ETHOS Issue 07, Jan 2010
The future remains humanity's most enduring dilemma. The survival and success — or failure and decline — of ventures, organisations and nations have always depended on how present actions might be expected to play out down the road; it is for this reason that those who govern or lead are tasked with the responsibility for foresight. After several decades of consolidated quantitative control and efficiency gains in public administration, it has now become a given in governance to regard the environment as ever more complex and turbulent, in which the most carefully considered policies are subject to the vagaries of unpredictable forces.
This is partly the result of deeper learning and also of relative success. The price of complacency has become much steeper, while it has become easier to fall into a false sense of security because things have been going well. Despite recent crises, the world has by and large become less, not more hazardous, than in the historical past. The advancements that have made this possible — from maps, medicine and media to commuting, communications, and computers — are the outcome of an exponential explosion in our understanding of causes and effects. Ironically, these technologies also serve as the medium through which shockwaves of change can now resonate well beyond their points of origin. But by the same measure, our means to anticipate and prepare for the future have also grown, assuming we are inclined to pay attention.
In Singapore, scenario planning has been practised at the national level for over a decade; the expertise driving its use as a foresight tool has steadily matured. New platforms and strategies, such as risk management and horizon scanning, are yielding promising results. Since the mid-1990s, the PS21 movement and other initiatives have advocated a mindset prepared for continual uncertainty and change. Given Singapore's exposure and constraints, this integrated, disciplined approach to thinking about our future is a dire necessity. It is also a strategic advantage, if it means shifting the odds in our favour and being able to compete not on absolute resources, but on initiative, agility and canny choices in the face of murky prospects.
Those who consulted the ancient oracles understood that their fate was not determined by the auguries they received, but by how they chose to act upon them. Canada's Jocelyne Bourgon seeks a public sector framework able to achieve superior collective results, through collaboration, communal resilience and a capacity to explore options beyond the predictable. She attributes to government the mandate and responsibility to take a broader view of shared problems, convene interconnecting ideas and opportunities, and enable synergistic solutions. This "many helping eyes" approach to dealing with complexity may also serve to overcome the cognitive failures and behavioural biases highlighted by our Senior Fellows, Lam Chuan Leong and Gary Klein, who are well aware of the obstacles that hinder genuine insight in large organisations. Forewarned is unfortunately not always forearmed. Head of Civil Service Peter Ho has defined concrete steps that the Public Service should take to anticipate strategic surprises, and announced the formation of a Centre for Strategic Futures.
Pioneering futurist Peter Schwartz sees in Singapore the potential to be a global trendsetter and leader in practice, but believes there must first be a culture willing to embrace diversity, ambiguity and new ideas. The consensus is that enlightened, confident leadership will be needed: to consider a wide range of data sources and divergent views; experiment intelligently with untested ideas; convert foresight into decisive fore-action; and most critically, to make corrections when necessary. The resilience of tomorrow's societies will not rest on new technologies and management techniques, but in these future-oriented habits of mind, distributed across a wider and more connected network.
Other contributors in this issue suggest developments that may go against prevailing wisdom; the Strategic Policy Office highlights possible discontinuities in the post-crisis global economy, while the Permanent Secretary for the Environment and Water Resources Tan Yong Soon argues that Singapore's early foresight and counter-conventional policies have given it a leading position in environmental development that may pay off in a carbon-constrained future.
I wish you a fruitful read.