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Keynote Address | Futures Week 2022

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Futures Week is an annual event that allows policy and foresight practitioners both within and outside of government to explore the future. Futures Week 2022 was held May 31 – June 2, 2022.

How governments can use strategic foresight to shape a better future.


Alexis Conrad, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Employment and Social Development Canada
Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President for Inter-institutional Relations and Foresight, European Commission


ALEXIS CONRAD: Welcome, everyone, to Futures Week. It is an honor to have with us Mr. Vice President Maroš Šefcovic, who is the Vice-President for Inter-institutional Relations and Foresight at the European Commission. I wish we could welcome you in Ottawa in person. You know Ottawa well, as you lived here in your earlier career.

I had the pleasure of meeting the Vice President at the ESPAS 2019 conference in Brussels. At that time, it was the first time foresight was made an explicit mandate within the European Union at the commissioner level and you took on that responsibility. We are now two and a half years later. And it is impressive to see how much foresight has spread and advanced. I would like to congratulate you for all your work. We really look forward to hearing you talk about your experience, what you are doing and what policy impacts you are seeing within the European Commission.

Before you do, let me further introduce you to our audience. Vice-President Šefcovic is a Slovak diplomat, and is the European Commissioner with the longest tenure. While he is now in charge of Inter-institutional Relations and Foresight, he is also responsible for the European Battery Alliance, and the European Union’s relations with Western non-EU countries. He is also strongly involved with Brexit matters, as he is the co-chairs the EU-UK Partnership Council under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the EU-UK Joint Committee for the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.

I am sure your vast experience across your career, in a broad range of policy domains and across geographies, is valuable to anticipate change that might come from unexpected places and to bring it into decision-making. We look forward to hearing you share how the European Commission is embedding strategic foresight into its policy making, including in response to major crises and megatrends affecting our world.

Over to you, sir.

MAROŠ ŠEFČOVIČ: Thank you very much. Good morning to everyone. It’s a great pleasure for me to be able to speak to you as I’ve said earlier, Alexis, I have many fine memories of Ottawa, Canada, where my daughters were at school and I began my career as a Slovak diplomat almost 30 years ago.

Thank you very much for your kind invitation and I was very eager to participate in all these I understand such a trademark event for Canada, for your think tankers, for your civil service, and for discussing future and really being part of the future of Canada’s Futures Week.

And I think that indeed the timing of your debates is really impeccable because we haven’t had so many things happening at the same time like over the last couple of months. Of course, the most striking and the most shocking even if you look at it is the fact that war after 70 years has returned to Europe. And that we are witnessing with this Russian’s unjustified invasion in Europe and it pushes us to locate many paradigms, many of the parameters, many of the rules which we believe are globally-based from the new angles.

What we see is the mega trend which definitely would be forming our policies are the mega trends that have accelerated by this unjustified war against Ukraine and also by the recent COVID crisis. We already have spotted in our foresight reports over the last years that we will have to grapple with what appears would be the global food prices crisis because already we are now at an all-time high if it comes to prices for wheat, oil, corn, grains. And we see that more than 300 big ships of Ukrainian grain are blocked in the Black Sea ports and now we are doing our utmost to find a way how we can transport this traditionally Ukrainian exports to customers via different ports, via trains, via different routes, so that they will reach the customers and this will not additional artificially increase the prices by the geopolitical calculations.

We have seen how the supply chains are changed after pandemic. From one day to another, we have seen that planes are not flying, ships are not sailing, and even in Europe, we’ve had to put a lot of effort as a commission to make sure that our borders remain open for trucks and for the supplies.

And all this is kind of creating what we call the fog of uncertainty for policy makers, for business leaders, but also for investors. And, of course, we in Europe and I think that in North American continent, in Canada, it would be the same. Feel very strong inflation pressures, driven mostly by high energy prices which, of course, we are ready to sustain, ready to grapple with, because we just need to continue with severe sanctions against Russia and, of course, the most painful of them are concerning not only financial sectors but, of course, energy supplies and I will come to this in a second.

So after this introductory remarks, I really would like to underscore how important it is and how we’re thankful as Europeans to Canada and Canadians for, indeed, standing shoulder to shoulder with us in this common international effort to help Ukrainians to fight in unjustified war and to help the brave Ukrainian people to win this war because they deserve all our support.

If you look at the wider geopolitical context, the war in Ukraine is kind of culmination of the trends which have been already spotting for some time. We have seen that the democracies around the world are under a lot of pressure, that if you look at the situation which we had, for example, ten years ago in 2011, at that time we have seen that the world population living in autocracies was representing around 49%.

Unfortunately, today the picture is much worse. According to different rankings and different analysts, now we have up to 70% of the global population which is living under certain type of autocratic regimes in countries around the world. It’s more than 5 billion people and this is, of course, challenge for all of us because we know our democracies will be under pressure and that we have to win this very important battle for democracy and for our values.

What is, of course, worrying, that many of the G20 countries are among the top decliners and very often we spot the same patterns that tend to support autocracy, starting with attacks on the media, on the civil society, then it pushes through the wider polarization among the people, spread of misinformation, and finally it leads to the undermining of the formal institutions. And we see this pattern unfortunately be repeated in different countries around the world and therefore I think that the democratic countries like Canada and countries of the European Union have to really work very closely together to fight off these tendencies.

And I think that also this very clear example kind of underscores what the political scientists are bringing to the forefront so that when they’re locking at the present times but also into the future, very often they’re talking about brittle, anxious, nonlinear, and incomprehensible to qualify the current reality — they invented this new abbreviation of money. Or what I describe as we are living through right now, it’s kind of new geopolitical super cycle starting to show what kind of big debates we will have between multilateral issues, between democracies, and autocracies, between the market, social oriented economy and simply autocratic systems where, of course, the state and the elite are the governing factors in how the economy would be shaped.

So I think despite all of this definitely there is no time to despair and just to quote Marie Curie, “Now is the time to understand more, so we would fear less, and that we would understand what the future may bring to us.” Therefore, the work of Canada’s future, therefore the foresight work we do in Europe are so important because they are opening to policy makers the different scenarios, different perspective, and it helps us to prepare with a better decision.

What I like to suggest to you as our close transAtlantic partners is I would say close co-operation and more frequent exchange on horizons scanning. It would be very good to see your perspective, what you as Atlantic and Pacific country at the same time with Arctic circle perspective see as new phenomena emerging on the horizon. And we can compare the notes what we see on our screens. And I was asked by our president to inform regularly my colleagues, commissioners, and we are thinking about probably, you know, three, four times a year to prepare such a short horizon scanning analysis so we could share this perspective, this new challenge, these new tendencies with our colleagues so we would be better prepared for the future.

To be a little bit more concrete, what we are talking about just to give you a few examples on our horizon scanning. Clearly one which is very much on our radar screen is all the challenges linked with the population growth. Because here, we are fully aware this Europe’s population could drop as low as 4% by 2050, but to the contrary, subsaharan African population could quadruple at the same time.

Then, of course, we have to look at the phenomenon of aging population where we would expect that Europe will see its population of those over 65 rise from 90 to 130 million already by 2050 and, of course, this presents continued challenges for social insurance system, for pension policies, for health care, and others areas cloesly linked with this tendency.

Then, of course, we have to find good answers to how to deal with accelerating urbanization because we expect that the global population in 50 years would live predominantly in the cities. We expect around 60% of the people would live in the cities which, of course, is bringing all kinds of new developments because you have to be aware of and then last example I would use would be migration.

If you look at international migrants in the world, this number has doubled in the past 20 years. Was reaching 281 million people in 2020, and we see that there is also dramatic increase in asylum seekers rising from 13 to 24 million and mostly it was driven in 2020 by Syria and Venezuela but now, of course, the new phenomenon, Ukrainian refugee and the latest number of Ukrainian refugees in European Union is 6.2 million. And I have to say they came in the course of the last 70 days so you can imagine the challenge for the neighboring countries, but also for the whole E.U. and for our system to help the Ukrainian refugees predominantly, women, children, to open schools, to open preschool facilities, to provide the health care, to open our labour market, just to make sure that the people of Ukraine feel welcome and will find all they need, a good care until they can come back hopefully to the peaceful Ukraine.

Maybe the last point because I know that I’m also talking to the policy makers. When we are discussing with my colleagues how to make the foresight and horizon scanning useful to the political level, I’m also highlighting that it has certain objective. First, it has to be strategic. It means that it has to lead to the decisions of the policy makers. It has to be actionable. So it means that it can be as concrete as possible. What we are suggesting we should do by this horizon scanning.

So it has to have very strong practicality, not to become only academic exercise because we know how many had pages every policy maker and decision taker has to read and therefore we have to filter very carefully what we want to bring to the table of the policy makers and decision makers so they well-informed when they are taking their decisions.

And to here, I would say it would be something which I think very useful for both Canada and the European Union to compare the notes, how we are working with horizon scanning results, what you do in the practical use of the foresight so we can learn from each other. And, of course, we are looking forward to the Canada’s participation in our next foresight conference.

So once again, thank you very much. Thank you very much for the invitation, for giving me this opportunity to share our opinions and views on such an important topic, such as foresight and horizon scanning and of course, if there are questions, I would be very happy to reply to them. Thank you.

ALEXIS CONRAD: Vice President, thank you so much for your thoughtful and informative remarks. We have a few minutes. I’m going to put a couple of questions to you if I can, just picking up some of the themes that you mentioned during your speech. The first one and you talked a little bit about this.

Last year, at the Annual ESPAS Conference, you talked about a more global perspective on foresight. Can you can expand on that a little bit more and tell us more about what the commission is doing in this regard and what more can be done?

MAROŠ ŠEFČOVIČ: Yeah, on the global perspective, I think that was also the topic which we discussed with the chair of the United States national intelligence council that we would very much benefit and that’s also my proposal to Canada, to kind of enrich each other with this perspective from let’s say other sides of the ocean.

Do we analyze, do we see, you know, these mega trends and this horizons scanning with the same lenses? Do we have the same perspective? Do we attach the same crucial importance on this tendencies?

And that — I would like to — this is what I suggest, to have it as practical as possible just to make sure that when our leaders are, you know, adopting the decisions, that they are properly informed, that the perspective from I would say this major democratic actors is pointing to the same direction. So that would be I would say one angle.

What we are doing in Europe, we set up the network of ministers for the future. So I’m very glad that all our 27 member states nominated a minister who is kind of looking after the foresight, the planning for the future. And, of course, around these ministers, there are the foresight cells connected to the different think tanks and research institutes and this is how we’re trying to harness what we already have in Europe and, of course, what we are ready to share with our partners like Canada.

And I thought that, of course, the natural thing would be start with kind of transAtlantic foresight alliance with you, with our American friends, but I think we would also benefit a lot for some of our analyses or insights if you could confirm also with our friends and colleagues in Japan because we see that a lot is happening this in Pacific, a lot is happening in Asia. We see more and more important the Chinese factors and the global policies.

Therefore, I thought to have such a trusted sources and good colleagues on this I would say global scale would really help us to have kind of vetted, be it horizon scanning or vetted analysis which would be beneficial for our leaders. So this is what I was addressing the last time.

ALEXIS CONRAD: That’s excellent. Thanks so much. and I do love the idea of working more closely together on things. You know, we’ve gone through a period of time obviously where we’ve been, you know, stayed at home and I think we are starting to see the world in a lot of ways come together again and if we can pick up some of those conversations and push them further forward, I think we’ll collectively be the better for it so thank you.

You talked about giving political decision makers strategic, information actionable items concrete items which I wholly support even though it’s a challenge. Do you feel that the political decision makers are open to those kind of conversations and they’re alert to the fact that foresight is something they need to be thinking about, you know, rather than thinking about tomorrow, they need to think about years ahead.

Are they ready for that kind of conversation?

MAROŠ ŠEFČOVIČ: I think this is clearly the process. What I would say is that the tendency and perspective is positive. In Canada, you pay lot of attention to foresight. When I was in United States, they have developed I would say the whole structure of the analysts, how they are looking into the future and here in European Union, we have now almost at every prime minister’s office, there is a cell of experts who are kind of bringing this information to the Prime Minister.

What I think is very important, though, is to — how to put it?

Not to abuse the attention of the leaders and bring them the information which they feel are useful, are important for the future decisions.

To give you the example, after first months of COVID crisis in Europe, we presented our foresight report and we very much focused on resilience because we realized that we simply outsource almost all production of certain, you know, medications like paracetamol to India, that we are not manufacturing the health masks anymore and I can give you a lot of examples of this kind.

And simply, we also based on that report kind of enlarged our basic policy pillars for this commission from being green and digital but also being resilient. Our last report was kind of extrapolation of the further lessons learned because we realized that suddenly not only certain manufactured products but also our dependencies, for example, on the critical raw materials which we need for any future technologies. We are talking about prototype panels, batteries, about drone, about aerospace industry, about electric motors.

We simply realized that for all of that, we need the critical raw materials where in many of them, we are more dependent on one source than we became dependent on Russia if it comes to the fuel cells. And it clearly calls for diversification, for better recycling, for a new industry to be developed in Europe just to make sure we are not limited in our development by the like of critical infrastructures.

And that led to another I would say policy shift where we are talking about open strategy, simply to be more aware what we need to do. In Europe, where we can ensure our economies and supply chains with the friendly countries like Canada, like United States, and what we believe would be as a critical necessity to simply have on the European continent.

There is one challenge for all foresighters and that’s the challenge, how and when to bring what I think Al Gore describes so eloquently as the inconvenient truth. Prime ministers or presidents are people who deal with a lot of challenges, they’re solving problems every day, and you might inform them about the tendency which, of course, it’s not always positive, it might be negative, and therefore what I want to say is that we have to bring to the table not only the pointers to the problems, but also the suggestions, how we can address them before they become critical.

So that’s a little bit what we have to learn as foresighters, not only to point to the tendencies but also to suggests the solutions and I think that’s the critical in leaders being even more prone to use the foresight for their practical decision making.

ALEXIS CONRAD: That’s excellent. So I’m going to just ask one more question. I did I know you’re stretched for time but I can’t resist and I think it would be a shame to spend time with you and not kind of push a little bit more on, you know, the unjust war that Russia is causing in Ukraine. That’s obviously a very military-based geopolitical crisis.

Are there things we can learn from what’s happening there and what led up to it as a foresight community that we can build in a little bit more as we go forward? Or is that something that’s just so realpolitik that foresight is really not a helpful tool?

MAROŠ ŠEFČOVIČ: I think that in this case also, I think the foresight is quite a useful tool because I think we have seen the tendencies, how democracies are under pressure. And I deal a lot with Ukraine and my personal assessment is that actually Ukraine become more democratic, more prosperous, closer to west was the reason why the Russian leadership decided to attack Ukraine.

They just simply couldn’t tolerate. They would have democratic, prosperous, promising country on their borders with totally different vocation and different ambitions than the Russian leadership could foresee. The lessons learned from the crisis is that never take this for granted. And should apply to the political level but also to our militaries because if you lock at different doctrines which are now feverishly being rewritten in Europe.

So for most of our military analysts, the conclusion was very clear. War will not return to the European continent.

We need more expedition, military forces, to do the peacekeeping missions far from Europe and therefore, for example, we do not need to have a hardware, we do not need the tanks, we do not need, you know, heavy weapons because we need something which is live, which is transportable because we would be mostly involved in peacekeeping operations.

And now we see that it was a mistake.

That how much we need in artillery, how much we need in aviation, how much you need to, you know, antimissiles systems. And the fact is that here the transAtlantic community and the NATO and the E.U. reacted with great speed and I can tell you that we need had a better fortified eastern flank of Europe.

I see it in my country, Slovakia. We have now four or five different systems deployed against missiles. We have all the military world is really focusing on to make sure that we will provide the necessary support to Ukraine and be absolutely resolve to defend every inch of the NATO countries territory and I think that was very important message for the future.

The last lesson I would mention is that unfortunately, this war is proving that we see the weaponization of everything, weaponization of data, weaponization of grain, weaponization of food, weaponization of internet systems, and for the first time, the Russian armed forces have been using all combination of sea, air, land attack, together with cyber attacks on Ukraine and they are still using extremely skillfully different propaganda tools for spreading the false narrative in Africa and Latin America countries where they’re blaming Europe or the west for increased energy prices or for increased food crisis, despite it being them who is blocking the wheat in Ukrainian ports.

So that’s I think the lessons learned that we have to put away our peaceful glasses and look at all new technologies and all traditional instruments, how they can be weaponized because if they can, they probably will.

And therefore I think that this in these times, our transAtlantic alliance and co-operation is needed as ever.

ALEXIS CONRAD: Vice-president, thank you so much for a really insightful discussion, for patiently answering my questions. And really kind of giving uses a sense of, you know, how foresight is being used and how it can be used in the future. You’re speaking to a wide variety of people from across the Government of Canada and around the world who have different roles. For me, I’m very — I very much appreciate your thoughts on how we talk to decision makers and how we weave foresight into the narrative and conversations when decisions are being made. So thank you.

But others no doubt took away many, many, many other things and so did I. So it’s fantastic. We’re always happy to speaking to our foresight partners around the world. Thank you for having been here today and explaining to us how foresight can be useful for planning and future policies.

A sincere thank you for taking time out of your very busy day and spending it with us. It was time well spent for us. Thank you.

MAROŠ ŠEFČOVIČ: Thank you very much.

ALEXIS CONRAD: Kristel, I think we’re turning back to you.

KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: Yeah. Thank you very much, vice-president, for sharing all the vast experience that you have over the last years doing foresight with the European Commission and we certainly look forward to participating at the ESPAS conference in the fall, hopefully in-person if it permits.

Thank you so much. Alexis, thank you also so much for being here with us today.

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Policy Horizons | Horizons de politiques

Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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