So how do governments build futures thinking?

By Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Cheryl Chung, Co-Director of Executive Education at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, explains.

Image: ArtScience Museum

A note on the kitchen cabinet reads “wild pepper and roach stir fry”. The recipe calls for an onion, some green pepper, a cup of rice and 7-10 cockroaches. Around the apartment, herbs and vegetables grow under artificial lights.

The home is part of an exhibition imagining Singapore in 200 years, when climate change has limited food production. “One of the planning assumptions in Singapore is you can import food. What if that assumption doesn't hold anymore?” asks Cheryl Chung, Co-Director of Executive Education at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

The ability to question basic assumptions is crucial for civil servants, she believes. Chung, a former civil servant in Singapore’s central strategic planning unit, now shares this knowledge across the world. Next month she launches an online masterclass to reveal the strategies that governments can use to stay one step ahead of whatever will come.

What is futures thinking

Futures thinking is an exercise in building resilience, she says. It is not an act of predicting the future, but exploring multiple possibilities to design strategies. “The whole point of it is really to question our assumptions about the future, and by being open minded about what those assumptions are, deal with these potential uncertainties a little bit better.”
Futures thinking changes the way that agencies view and react to problems. “It allows that creativity and imagination to believe, or entertain the possibility, that the future might be very different from what it is today and you can still be successful in it.”

It also enables governments to develop more considered policies. “The problem in a lot of public policy is that by the time it gets onto the policy agenda, it's already urgent. There is no lead time to plan. So the kinds of solutions that you can put in are these short term stopgap measures.”

Singapore’s Smart Nation vision today started with a project on the future of data 15 years ago, Chung says. “If you identify it early, you're able to invest consistently for 15 years. You have a much longer planning runway.”

Get started

Chung will run a four-week online programme from 8 September to train policy analysts on futures thinking. The programme will be “practitioner-focused”, with participants working in teams on real projects to get a kickstart on their futures portfolio.

The course will focus on two key aspects: strategic intelligence and stakeholder management. Strategic intelligence will train civil servants to understand the tools of futures thinking, and how to grasp at the thin wisps of possibility.

Stakeholder management will help civil servants create a “common language” among decision makers to talk about the future and question the assumptions they hold. It allows issues to be understood from multiple perspectives - be it permanent secretaries, colleagues in other ministries or members of the public.

Finland, for instance, uses futures thinking to establish an agenda for politicians from different parties to work together in the parliament. “By this way Finnish Government and Parliament can recognize important political themes at such an early stage that different alternatives and policy lines are still completely open and under development,” the government says.

Never too late

It’s never too late to start on the futures journey, Chung adds. It is particularly important to challenge assumptions in the midst of a crisis. “In times of uncertainty you tend to double down on things that you think you know,” she says, blinding organisations to the real challenges on the horizon.

For many, the pandemic is also an opportunity to pivot, and futures can help organisations consider new possibilities. “Your whole corporate identity is up in the air, and you have to be able to reimagine success in the future,” she adds.

And while many countries have established protocols to respond to the immediate healthcare crisis, there are second and third order issues that are yet to be addressed. For instance, what will be the future of jobs now that many are working remotely and some industries have been decimated? Or how should cities be designed to prevent the spread of diseases? “It might be too late for us to prepare for the stockpiling of masks, but there are so many other longtail consequences.”

We may never have to grow our own food or change our diet. But possibility is enough for us to rethink our assumptions about the future.

Register now for the Futures Masterclass at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy