The wicked problem about strategic foresight

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From left: Graeme Maxton (Secretary General, Club of Rome ) and Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker (Co-President, Club of Rome).

Last week I participated in the Club of Rome member meeting in Switzerland. As always, we talked about what was going to happen next. A brilliant presentation by Professor Harald Sverdrup of University of Iceland painted a picture of the world, where increasing amount critical raw-materials were becoming a key bottleneck for the economies. Taking systemic view and using SIMRESS model for simulation, the research team aimed to build a solid ground for resource policies. It came as no surprise to me that German Government commissioned the project. In an interesting and far-reaching way, German Government represents today the progressive thinking more than any major Government holds today. German Energiwende, a remarkable 20 billion annual investment for the future with huge amount of policy implications, will prove how strategic intent of the Government can be formulated into a set of policies that give a clear guidance to the market actors as well private citizens.

Another positive example comes from business. I take it from Silicon Valley, where I am exploring right now new insights. Last week, the legendary wizard of the Valley, Elon Musk, came up with a revolutionary new product to store energy. Powerwall , as it is called, scales from private household utility to large scale industrial set-up. As energy storage is real bottleneck problem for renewable energy schemes, the product might represent a great leap forward in overcoming a key concern for progressive policies and market spread. We see revolution in the making. Remember, almost 90% of the energy used in this planet by humans are coming from fossil fuels. There is no greater challenge to tackle.

All we are talking about here has to do with how we understand the world taking from here towards the future. Understanding the past is only relevant in terms of patterns, not in terms of content. The most crucial element in our analysis should be to define the forces of change. Drivers that will take us to a very different trajectory to those that brought us here. If we are, in our analysis, stuck to the past, nothing much useful comes out of that pipe.

In the meeting, we were also given a taste of conventional economist-way of assuming the future. Giuseppe Nicoletti from OECD, head of structural policy analysis division, gave us a portrait of OECD global scenario work they had undertaken recently. Reaching out to year 2060 they have done a neat exercise with clear logic. However, we were collectively quite unimpressed how little they took into account everything that had a true value in the Club of Rome thinking: understanding relations rather than individual phenomena, projecting bifurcation points (points where one body of development splits into something else) and understanding the whole. In fact, the presentation was indicative in that OECD representative didn’t even mention the resources that we all (at least in Club of Rome) knew would define the real politics and outcome in the world for next decades to come. The basis of the OECD scenario was simply an extrapolation of the past trends into the future. Ironically, Mr. Nicoletti clearly accepted the bulk of our critics by referring to the limits of their personal and financial resources in OECD. Hmmm…

We are left with the feeling that we do live in quite different realities, which is, at the end of the day, of course not true.

Here I come to my final point. A truly wicked problem with strategic foresight we do or commission is the following. If we do it in a very narrow way (= read: like standard neo-classic approach), we probably do not say much interesting or relevant things about the future. It may serve as a reference point, but not much more. On the contrary, we disguise what we are supposed to reveal. Foresight is too important topic to be messed up with too much of conventional thinking.

Markku Wilenius
Finland Futures Research Centre
University of Turku

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