Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future - Yoda
September 20, 2023
Recent crises demonstrate that the future will not necessarily mirror the past. We face a multitude of possible, probable, and preferable futures that we need to anticipate, imagine, and work towards’. This claim, borrowed from a recent UN policy brief, summarizes quite well the challenges that we all face, having to plan ahead, and pursuing long-term policies, particularly in the turbulent times of today. Acknowledging that the future is difficult to navigate, we can argue that to steer through the uncertainties of tomorrow, and to imaging better futures, we need to develop organizational and societal foresight capabilities that through structured methods will inform us about the road ahead. To use a popular culture reference, with the words of the legendary Jedi Master Yoda ‘difficult to see - always in motion is the future’, which is why we need to develop skills and insights to help us when designing and developing our future-oriented activities.
Experimenting with ‘signals scanning’
Inspired by the UNDP ‘Signals Spotlight’ report [a publication that highlights signals and trends that are perceived as emerging and relevant for development policies] we decided to experiment with the ‘signals scanning’ process, localize it, and reach out to twenty civil society organizations in North Macedonia, asking them to note, any signals of changes and trends that they believe are important for the development of our country in the years ahead. We ensured that the organizations have different development areas of interest, including environment, resilience, governance, economy, innovation, data, and digitalization, and we only briefly explained to these organizations, that signals can come in different shapes and forms, but that their commonality is that they should indicate a change or support some formulation of a trend.
With this article, we would like to share with all of you some of the ‘signals’ these organizations reported back to us. We are considering using this format of societal signal scanning, as a continuous foresight function for our office and our programs, something that can feed into our programing and help us understand future risks and opportunities better. Important caveat to note, this text only highlights the insights we received from selected organizations, and in no way aims to pretend that it can predict future events or processes, rather to illustrate the perceptions of these organizations for the menu of plausible futures.
Signals, in the focus.
The civil society organizations that we reached out to, shared with us, signals within their fields of expertise that they believe are important for development processes in our country. We selected few signals that we would like to highlight.
- Open Data for Development
Open data, encouraging open data streams and enhancing digitalization can help communities tackle the development challenges they are facing. The organizations we reached out to reported that in the upcoming years, we could/should see a greater push towards data sets being open to the public for the successful monitoring and evaluation of public policies, but also to empower people and organizations with the data needed to try and find solutions to some of the challenges they are facing. Mindful of the current situation, where the open data movement in our country is in its inception phases, we could and should expect it to grow, and be utilized for better informed policymaking. We can already see the creation of national open data portals, national policy documents that encourage this process, but also organizations that encourage citizens to use these data sets for policymaking through open data hackathons and ideations.
- Integration into the European Union
One signal that was noted and shared by the organizations we reached out to, was the speech by President Charles Michel at the Bled Strategic forum, where he spoke about the next enlargement of the Union, to be completed by 2030, as well as the idea of a gradual integration and progressive integration. For North Macedonia, as a country that currently has opened negotiations with the Union this signals a potential opportunity for yielding the benefits of a closer association and participation in the European programmes and policies even before full accession to the Union.
- Protecting Natural Resources
The need to enhance sustainable management of natural resources in the years ahead is one prominent signal that was highlighted for us. Namely, our country is struggling with extreme weather events, and higher temperatures pose a challenge for both urban and rural communities and peoples. One signal that was shared with us comes from the agricultural sector, reporting the challenges that farmers face with the water that they use for irrigation, that combined with the droughts makes it a challenging situation for their crops. In the upcoming years, we can expect for the sustainable management of our water resources to become one of the core priorities for our communities, where inevitably: governance, innovation and collaboration will have to be utilized to tackle the challenge. Although this signal focuses on water as a natural resource, the same point can be made for the emphasis that will have to be placed in the future on our: forests, air, land protection.
- People-Led Development
We received several signals on the anticipated enhanced role of people [organized in civil society organizations, startups, informal initiatives and other forms of associations] in key development processes of our country in the upcoming years. One signal, based on recuring recommendations from the EU to make our public policy process more inviting and inclusive for CSOs and points to a direction of change that is to be expected – that organizations will become an even more integral and important part of the legislative, public policymaking, and the euro-integrative processes. Another signal that was noted by the organizations we spoke to relates to the current and potential enthusiasm of people to take part in projects, businesses and initiatives that have ‘green’ ideas in its core, be it green businesses or waste transformation in their communities. This goes hand in hand with another noted signal, on the growing infrastructure of the Macedonian startup scene, with available early-stage startup funding in several urban centers, as well as some startups having attracted international investors.
- Empowerment and Education
We also received signals of change, that talk about anticipated activities in the spaces of empowerment and education of people. One area of anticipated change is media literacy and the resilience of communities, institutions, and people in avoiding and tackling mis-disinformation campaigns. Although rather low on the lists of media literacy, the indexes suggest that we are having incremental improvements. In addition to this, another recorded signal, speaks about the potential strengthening of civil political education in the school system in North Macedonia, as a tool to improve the current situation regarding recorded attitudes of young people in the country on various democratic principles and processes. Depopulation and demographic changes are also one notable signal of change, that will require a whole-of-a-society approach in tackling in the years ahead. Last census data in North Macedonia showed a significant drop of the population with the youth population being one of the most affected age groups.
Other signals from the civil society organizations including signals on the demographic challenges, the functioning of municipalities and the mechanisms at their disposal for funding core development projects, signals connected to initiatives and policies that can improve the health of our citizens, however for the time being, we wanted to experiment with this intangible foresight infrastructure for collecting insights and data on probable futures, and how we can include these insights in both UNDP programing, but also in future-oriented projects, where we support national institutions.
The authors of this text would like to thank the Civil Society Organizations that took the time to participate in our ‘signals scanning’ exercise, our UNDP colleagues Marija Karaeva, Igor Izotov as well as our collaborator Jurij Kobal that gave us valuable advice on how to frame this article.