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So the future looks uncertain? Don’t despair

The world is becoming more complex – and less predictable. Disruptive forces – technological progress, climate change, nationalism and migration among them – are driving change at greater speed than ever before.

But we shouldn’t despair. The challenges of our volatile world are immense – but the potential opportunities are unrivalled. If we can learn to deal systematically with uncertainty, we really do have the chance to deliver a better future for children, and for us all.

In fast-changing and unpredictable world, organisations are looking at how to become more agile and dynamic. We need flexibility to innovate and adjust.

How should organisations monitor and assess current global trends to help future-poof policies and strategies? This was the topic of two major events I attended this summer. Scanning the Horizon, convened by the International Civil Society Centre, brought together key strategists from some of the biggest international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). It was followed by a week-long retreat on strategic foresight organised by the School of International Futures that brought together analysts from governments, multilateral organisations, development agencies, private sector companies and start-ups.

Don’t get lost in the woods

To summarise the whole shebang in a nutshell, I’d say it’s all about managing uncertainty systematically. Here are my key takeaways:

1 Avoid the temptation of looking for perfect predictions. Instead assess the full range of possible futures.

Regular and effective horizon scanning that looks at current trends is only the start. But don’t stop there. The best analyses not only assess current trends but recognise where they can bend and pay special attention to disruptors or enablers that could change the whole game.

Making predictions in today’s volatile world is hard. Instead it’s better to consider the range of probable, possible and preferred futures ahead.

2 Pay attention to weak signals:  the future is already here.

People often only become aware of emerging trends when they are nearly established. Agile organisations can identify the emerging innovations at the periphery as well as risks that may become dominant in the future (see the graph below).


3 Foresight is like physical exercise: it needs to be regular.

Think about the many organisations – from Pan Am airways to Kodak – that have failed for lack of strategic vision, becoming obsolete or being surprised by change. The best leaders are often ahead of their time. They are strategic and visionary because they take time to systematically think about future implications of current trends.

The key here is to systematically use a method to unpack the insights emerging from horizon scanning, and make sure your organisation doesn’t miss what should have been obvious. This is where various foresight tools are useful. It’s like doing regular exercise – you see progress even if only by repetition!

4 Integrating and embedding insights is the clincher.

A brilliant analysis won’t deliver change on its own. A key part of strategic foresight is embedding change.

It may start by informing the vision and future-proofing the strategy – whether at the organisational level or for a particular team. But it goes further. Strategic foresight is also about risk mitigation, building resilience, investing in new capabilities, testing new business models or approaches, and advancing new research for development and innovation. And it’s about something we often forget: the power of imagination.

Communication is key to embed a new vision and strategy. One helpful approach with this is to look at different scenarios. They don’t need to be fully real –  after all, they’re not predictions. But they should challenge our biases and assumptions, and stimulate us to think outside the box – see MOD’s four scenarios used to stress-test bias among policy makers.

Where are we going? Brilliant work to inspire you

Here are my top picks of brilliant initiatives, practices and new publications I’ve come across:

  • Global Trends 2030: Paradox of Progress produced by the National Intelligence Council in the USA. This is produced to inform the new US administration but useful for anyone working on global issues.
  • Global Strategic Trends out to 2050, published by the UK Ministry of Defence. I find this useful for humanitarian work, with brilliant scenarios on the future of security and international cooperation. Apparently the UK Department for International Development contributed background analysis. Are we at a key juncture facing the possibility of four different future worlds – multilateralism, multipolarity, network of actors and fragmentation?
  • The Development Policy 2030 report, produced by the German Corporation for International Cooperation (or GIZ), identifies key drivers of change that development policy actors should pay special attention to – see the graphic below. I understand they’re now working on scenarios also to inform German development policies.

And this is only a selection of the wealth of initiatives out there.

Shaping the future

But we’re not only interested in navigating the future. We want to shape it.

A values-driven organisation like Save the Children works to realise our vision of a better future for children. Doing that means we must keep track of the disruptors or enablers that may affect the realisation of that vision.

In today’s fast-changing, unpredictable world, we need to manage uncertainty systematically. Strategic foresight helps us to stress-test our own biases about the direction of current trends in order to future-proof the decisions we’re making today.

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