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The Futurists

The Futurists

Two recent studies illustrate the benefits and struggles facing government futurists.

The role of the futurist in government is to help decision makers link the emerging environment to action. This helps organizations be ready for and benefit from change. In practice, government futurists:

• identify significant trends and emerging issues of relevance to the organization's responsibilities

• explore long-range consequences of decisions and actions

• anticipate alternative futures

• learn how to adapt today to these futures

• imagine preferred futures

• balance the needs of present generations with the needs of future generations

• develop and design policies, programs and legislation.

Two examples of recent futures studies illustrate the benefits and struggles government futurists may encounter.

In 2002 the Australian Communications Authority (ACA) established an internal Futures Panel to track and analyze communications technologies, services trends and emerging issues that could affect the ACA's regulatory responsibilities.

The panel was formed in response to developments in wireless and Internet Protocol-based communications, convergent trends in computing and communications, and the need to keep regulation contemporary.

The panel examines issues from a 'whole-of-organization' perspective and looks at how the emerging communications environment might challenge the stable operating environment of, and established patterns of behaviour in, relatively mature telecommunications and broadcasting industries.

The panel's early output included regulator environmental scanning and market dynamics reports, research into emerging trends and, more broadly, a five-year outlook for the communications industry.

In December 2003 the ACA launched a scenario-planning project, "Vision 2020: Future Scenarios for the Communications Industry - Implications For Regulation". Scenario planning is an effective and structured way to think freely about the future and to challenge current assumptions; it provides a creative link between strategic thinking and strategic planning.

This process has emphasized that important measures of successful futures thinking in an organization are:

  • understanding the organization's operating context and culture, and identifying issues that are of importance to senior management
  • developing internal and external networks to share information and build knowledge
  • adopting effective processes that encourage participation and facilitate strategic conversation - at all levels of the organization and externally
  • getting early results on the board and making continual improvements to your quality of work.

Organizational futurists must be prepared to stretch the boundaries. This is unavoidable and it can often attract criticism and resistance. But it is a method that pays - you learn a lot from the experience and can develop a high level of analytical capability.

Land & Water Australia (LWA) has a tradition of futures thinking, starting with the use of Foresighting in developing early salinity and vegetation programs, continuing through the Reinventing Agriculture for Australian Landscapes Program, and growing into the Future Landscapes Program over the past three years. Over the past 12 months, LWA has invested in a detailed analysis of potential drivers of change in natural resource management in the next three decades and has sponsored the development of several sets of scenarios about the future of Australian landscapes.

This focus on futures analysis indicates a farsighted attitude among the senior management and board of LWA over many years, but futures approaches do not always sit comfortably in science-focused agencies.

Among futurists, the emphasis is on breaking free of the constraints of entrenched thinking to generate new thinking about plausible emerging challenges and opportunities. Science also values new ideas but it proceeds by critically testing existing information and only rejecting current thinking when it fails. New ideas need to have credibility or be based on credible foundations.

There is a long tradition in science of "predicting" the future by extrapolating past relationships. Although the dangers of extrapolation are well entrenched in scientific logic, there is still a tendency to think of a single, "most-likely" future rather than multiple future scenarios, none of which is highly likely by itself.

The tension between science and futures analyses becomes particularly important in the identification of trends. In LWA futures work, it has been important to document futures thinking and evidence carefully and to be very open when speculating on the basis of perceived (emerging) rather than statistically established trends. There can be little statistical confidence about the future no matter how certain we are about the past.

Futures approaches are particularly useful where certainty about the future and control over outcomes are both low. However, many senior managers and policy makers in government work in areas where certainty and/or control are, or are perceived as, high - such as for short-term decisions - and futures analyses can seem less useful to them in these circumstances.

The challenge for a futurist in this environment is to learn how to contribute when a futures capability is not perceived as the prime need and to help policy makers and managers recognize when and how futures techniques need to be used more.

Kate Delaney is a futurist with Delaney & Associates Pty Ltd and has worked on futures projects with government in Australia and New Zealand for the past decade. Kate can be contacted at: kdel1473@bigpond.net.au.

Steven Cork is the coordinator of the Future Landscapes Program at Land & Water Australia, a statutory research and development corporation. Steve can be contacted at: steve.cork@lwa.gov.au.

Paul Roberts is the Futures Panel coordinator for the Australian Communications Authority and can be contacted at: paul.roberts@aca.gov.au.

Belinda Lester is a senior policy analyst with the Australian Communications Authority.

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