Becoming anticipatory and future-fit across Asia and the Pacific

January 12, 2022

An Anticipatory system pushes us beyond linear thinking, which invests in the most likely short-term scenarios, leaving us vulnerable to unanticipated shocks, towards thinking systematically about potential long-term disruptions. Photo by Dil on Unsplash.

Crises like COVID-19, climate change and misinformation are global, occur simultaneously and at a rapid pace. Can organisations become better at navigating such uncertainty?

The Strategy, Policy & Partnership (SPP) team at the UNDP Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific (RBAP) has been tasked to enhance UNDP Asia Pacific’s ability to be more forward-looking. The hypothesis underlying our strategic foresight portfolio is that for a future-fit UNDP, we need to develop a governance system that embeds strategic foresight into internal decision-making and invests in building a culture for anticipatory policies.

To be anticipatory is to act in preparation of ‘what could happen’. An anticipatory organization thus applies strategic foresight as a baseline in programming cycles. Strategic Foresight is not about predicting the future so much as to ensure our current strategies remain robust across multiple possible future scenarios. An Anticipatory system pushes us beyond linear thinking, which invests in the most likely short-term scenarios, leaving us vulnerable to unanticipated shocks, towards thinking systematically about potential long-term disruptions.

The switch from traditional to anticipatory systems requires a major culture shift. Conducting a foresight workshop, for example, would do little to build and exercise the anticipatory muscle. The challenge for us is in the translation of Strategic Foresight into processes used by those who are planning, designing and implementing UNDP programmes.

We designed a Horizon Scanning (HS) initiative to help senior leadership better manage potential risks and opportunities and make strategic decisions on new programming areas. We asked our senior leaders a series of questions to understand how they make decisions, in order to build a model of HS unique to UNDP contexts. The HS method blends collective intelligence, artificial intelligence, quantitative and qualitative data.  We have generated insights from a Horizon Scan of key trends across Asia-Pacific in partnership with our country offices to inform regional planning.  The HS model is also being applied to country offices’ five-year planning document, the Country Programme Document (CPD).  The HS initiative’s success is reflected in how country offices can now use these insights to enrich their theories of change, risk management approaches and new programmes.

The second key ingredient is a culture of anticipatory thinking. We focus on learning by doing, inspiring our colleagues to apply new methodologies to live projects, as the most effective learning mechanism. Capacity building was integral to designing the HS model with country offices. We are also developing a Foresight Playbook to help staff not just experiment with different foresight methodologies, but to know how and where to apply foresight for programme planning and support to governments.

Building internal capabilities is integral, but so too is thought leadership. Our ambition is to envision possible realities of a distant future. In 2022, under our Reimagining Development Initiative, we will release diverse Foresight Briefs by leading academics. The briefs analyze development nudges and emerging future policy issues, on topics such as the well-being of future generations or equitable digital public goods.  We are complementing the rigorous futures analysis with a collaborative ‘Inclusive Imaginaries’ initiative that asks young people in the region how they envision flourishing in their futures. This initiative is a collaboration with UNDP Accelerator Labs and Youth CoLabs. In our final synthesis, we will explore tensions and synergies between the academic analyses and these contextual visions that will shape how we will live in the future.

Designing a rigorous structure that is also adaptable to each country context cannot be achieved in silos and through an HQ lens alone. We are working with country offices to learn what it means to institutionalize long-term and anticipatory thinking in   different decision-making ecosystems. Among the pioneers, the UNDP Pacific multi-country office has embarked on a year-long action research journey to craft a locally relevant approach for foresight and anticipatory governance. We will test the appetite for various strategic foresight methods and outcomes with government and civil society partners. The insights from these small-scale prototypes of applied foresight to support existing planning and governance processes will inform the iterative development of a Pacific-specific anticipatory governance offer.

Being future-fit means having strategic policy, planning and decision-making structures fit to serve not just today’s needs, but also tomorrow’s: in other words, how will today’s decisions impact future generations? Far from being a conceptual exercise, this is about how we build adaptiveness into our funding mechanisms, planning cycles and governance. 

This blog is part of SPP’s ‘’UNDP Strategic Foresight & Anticipatory Offer" Series. Next up, is the case of our Pacific office.

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