“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” according to the French novelist, Marcel Proust.
Singapore’s civil servants have been inspired by the spirit of the novelist for decades to plan for the country’s future. This has been especially important for the city state’s transformation into a regional powerhouse since it gained independence in 1965.
The country has dedicated futures units across agencies from trade to urban development to research on multiple future narratives, so planners can imagine and prepare for any upcoming risks and opportunities.
At the heart of it, it is questioning “long-held assumptions of government in order to find better solutions for tomorrow,” says Cheryl Chung, Co-Director of Executive Education at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. GovInsider spoke to Chung, a strategic foresight practitioner, to find out more about foresight in the public sector; ways to approach it; and trends in the region.
1. What is Futures and Foresight?
The aim of foresight in the public sector is to successfully plan for the future amid unforeseen circumstances and potential disruptions. It is “trying to buy yourself a little bit of leeway in terms of being able to react or plan,” says Chung.
An example of future planning is Singapore’s first urban development concept plan. It was developed in 1971 to prepare for the city’s economic development and population boom in the next 40 to 50 years. The plan set aside land for transportation, housing, and business districts, and its main features are still intact and evolving even today.
Foresight is not an act of predicting the future, but looking at the already “known unknowns” and developing a strategy for that. These “known unknowns’, Chung explains, are disruptions that are already on the horizon that governments do not yet have a plan for. These include how artificial intelligence is going to impact the workforce, challenges of an ageing population, and strategies for combating climate change.
“Who owns the future?” is the most important question everyone involved in future planning needs to ask, says Chung. Depending on who owns the future, the considerations will be different, thus changing the way policies are framed and planned.
2. What are some techniques?
Futures planning explores multiple possibilities to come up with a strategy to tackle these issues, says Chung. Supercomputers are able to crunch multiple sources of data to come up with a thousand different possibilities. But at a public policy level, Chung says, governments can already make use of known trends to plan for the future.
Chung explains one method is scenario planning, where you imagine alternate futures based on major trends. This will help governments consider more broadly what the future might hold. In her work, Chung conducts multi-stakeholders workshops where different points of view are considered. “It’s about getting all those voices together to have this container for discussion, and this robust conversation around what the future might hold,” she adds
Another technique is backcasting, where you work backwards from a future you want or do not want, and looking at what it takes to get there. “It’s like one of those ‘choose your adventure’ games,” she quips. Backcasting, Chung says, gives planners a sense of what some pre-existing conditions are needed before certain things can happen, so they can think of strategies in the short and medium term.
3. How can you do futures?
While most may not have the word “future” in their designations, we are all futurists in our own right, says Chung. Because of that, whoever convenes a conversation when it comes to foresight is important. “There is a vested interest no matter who convenes,” she says.
More than ever, the ability to make decisions is now becoming more decentralised with the availability of data. It is empowering individuals with more agency to make better decisions about their own future. And in this shift of power, Chung feels it’s important for the government or anyone with big data sets to share what they have to foster public innovation from ground-up.
Chung says universities are well placed to bring people together to discuss futures. “It’s this ability to bring people in for discussion, just for the sake of having it. And for the sake of building up my muscle to think about the future, and to think about it in different ways,” she says.
She also sees pockets of people coming together to talk about what their future can be. Recently, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl made headlines around the world protesting about the need for immediate action for climate change. This has sparked conversations in governments worldwide about enacting policies to protect the earth for the next generation.
While Chung believes the government should take a more hands-off approach to grassroots initiatives at future shaping, there is also a need to ask: “How do you translate these mega lofty, global trends into things that matter for individuals? And for them to have agency, that they can make decisions also.”
4. What are some issues facing the region?
Asia Pacific is made up of countries in different stages of development. But a consistent thread that runs across borders is how technology is going to be a disruption for the region. The ramifications for this range from what it means for the future of work to cultural identities in the age of digitalisation. Meanwhile, developing countries are still grappling with fundamental infrastructure issues like setting up a banking system or having a sewage system.
For some countries, futures planning is not a priority because “if you have sewage-type and sanitation problems, then maybe you don’t think about futures first. You just kind of try to solve today’s problems.” She notes a trend, however, that there are also others who are using digitalisation to “leapfrog.”
In her work, Chung speaks to governments who are looking for opportunities to propel their countries straight into digitalisation, jumping over the usual stages of development. The lack of infrastructure makes developing countries well placed to leapfrog because there is no need to consider the impact on decades-old systems.
An example is in the slow adoption of cloud-native solutions in Singapore. While Singapore has the right conditions, Philip Heah, Assistant Chief Executive of Technology & Infrastructure at the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), remarked that adoption is slow because many applications have been built using legacy systems. In contrast, “countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines are moving very fast,” he said.
Even as technology permeates every aspect of living, Chung says the discussion is never just about the technology itself, but the impact of these developments on day-to-day living. “If you have increasingly digital identities, what does it mean for our own cultural identity as individuals,” she asks.
What would an economy increasingly dependent on automation mean for traditional crafts, like Batik in Indonesia, for example? Foresight analysis gives governments a set of lens to imagine and prepare for these future possibilities.