Foresight and policymaking: lessons from Singapore and Finland

Demos Helsinki is developing an Advanced Masterclass: Institutionalising Foresight, Perspectives of Singapore and Finland for the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. This is how Finland and Singapore are utilising foresight in policymaking, the challenges we have identified, and initial suggestions for governments that want to do the same.

Written by Vera Djakonoff, Chua Min Yi, and Anie Febriastati

Foresight in policymaking

The systemic challenges faced by societies around the world require transformative action by governments. The understanding of this has led to an increased emphasis and recognition of the importance of strategic foresight as part of policy and decision-making. Without the ability to anticipate, grasp future possibilities and navigate long-term horizons, our action is diluted to reaction. While more and more countries are recognising the necessity of long-term policy planning, it is far too easy to get stranded in short-sighted mindsets which tend to prevail, especially in times of crisis. Whereas most of the pressing challenges that loom upon our societies are extremely urgent. The climate change crisis and demographic shifts, for example, require long-term focus.

How, can you move rapidly to address pressing and systemic challenges, while retaining the ability to adjust to the ambiguity and discontinuity that lies ahead?

Finland and Singapore are known for having some of the most advanced foresight systems and culture of futures-thinking in the public, private and third sectors. Institutional arrangements promoting foresight-oriented policy have existed since the last decades of the 20th century. Lessons from the countries show that foresight improves the relevance and impact of policy, leading to empowered and resilient societies.

Yet a persisting challenge remains in all governments, no matter how advanced their foresight capability is: untapping the potential of foresight knowledge in policy and decision-making. The challenge is not that we wouldn’t know how to do methodologically sound futures research. Lack of willingness and know-how to use foresight knowledge in preparation and decision-making is part of the short-term bias, where future orientation is overridden by short-term pressures (Boston 2016). Finland and Singapore have been building scenarios and scanning trends for decades. While this work has become more consistent in policymaking and strategy planning, foresight systems have clear limitations — structures, competencies, and culture, when it comes to linking foresight with decision-making processes.

We will next take a closer look at the emergence of the foresight capability in Singapore and Finland.

Singapore

After the separation of Singapore and Malaysia in 1965, Singapore was left without the Malayan hinterland and without natural resources. As a result, Singapore’s economy had to be open for free-flowing trade and finance. It was thus greatly influenced by global trends and heavily dependent on foreign direct investments.

The dependence on global trends was a concern for the Singapore government. The country needed to be at the forefront of future trends to capitalise on emergent opportunities. In 1979, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, S. Rajaratnam, gave his famous speech titled Singapore into the 21st Century, in which he persuaded the public that futures thinking ought to be integral to Singapore’s long-term prospects as “only a future-oriented society can cope with the problems of the 21st century.”

The speech can be seen as the start of scenario and foresight planning within the Singapore government. In the 1980s, a scenario planning department in the Ministry of Defence was created. Following the shift of scenario planning from one mainly focused on security threats to one focusing on broader societal, cultural and political domains, the Scenario Planning Office in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was created in the late 1990s. The PMO office had to work with different government agencies to improve their scenario and futures thinking capabilities.

In recent years, the Centre for Strategic Futures (CSF) operates as part of the strategic group in the PMO. The CSF is tasked with conducting long-term futures research and guiding whole-of-government strategic planning and prioritisation. This also sees the epistemological shift in future thinking where new methodologies are used in the CSF to identify unexpected, high-impact events and create contingency plans to build a desirable future.

At the heart of the foresight system in Singapore is the investment in ‘futures-literate’ civil service to generate a culture of foresight through consistent training and empowerment. In Singapore, scenario planning is introduced as an entry-level strategic tool for policymakers to scan current policy-relevant trends and identify possible future scenarios. Successful performance in the civil service correlates with one’s foresight abilities.

Finland

The late 20th century in Finland was an era of heightened awareness of uncertainties and vulnerability to crises. The volatile post-war political environment and the early 1990s depression had an indelible impact on the DNA of Finnish society. The lived experience of risk preparedness and crisis anticipation strengthened the need to more consistently engage with foresight and futures. By the turn of the century, this had translated into the emergence of many future-oriented institutions and initiatives.

In 1992 The Futures Research Centre was founded in Turku. The following year, The Committee for the Future, supported by the research centre, was established in Parliament, engaging the government in a discussion about issues and prospects for the future. Since 1993 The Government has submitted a Report on the Future to the parliament during each electoral term, aiming to identify issues that are important for decision-making and will require particular attention in the future.

The foresight system has been more systematically developed since 2004, when two important bodies launched: the National Foresight Network coordinated by The Prime Minister’s Office and the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. The network plays a key role in Finland’s foresight system by bringing together foresight data producers. It aims to bring the new challenges and opportunities facing Finnish society into the debate. Another key organisation is the Government Foresight Group, which is made up of foresight and futures professionals, and works to strengthen the link between foresight and decision-making processes on a national level.

Today, Finland’s national foresight system is often ranked among the most advanced in the world and is characterised by strong interconnected foresight functions across the public sector. A high level of future awareness has increased Finland’s capacity for visioning. This, in turn, has contributed to a specific level of ambition in policy — Finland’s low-carbon roadmaps for 2035 being a good illustration.

Finland and Singapore: What are the key challenges that both countries face?

Finland and Singapore are global leaders in foresight. In both systems, there is a prevailing understanding that foresight is the prerequisite for navigating increasingly complex environments. The countries share strong institutions and cross-sectoral foresight arrangements and infrastructure. Foresight is seen as the lever to push for necessary transformations. Despite this, they face the challenge of translating foresight to strategic impact. There are several factors behind this, shared by both Finland and Singapore.

1. Foresight is done by a relatively small group of people with similar backgrounds and worldviews

There is a homogeneity of perspective in foresight resulting from the foresight process often involving a rather limited number of people. The awareness of developments affecting the future risks being narrow — as does the scope of imagination. This leads to organisations focusing mainly on identifying likely futures while less work is done on thinking about disruptive future paths. For example, in Finland, foresight work done by public administrations is often one-sided, and foresight knowledge is often collected from actors’ own immediate environment.

2. Foresight carries the reputation of being inherently difficult

One factor behind this is that from an individual perspective, foresight and futures thinking are easily perceived as difficult. Many find it difficult to draw links between their work and futures, and foresight is seen as a separate sphere, which is easy to leave in the hands of highly trained experts (Demos Helsinki, University of Turku 2020). Because the perceived threshold of looking at things through a futures lens is high, it is easy to stick to maintaining stability rather than push for change. The concept of foresight calls for demystification. For many, at best, foresight is based on anticipating likely developments rather than new opportunities and surprises.

3. The possibilities of foresight are not fully understood

In order to build foresight systems that result in a strengthened capacity to steer futures, administrations need to improve their visionary skills: the courage to engage in conversation about and imagine how things could be. At present, this is hindered by (i) the tendency to focus on short-term impact and (ii) insufficient institutional arrangements bringing foresight to the core of strategy processes and which would promote an element of foresight as part of the institution’s daily operations.

The Finnish and Singaporean experiences and foresight systems offer many lessons on how we can close the gap between foresight and decision-making. At the same time, when we look at the challenges countries face, we are able to recognize the directions and areas where governments building their foresight capacities really need to focus their attention and efforts.

How to close the gap between foresight and policymaking?

Imagining better futures is a key responsibility of politicians and the political realm. However, public administration and civil service can and must also have the capacity for future-orientation and imagination within their own tasks and responsibilities. Finland’s and Singapore’s cases show us that in order to close the gap between foresight and policymaking we need to promote the foresight capacity of individuals, foresight-oriented institutional arrangements with a strong link to decision-making, and systematic sourcing and co-creation of foresight knowledge.

  • Linking and bringing foresight to the core of institutional processes. Strategy, steering and decision-making processes must simultaneously take into account the short- and long-term outlook, which must be continuously updated against high-quality foresight knowledge. When developing better institutional arrangements that promote foresight, institutions must dare to experiment.
  • Systematic gathering of foresight knowledge. High-quality foresight knowledge must be systematically gathered from a variety of sources, both within the administration and from external sources and experts. Participatory methods such as workshops and low-threshold platforms should be used to produce foresight information. The collision of perspectives expands the scope for imagining futures.
  • Foresight capacity-building. Futures literacy refers to a person’s ability to think about the future creatively and critically, and in other words, understand how the future will shape and influence our actions in the present (Miller 2018; Pouru & Wilenius 2018). The promotion of future literacy and foresight skills equips individuals to identify the links between their own work and possible futures.

Capacity-building happens through foresight training, the creation of low-threshold spaces for futures dialogue and strong coordination and communication, enabling the flow of foresight knowledge and best practices. The best foresight training and workshops bring together multiple perspectives and allow participants to apply learnings in their own context and operating environment. It is essential to increase individuals’ understanding of the value of futures thinking and break down any mental or other barriers which hinder the use of foresight.

Closing the gap between foresight and policymaking will not only promote resilience through better anticipatory capabilities. In the best case closing the gap means transcending mere awareness of possible future developments. We can steer our actions and decisions towards our visions, for better futures.

Want to know more?

Mikael Sokero
Senior Expert
mikael.sokero@demoshelsinki.fi

Vera Djakonoff
Transformative Governance Expert
vera.djakonoff@demoshelsinki.fi

About the authors

Vera Djakonoff
Vera Djakonoff is an expert in the Transformative Governance team at Demos Helsinki, where she is working towards wiser governments. Djakonoff’s work focuses on foresight and innovation policy, and she is leading projects in those areas. She specialises in the analysis and evaluation of the interface between policy and communication. Prior to joining Demos Helsinki, she accumulated experience working with Finnish public sector evaluations and communications.

Chua Min Yi
Min Yi is the Assistant Head of Programmes (Executive Education Singapore Futures) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Her work includes developing and managing programmes to build futures thinking and foresight capabilities at the school. Prior to joining the LKY School, Min Yi served in several ministries in the Singapore Public Service, including the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), where she handled public policy formulation, strategic planning, and public policy futures. It was during her stint with the MHA when she entered the field of futures and foresight. There, she led capability development projects to imbue officers with futures thinking, and developed research think pieces on the implications of emerging technologies on national security.

Anie Febriastati
Anie serves as the Associate Director (Executive Education Singapore Futures) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Her work focuses on building futures thinking capabilities at the School through the Singapore Future Programme. Her interest and work experience have been on the intersection of foresight and scenario planning, strategic development, and risk management. In her previous capacity as the Head of Strategic Planning and Governing Board Secretary of the School, she oversaw the School’s strategic development and corporate governance, and served as a key liaison and communication officer with its key stakeholders including the Ministry of Education.


 

Feature Image: Selim Dönmez/iStock