real-world solutions. It’s also focused on establishing and reinforcing mindsets and behaviours that support the shift to building a futures-oriented organization. 

UNGP worked with two partners to create the training programme: “Foresight for Systems Change.” The theory of change that underpins the programme is that “the curriculum will build a cohort of foresight practitioners and experiment leaders that could catalyse system-wide transformation, providing a common language and pragmatic interventions that will help sew futures and foresight into the workings of the UN.” 

Tiina Neuvonen, Strategic Foresight lead at UNGP, says that now is the time for UN entities to be more intentional about taking a forward-looking approach. “As our Common Agenda urges, we have a choice between either a ‘breakdown’ or ‘breakthrough’ scenario – but we need to act now,” she says. “Foresight offers the tools we need for breakthroughs to start radically changing the business as usual, including the UN itself as an institution and how we approach our programmatic work.”

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“As our Common Agenda urges, we have a choice between either a ‘breakdown’ or ‘breakthrough’ scenario – but we need to act now. Foresight offers the tools we need for breakthroughs to start radically changing the business as usual, including the UN itself as an institution and how we approach our programmatic work.”

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As Neuvonen explains, to have a real impact, foresight can’t be outsourced. Capacity-building within the organization is critical, as is experimentation in a real-life setting. Experimentation is the key to discovering what works and what doesn’t in the UN, so effective solutions can be applied to daily operations. What’s more, foresight must go beyond single mandates and siloes to identify a broader systems view that is essential to driving transformative efforts that strengthen system-wide collaboration. 

Designing a programme to train future foresight ambassadors

The goal of building a community of practitioners within the UN drove the development of the programme, which UNGP created with the School of International Futures (SOIF) and the International Training Centre of the International Labour Organization (ITCILO)

According to Marius Oosthuizen, Ph.D., Practice Lead for Learning and Organizational Transformation at SOIF, the organization – which considers itself a network of practitioners – exists to enable diverse voices to participate in future-oriented conversations, or foresight, for societal impact. 

“UNGP was being called upon within the UN to be a catalyst for the use of foresight to create a more relevant and impactful UN,” he explains. “That’s very closely aligned with our own values of engaging diverse voices in long-term thinking, and using foresight methods and approaches as a mechanism to make real impact.”

Claudia Sáenz, Senior Analyst, Strategic Foresight at UNGP Finland, emphasises the programme’s focus on diversity. 

“There is not a one-size-fits-all future,” she says. “We want everyone to embrace the principles of diverse and inclusive foresight, recognizing that there are multiple futures and we can all work together to achieve pluralistic decision-making.”

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“There is not a one-size-fits-all future. We want everyone to embrace the principles of diverse and inclusive foresight, recognizing that there are multiple futures and we can all work together to achieve pluralistic decision-making.”

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An essential aspect of the programme is that even before the first cohort of the four-module training began earlier this year, the more than 120 participants were asked to propose their own experiments on ways to use foresight approaches in the UN and beyond. The ideas covered areas such as crisis response, policy-making, and operations and planning. This provided context for the concepts being provided during the training, and the idea is that experiments will continue after participants have completed the programme.  

Infusing foresight into everyday thinking and action

Ultimately, the programme is designed to instil foresight thinking into participants so it becomes second nature.

“When I teach about this or explain it, I often contrast the two concepts of foresight and hindsight, and then in the middle you have this idea of insight,” Oosthuizen says. “Legacy institutions like the UN tend to be very good at hindsight and insight, but they can get very challenged when they are confronted with high levels of rapid contextual change. We are now in an environment where there’s lots of turbulence and unexpected change – lots of crises in quick succession.”

He says the critical value of the training may be giving participants an opportunity to develop a different mindset: a foresight mindset. Oosthuizen describes it as “an understanding that you can operate on the basis of the future – that you can actually use the future as a conceptual space to think about your next move, your policy choices, your programmatic choices. What flows from that is that the UN can draw on foresight tools and methods to make a foresight mindset a reality in their everyday work.”

The 13-week programme was first delivered in four modules between April and June, each designed to balance concepts, theories, and practice with real-world application – ensuring participants came away from the programme with the skills to put what they learned into practice. What’s more, the training prepared them to share those skills with their colleagues and partners to benefit the broader organization. 

Curating a human-centred approach to foresight training

The programme kicked off with an introductory session in March, during which participants learned how the programme would work and could choose one of two learning paths that would best suit their needs, says Delphine Dall’Agata, Associate Programme Officer for ITCILO. Some chose to immerse themselves in the full training, working with the instructors and each other in real time throughout the course, while others were involved as “microlearners.” 

Studies show that participants today generally only have 1% of their work week dedicated to training and development. Microlearning is a way to fill that 1% with practical, to-the-point information. After each module, microlearners received a newsletter linked to digestible learning items with details on the module that shared what other participants learned and how they were applying it to their experiments. They received short videos, easy-to-reference infographics, and other bite-sized materials to expose them to the key concepts of foresight to use in their work when they wanted, where they wanted. 

Both full and micro modules were iteratively built on the one before it, starting by asking participants to consider how they define foresight and presenting key concepts and experimentation techniques. Armed with a foundation, participants went on to engage with more advanced ideas for a flexible learning experience.

“Participants learned about the nature of change and complexity,” Dall’Agata explains, “digging deeper into drivers of change and systems thinking, how to develop alternative futures, and starting to grasp how to apply foresight in everyday practice within their work context.”

Importantly, participants learned how to explore multiple future scenarios and the implications of those alternative futures. For example, if a new humanitarian crisis were to emerge – such as the Ukraine crisis, which started just before the programme began – what potential scenarios might emerge? From there, participants explored linking each potential implication to strategies and action.

Keeping learners at the centre throughout the programme, the training team used learning platform analytics, webinar participation, and qualitative feedback on a monthly basis to inform the development of each module. This agile, data-driven approach allowed the trainers to listen and adapt to learners’ behaviours and needs in real time.  

The training concluded with participants exploring anticipatory policy development and local and global governance. Participants also learned about interdisciplinary application of foresight: not using it in isolation, but in combination with data science, behavioural science, and innovation theory. 

By the end of the programme, participants produced a full set of foresights in real time, along with refined experiments they can present to UNGP for potential funding to develop into concrete projects at their agency. They are also encouraged to continue their experiments as part of their work, collaborating and sharing back to the community.

Establishing a community of practice for foresight across the UN

A survey conducted at the end of the training demonstrated that 80% of participants clearly understood the concept of foresight. What’s more, 73% felt empowered to infuse their work with foresight and share the concepts with their colleagues. These ambassadors can help create communities of practice at their agencies, a critical step in transforming the UN into a more forward-looking organization, one team at a time. 

Pius Kavuma Mugagga, a Data Engineer at UNGP’s Pulse Lab Kampala, is an excellent example. He wasn’t able to join many of the sessions live but absorbed much of the material from a colleague who did. He’s proof that participants at all levels gained valuable knowledge.

“I really didn’t understand much about what futures and foresight was all about – I had my own perception of what it was,” Mugagga says. “But during the journey I got to learn about different templates I can use to look at possible scenarios on the horizon.”

What’s more, he says, Pulse Lab Kampala plans to incorporate futures and foresight thinking and methodologies when engaging with partners, such as ministries of government, to agree on why a project needs to be done and the potential outcomes. A follow-up activity that applies foresight to support the development of national data strategy is already planned. 

Participation emerged as a key enabler of foresight with impact. “You can start on a beautiful project and work on it and then present it to potential partners,” Mugagga explains, “but if they weren’t involved in the initial phases they don’t seem to properly buy into it, which causes the project to end its full potential.”

James Coltheart, a Programme Management Officer at the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA), says his work already involves a deliberate horizon scanning function.

“This training has given me a lot of ideas about how we can enhance that and then deliver on the aims of our forward-looking process,” he says. “My key takeaway really reflected on a structured process for end-seeing and then understanding foresight – a collection of tools I can apply to my existing work processes in a practical way.”

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“This training has given me a lot of ideas about how we can enhance that and then deliver on the aims of our forward-looking process. My key takeaway really reflected on a structured process for end-seeing and then understanding foresight – a collection of tools I can apply to my existing work processes in a practical way.”

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These two participants exemplify what Oosthuizen calls an “unspoken goal” of the programme. “We tried to create ambassadors for foresight that are connected to each other in a community of learning and practice,” he says.

Sáenz adds that this training was simply the first step. “Our mindset is not just futures and foresight,” she says. “It’s that we want to continue to do this together in an inclusive, diverse way.”

Moving forward, she says, there are four steps for actions identified by the participants based on their input about what they learned. These steps are readiness, reflection – learning and unlearning at the same time, as Sáenz puts it – convening by identifying the right people to engage, and taking action by questioning, and re-questioning, what an individual or group’s experiment is all about.

Some participants already have a full-fledged experiment ready to implement, while for others the training has planted the seed that can be nurtured over time, Dall’Agata says. 

“I think the beauty of foresight is that it’s so interdisciplinary, and it’s a cross-cutting skill set that every human needs to be aware of and ready to implement,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter what your background is, what organization you’re working in, which country you’re in – everybody has a future. I think people are aware of the importance of being able to imagine these alternative futures and start thinking about how you, your organization, or your team would react and adapt to different situations and come out more resilient.”

UNGP intends to launch its second cohort and similar learning opportunities in the fall. 

Watch for additional stories on the programme, including a report on the first cohort’s experiments.

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