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Foresight from around the world: Public sector perspectives | Futures Week 2023

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Futures Week is an annual virtual conference that allows participants to explore the future. Futures Week 2023 was held May 16 – 18, 2023.

A conversation among government foresight leaders about the futures and disruptions they are exploring.


  • Kristel Van der Elst, Director General, Policy Horizons Canada


  • Victor Israel, Head of the National Intelligence Directorate, Ministry of Intelligence, Israel
  • Jeanette Kwek, Head, Centre for Strategic Futures, Strategy Group, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore
  • Maria Langan-Riekhof, Director, Strategic Futures Group, National Intelligence Council, United States
  • Stephen Quest, Director-General, Joint Research Centre, European Commission


[Imran Arshad] So let’s get started with the first session, Foresight From Around the World: Public Sector Perspectives.

[Kristel Van der Elst] Welcome to our session on foresight for the public sector around the world. We are pleased to welcome today the leaders of government foresight organizations from across the world to hear about the futures and disruptions they are exploring. So at Policy Horizons we have and we always do explore kind of disruptions on the horizon for Canada, such as the biodigital convergence, the impact of technology on society, including generative A.I., the changes in people’s lives, some of the underlying dynamics that might potentially threaten democracy and social cohesion, just to name a few. But we are here in this session to hear from other government foresight organizations from around the world. And so we’re really thrilled to have with us four amazing speakers and four amazing foresight professionals. So thank you very much for being here. I am pleased to introduce our speakers. First of all, we have Jeanette Kwek. Jeanette is the head of the Center of Strategic Futures at the Strategic Group at the Prime Minister’s office in Singapore. Welcome Jeanette it’s good to see you. Maria Langan-Riekhof. She’s the director of Strategic Futures Group at the National Intelligence Council for the United States of America. Welcome, Maria. And we have Victor Israel, who is the head of the National Intelligence Directorate at the Ministry of Intelligence in Israel. Welcome, Victor. And last but not least, is with us here, Stephen Quest. He’s the director general of the Joint Research Center at the European Commission. Welcome. Stephen. Thank you very much. So welcome to all of you. And I suggest we immediately dive into conversations we all do foresight in government organizations. And in doing that, the futures we’re looking at are quite large. They’re diverse. We look at a lot of trends. We look at a lot of disruptions. We would like to hear from you today as to have an idea of what are some of the key developments that your four sites organizations are investigating. What are some of these key drivers of change that will change your society and our world? And why should we anticipate those? And so in order to hear first maybe from Jeanette, from Singapore. What is Singapore looking at next?

[Jeanette Kwek] Thanks very much, Kristel, and thanks very much for the invitation to join you today. I look forward to the rest of this conversation. A very quickly, let me talk about some of the work that the CSF has been doing in recent months. We’ve put together what we call the Driving Forces 2040 set of trends that we think will shape our global environment over the next 20 years. It is a set of 17 trends which cover a range of different domains. And so when we think about this set of 17 trends, five big themes kind of jump out from the stories these trends are telling. And these are the themes that kind of underpin a lot of the research that the center is currently doing today. The first theme is this question of an emerging domain that we call the digi-real that exists at the border between the physical world and the digital world and it’s kind of both and neither. Some of the big questions we are asking ourselves is how will future societies then move between the physical and digital space or whether that distinction will even have meaning in the future? And what impact does that have for governments and their relationships with citizens, relationships with each other? The second big theme is kind of a whiplash from the first one, and it is that even as the digital becomes more important, physical constraints that we face remain relevant. My favorite tagline from this theme is, “You cannot eat a virtual hamburger, at least not today.” And so we still have to bear in mind questions of carbon constraints and the impact of climate change on human populations and effects that that will have on governments and societies. The third theme arises around the question of power and influence and how it is generated, who has it and how it’s used in the future, especially as new actors are emerging and new relationships are being formed. One particular question for us, for Singapore, in this space is the relationship between cities and urban and urban conglomerations, because we are both a city and a state and have to navigate that space as it evolves. The fourth big theme, I will confess emerged very sharply because we were doing this research during the height of the COVID pandemic, and it was around this question of how interconnectedness and interdependence was going to evolve over the next 20 years. How goods, services and international systems are connected, and how linkages between people across borders are evolving are very salient to a society and economy like Singapore’s, which makes its living on basically the interconnectedness of the international system. How might institutions respond to changes in interdependence? The last big theme that we are asking is my favorite, in part because it is the cheat that underpins all of these four themes that come before. It is a recognition that as all of these disruptions are playing out, they are forcing societies to renegotiate what values and beliefs hold us together. They are challenging existing visions of a shared future. Our conceptions of what our mutual obligations are to each other within societies and what shared objectives or goals might exist. As we look towards the future. So how will then the social compact between public, private and people sectors evolve over the next 20 years is really the big question underpinning all of these discussions that are coming at us. So those are kind of the big buckets of work that we are looking at at the CSF.

[Kristel] Thank you so much, Jeanette, for sharing your Singapore view. Victor, what it is Israel looking at.

[Victor Israel] Hi. Hello to everyone. I have the honour to be with you today. I want to share with you a one of the most problematic topic we are focusing in our categorizing mechanism in the great power competition between the United States and China in the centre. Each side is actively shaping its power of influence and striving to prevent the other sides. but this competition has a profound impact on various global issues for us, also ranging from the economy and the geopolitics to technology and society. Our predictions for the coming years anticipate an increase in global decoupling and anti-globalization. This trend will result in disruption to supply chains, technology and the economy, including challenges to the status of the US dollar as the world’s primary trade, the currency often referred to as the dollarization trend. Additionally, we observe a growing number of barriers and restrictions impeding the flow of information and knowledge between states, as have been witnessed in recent decades. In addition to the economic and technological competition, we identified two relatively new dimension military and ideological. The international arena is witnessing a return to strategic calculation and maneuvering through great power competition. The military balance encompassing nuclear capabilities and military tensions will play an increasingly significant, significant role in shaping state relations ideologically. We observe a powerful central model represented by China challenging the liberal democracy model as a preferred formula for social progress in science and technology. With the emergence of these two new dimensions, the competition gradually transforms into rivalry. This intensifying rivalry and decoupling increases the negative consequences of megatrends, such as climate change and the rapid advance advancement of technology, thereby increasing the likelihood of crisis in food security and energy security, supply chain disruptions and social inequality. We live in a tightly interconnected global village where events in one region quickly impact the rest of the world. If a crisis erupts in a remote area, there is a high likelihood that it will have a ripple effect. Moreover, the interconnections of the global wars means that the crisis in one domain can easily spread to other areas or domains. A divided world faces greater challenges. in effectively, addressing future crisis. Governments should incorporate the dynamics of great power competitions into the national security considerations and develop strategic plans that prioritize enhancing national resilience. That is the point of view of from Israel and the focusing on the great power competition.

[Kristel] Thank you so much, Victor. So it is quite appropriate to turn now to Maria Not to put you on the spot Maria.

[Maria Langan-Riekhof] Thank you Kristel. It’s a great opportunity to be part of this important program. And I’m really honoured to be on this panel with leaders of other governments, foresight and forecasting units. You know, I always learn so much, both on the methodological side, but also as we begin to share ideas about the trends and the stories that we’re seeing emerge. So from Washington, we are currently at the midway point in our global trends production cycle. We are two years since the publication of Global Trends 2040, a more contested world in which we really focused on the contestation in every level of analysis, from societies to within states to the international system. And we’re two years actually a little bit less until the publication of the next edition, which is going to be Global Trends 2045. This means we are in that divergent thinking phase of the analytic process. We’re trying to cast a really wide net for new ideas, changing trajectories of larger trends to stories about the potential future. So as we go out 20 years, we’re both looking at those major foundational forces that are shaping every region, but we’re also looking for those kind of emerging stories. So let me name a couple and kind of each each bucket. First, we are attempting to take a really fresh look at demographics and challenge some of our assumptions and long term assessments about demographic trends. I remember when we launched into Global Trends 2040 and I talked to demographers, I got as well. The trends haven’t really changed. You know, it’s kind of the same story, but we are starting to see some different forces at play and that will really play out in 20, 40, 50 years. The distribution of the global population could look quite different. So we’re working with political demographers to think about the next wave of aging countries. Now, unlike that first wave of aging countries in Europe and parts of Asia, the next set of aging countries are not all democracies. How do authoritarian leaders respond to the challenges of a contracting workforce or for caring for older populations when their number of young people are decreasing rapidly and overlay that with changes in longevity as people start to live longer and live better longer? How do they stay productive? So this leads into my second kind of foundational trend. I think we need to reconsider, and that is taking a closer look at education. Education is a major force that is going to shape dynamics within countries, especially human development and economic growth. For instance, Africa’s population is poised to double by 2050, but its median age is only likely to be about 22. So how are countries dealing with their different types of populations? How will individual countries educate and prepare their youth for the to be the workforce of the future? This is going to shape their possibilities for economic development. But on the flip side, with these aging countries, how do you retrain older populations to contribute longer to a more digital economy? It’s really hard to get at how populations and governments are thinking about education for the future and preparing for these major shifts. But it will shape how countries engage with each other, but also how they manage their populations and how they grow their own economies. So turning to kind of the emerging issues that we’re thinking about in a much different category, we’re also asking questions about the future of information entry. You know, as A.I. makes rapid strides in producing new content, how will we know what’s real? How will we know what is designed to influence and manipulate us? What will the struggle mean to societal cohesion? What will it mean to geopolitics? Relations between countries as different countries and different communities accept different versions of the truth. There are so many things to unpack when it comes to that information environment. I know my colleagues have kind of spoken of this in the last two presentations, so I think we’re only beginning to scratch the surface. So those are a few of the things we’re thinking about an alternative.

[Kristel] Thank you very much, Maria, for sharing the view from your long-lasting center of foresight at the US. Super, thank you. And last but not least, on the same question, Stephen, what is the European Commission looking at?

[Stephen Quest] Well, thanks so much, Kristel. And I’m really real pleasure to join you today for this for this panel. So the commission has developed a practice over the last few years of producing annual strategic foresight reports. And so I wanted to just give you a few messages that’s coming out of our work, which will be issuing in June of this year from the 23 report, which is focused on pathways towards a socially and economically sustainable Europe. So what we’re trying to unpack here is what are the implications that we have this very strong ambition to move towards a climate neutral European Union, but that transition is not sort of inevitably going to be successful. It’s got a lot of hard work to be done. So what are the implications of the adjustments we need to make? And what are the tensions and the trade offs? And we try to unpack that in the work that we’re doing. And I just wanted to give you maybe three headlines of what’s emerging from this thinking as we look ahead to 2050 at the intersections between the economic and the social and the challenges for sustainability. So it is not comprehensive in just a couple of messages. One one theme that emerges is around tensions in the global order. So we see we have a battle of narratives that emerges. And if you like, the traditional sort of European Union or perhaps Western narrative around, you know, liberal market economies and so on is being challenged more. And this in turn, this battle of the narratives leads to what we see is a battle of offers, because we see a more transactional approach emerging where partner countries swing around and navigate between different blocks to try and find the most advantageous positioning and partnerships. So movements between blocks and different tensions to navigate in that area. So that is that is one theme that we see emerging. Another is around inequalities. So within the European Union, we actually don’t see income inequality rising significantly. But what we do see is the sentiment or the feeling of inequality rising. So people feel that income inequality is too high and at the same time we are conscious that the climate transition we’re having to make is going to raise more inequalities and more hard work is needed and these impacts are not distributed evenly. You have socioeconomic differences and geographical differences. So here we see emerging what we’re calling a geography of discontent with inequalities both between member states, but more importantly, within Member States, across geographies and across boundaries. And a third theme that’s that’s been emerging is around intergenerational fairness becoming an increasingly salient issue, because we see fundamentally the prospects of the younger generations perhaps being less positive than we might have hoped. Less disposable income, poorer prospects, greater instability, and greater upcoming risks, you know, risks of extreme weather and so on. If you’re if you’re in the younger generation, you see that coming at you. So then we’re looking at what are the implications of that for our traditional models of intergenerational solidarity, which is one of the founding stones of our democratic processes. So the main message from all this is these are the kind of themes that are emerging which probably make the transitions we need to make harder when we need to be making the transitions faster, even deeper. So there’s some challenging water ahead for our policy colleagues. I’ll stop there. Thank you.

[Kristel] Thank you very much. It’s really interesting to hear kind of some of the themes that are quite common across the different regions and also what we’re working on here in Canada, but also kind of potentially some some different views. So really interesting to hear about how in the future, actually, if you bring it all together, you would see these big changes potentially in how how we’re governed and what our economies are based on people’s feelings, as you said, about how are capacity of social mobility and standing in society. And, of course, the realities of climate change and of the sustainability agenda, all very important trends that they’re no longer, as you said, future trends that the changes are happening. It is reshaping who we are. And so I hope our Canadian colleagues are very much looking forward to hearing what you have to say from kind of your perspective. And I hope the audience can take on some of that thinking to think about their own kind of futures. But of course, when we work on foresight, we’re not only looking at kind of the expected future of kind of what might happen based if we take the current trends forward or when we’re projecting the past into the future. We’re also doing a lot of research on the wide range of alternative futures scenarios. So I would like to hear what your organizations are, some of those scenarios or a set of circumstances that if they do come about, where they do come together would be challenging for our society. What are some of those circumstances that might create this perfect storm to actually create a different world? And why we need to anticipate that? And so we all know that predicting black swan events is quite hard. Usually they are unexpected. They do have big impact though, and usually they’re rationalized very well afterwards. But I’d like to also hear from you if there’s any black elephants staring at us. Do you see any of those upcoming known actually disruptions that we’re just not that good in acknowledging? So what are some of those really different alternatives or surprises, strategic surprises we might see in the future? Jeanette?

[Jeanette] It’s a very difficult question to answer, Kristel. Especially the Black Swans one. I think by definition they’re quite hard to hunt. I thought I would take a run at the question of black elephants listening to Maria and Victor and Stephen. It sounds very much to me that we’ve taken kind of different through lines, different plumb lines to look at some of these big emerging questions. And I thought the through line that I would take, which Maria has kind of already picked on, is this question of global demographics. So the panel has touched on some of the issues related to global demographics. I thought there were one or two others that were worth highlighting how demographics intersects with other trends that we see, such as developments in technology, such as developments in automation that will actually shape some of the fundamental building blocks of society. The big question I didn’t hear any of us talk about was really the question of the future of the global middle class. What size will it be? Where will it be located? What will its preferences be? The global middle class today accounts for the largest segment of demand in the global economy. The middle class of tomorrow, however, faces a level of precarity and uncertainty around their ability to achieve their aspirations. That is quite unlike the middle class of today. Already, the cost of essential aspects of middle class lifestyle such as home ownership or higher education has increased faster than income for many, right. Faster than that income has grown for many. Further complicating this issue, many of the Asian countries, which were expected to form the bulk of the future global middle class, may have been adversely affected by the COVID 19 pandemic kind of at the crucial junctures of their growth trajectories and the longer term prospects of the economic development and transition into high income economies remains uncertain. So if we do not see the anticipated boom in the global middle class, and if the future middle class has different consumption choices than the past, what does that mean for the engines of growth in the global economy tomorrow? The other big question I thought we didn’t really touch on was the question of the mismatch between where labor sources live and where the demand for labor might be in geographic location, but also in terms of skill, skillsets that are demanded and size, how much global labor is required. And this is where the interaction with technology is more salient because the impact of digitalizing and automation, as well as international connectivity that allows remote access to labor sources, might remove the need for some sources of labor altogether, and shift the locus of demand for other types of labor to somewhere else. So we might see levels of migration for climate or for work reasons that we haven’t seen in previous generations. Are we prepared for that? The last point I had was really around the degree of social political risk and gender by shifting age structures. So the other panelists have also touched on some of these risks. I won’t belabor the point, except to once again highlight the question of technology extending lifespans, especially healthy lifespans, and how that might affect how the next generation thinks of their life path and what their aspirations might be and when they want to achieve them. These actually have the potential to have fairly deep social ramifications, which maybe, as Maria had mentioned, we might not be thinking about quite so clearly yet. I’ll turn it back over to you, Kristel.

[Kristel] Thank you so much, Jeanette And so Victor and I ask you the same questions. Any black elephants, black swans? Difficult circumstances.

[Victor] Thank you for the question, as Jeanette. I start with a black elephant. According to predictions by the International Monetary Fund and other global organizations, the global economic growth in the next few years is expected to be low, particularly in the developed countries. Governments irresponsible policies regarding expenditure, coupled with inadequate preparation for the possibility of global economic crisis in the coming years, can be regarded as a black elephant. The challenge to the current global economic system, or the evident assumptions regarding the continuation of familiar globalization behavior such as trade based on relative advantage and the dominance of the US dollar as the global reserve currency may father earlier and more rapidly than anticipated. Our leading estimates for the next I […] transit to the to the tech issue our leading estimates for the next 5 to 8 years foreseeable illusionary progress in technology, particularly in the areas of artificial intelligence and biodigital convergence. One of our scenarios envisions rapid and revolutionary developments in A.I. with advancements and and or widespread integration across various aspects of life, including employment, education, healthcare, defence and transportation. These rapid changes have the potential to disrupt existing systems of and destabilize countries and governments. They are also create an ethical gap due to their fast paced nature, which can be exploited intentionally or unintentionally. Government should adopt a more responsible approach compared to the past and not only rely on free market forces to manage the economy. The need to prioritize securing national resilience in a world characterized by decoupling and rivalry. This can be achieved through systematic changes that promote self-reliance, diversification in supply chains and alliances with like minded countries. The same advice applies to governments when it comes to technology at the national level. We should enhance our capabilities in monitoring and forecasting emerging technology as a founding for a foundation for improved strategic planning and regulation. This will ensure our readiness for future full of technological disruptions. Here in Israel, instead of scanning the horizon mechanism, we are to establish a centre for emerging technology in collaboration with the Ministry of Innovation Society and Technology. This centre utilizes machine learning tools with the aim to providing foresight and enhancing our estimations by leveraging advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and data analytics. We strive to gain a deeper understanding of emerging technologies, trends, and then the potential implications. The center serves as a hub for research, analysis and strategic planning, enabling us to stay ahead of the curve and to anticipate the future of developments in various fields. The collaboration between the Center and the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology facilitate a comprehensive approach to technology, assessment and regulation. By working together, we ensure that our efforts align with a national priorities and promote responsible and ethical technological advancement. That’s it from our side from in Israel.

[Kristel] Thank you very much, Victor. Maria, you’ve been doing a lot of scenario work and you’re in the middle of, of course, of of cycle picking up anything, any black elephants or Lexus coming to Washington.

[Maria] We actually spend a lot of time thinking about and worrying about potential surprises. We do lots of exercises on low probability, high impact events in the near, medium and long term. The purpose of these exercises are really less about identifying the individual surprise and more about being better prepared for and more resilient to kind of the wide range of possible events and disruptions. Because we could do these lists all day long. Right? We’re never going to pick. We might be lucky and pick one or two of the things that are likely to happen. But in that category of black elephants or gray rhinos or whatever color animal you want to choose to call it, we are currently really exploring the more slowly evolving dynamics. I’m thinking more of the the frog in the boiling water. And when I when I think about kind of that dynamic, it’s really several categories of technology that come to mind. From advances in biotechnology to the progression of artificial intelligence. We’re really trying to push ourselves not just to discuss the likely tech and the expected or planned uses of those technologies, but to think about the unintended and unexpected second and third order consequences for societies, our national power, and really what it means to be human. At this stage, we’re still in that questioning, but I think we need to think are will these technologies increase or decrease inequalities, which I heard several mentioned already? Will they challenge social cohesion or complicate our government’s ability to provide services and basic elements of governance? Will they improve our human security across all, you know, health, education, all kinds of welfare? Will they impact the global balance of power as some countries choose to embrace certain technologies and other other countries impose different kind of standards and ethical parameters around their use? So I think technology is really an area where we need to be thinking in that short, medium and long term. Just I know we’re running out of time. Just one last thought. I’d love to throw out. And actually, I looked at your agenda for the next couple of days, and I was thrilled to see that you that you’re going to have an event or a panel and discussion on existential threats. I feel like every time I pick up something to sort of read widely, there’s a discussion of something being existential, kind of the word of the year. Is it overused? Is it warranted? Has it become meaningless? Such an important conversation and I think it ties in quite nicely with your questions about kind of black swans as as well as as black elephants. So I’ll just end there. Thank you for this opportunity.

[Kristel] Thank you very much, Maria. And Stephen, any whatever animals running around in Europe’s vision?

[Stephen] Well, thanks. Thanks, Kristel. So we do two quite regular horizons scanning exercises. I do not think we found any black swans or black elephants. So far in these exercises, but I’ll give you a couple of groups of examples of things that have that have emerged and that we’ve been we’ve been looking at which which complement, but hopefully don’t repeat what what my fellow panelists have already mentioned. One one group of themes is around what you might call Democratic discontent. Generally speaking, we I think we see an uptick in in disenfranchisement, in discontent. We see lowering levels of trust in public institutions, greater polarization and so on. So all of these things will challenge democracy. But then within that, there’s a couple of more micro trends which may or may not be significant. And we’ve we’ve kind of we’ve been looking at them. One is around radical transparency. So it’s a kind of mix between growing levels of discontent and very large amounts of data being available and calls in some areas for more transparency, more, more, more explicit transparency about either values or information. So calls for salary transparency, tax transparency, contractual transparency and so on. Then if you scale it up, what are the implications of this sort of real, live monitoring of social democratic processes? If you imagine that scaling up, does it have an impact or not? And then linked to that, another theme around democracy is around what we call silence citizenship. So it’s not people being indifferent and simply not caring, but it’s it’s more as if you like a a strategic use of silence or absence from process. So a silent protest or a withholding of support or abstention is more sort of not in my name type positioning, which Again, if that were to expand would again impact quite negatively existing democratic processes because your traction would be would be undermined. So some interesting themes there around democracy. And then the other thing we’ve been looking at or another thing we’ve been looking at is around global resources. So, I mean, just three bullets here. One is around the global governance of the commons. And by that I mean things like the Arctic or deep sea mining or, you know, lunar mining space, all these kind of areas where clearly there’s growing interest. But there are some quite significant governance, legal, environmental issues. If you start literally digging into those areas that one needs to one needs to look at. Then the second issue is around water. Clearly a lot of pressure and tension on water at the moment with with significant droughts, including in Europe. So we’ll really see increasing tensions around governance of water supply emerging. Will that become a sort of a global issue? And if so, what implications? And thirdly, what about sand supply? Apparently, sand is the second most used resource after water, and some forecasts are showing 40 to 50% increase in the use of global buildings. And between 2020 and 2060. And that is predicted to be much faster than the replenishment rate of sand. So, I mean, I wouldn’t have struck me that sand was a big issue, but if you look at those kind of predictions and you look forward, will we see ourselves having conflicts about sand in the future? Whereas in the past we were fighting about other things. So those are some of the things that we we see on a on our weak signals screen. Let us see whether they turn into black swans, black elephants or anything else in the future.

[Kristel] Thank you very much. We’ve been talking and this session about kind of very big, broad shifts happening in the different systems in in a political and the economic environment, etc.. But also you’ve pinpointed some very, very concrete kind of changes and things that might happen that we need to keep an eye on. So. So, of course, the listeners of our audience might think like, oh my God, like, what world are we going to live in? Kind of all this comes to bear, of course. But of course, as we all know, the reason we’re doing foresight is to create the futures that we want to create. Kind of you have to look at what might happen actually to potentially be able to intervene in the system and to be able to work together to make sure that the outcome of the system is going to be a positive one, rather than kind of closing the blinders and hope that things are going to be okay. So. So thank you very much to all of you for sharing the perspectives from the from the foresight organizations in the countries that you’re leading. And I’m very grateful you were here with us, and I hope you’re going to stay for the rest of the week. Thank you so much.

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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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