The Value of Foresight in Development (and Beyond)

May 18, 2020

Every single person on the planet – bar those who have been lucky enough to shield themselves from the rest of the world in the last few months – is talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus, previously unknown to most of us, has so far claimed over a quarter of a million lives [1], and sadly the numbers will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. In the absence of a cure or a vaccine for which clinical trials are underway, the biggest challenge right now is to stop its spread especially in developing countries where health systems are weak and economies are fragile. The level of damage it would cause in such places (and beyond) is unimaginable.

Now that we have a long pause globally in almost all aspects of life, there cannot be a better time to reflect on what has happened in such a short space of time and focus on how to design better systems to cope with similar crises in the future. It is abundantly clear that how we got to where we are today is much less to do with where and how the virus originated – and yes, there are a lot of conspiracy theories and all sorts of misinformation out there! – than why we were not prepared in the first place. The global picture before us is a product of short-termism and lack of foresight. The former is generally a symptom of relatively short election cycles; politicians choose to prioritise issues for which they will be held accountable during the few years they are in office over long-term needs of communities they have been elected to serve. Foresight, on the other hand, is a bit more complex since it requires not only the will to act but also a certain set of skills that are hard to find in many parts of the world. Moreover, the insufficient understanding of what foresight is often leads to confusion around its scope and potential benefits for organisations and society at large.

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

The recent Global Foresight Summit has been a breath of fresh air in terms of what it means to democratise foresight and other future-oriented methodologies. It has also demonstrated the wide range of specialisms that are involved in imagining plausible futures. As AccLab Turkey’s Head of Exploration, I have been spending the last few weeks on strengthening my practice by developing new skills and knowledge around identifying and interpreting emerging signals. Ironically, there could not have been a better time to do it than now!

The foresight work which forms a large part of the exploration function at AccLabs aims to support UNDP’s strategy development at the national and regional levels; the value it offers comes in many forms but mostly of saving limited organisational resources (such as time and funds) by providing information on risks and opportunities that may arise in the near future or even a long way down the line. It is worth mentioning that the anticipatory nature of this work does not mean it is about providing precise and accurate predictions; it means foreseeing developments, based on robust methods and rigorous analysis, in a range of scenarios which all organisations, especially those working in the complex development space, should prepare for.

What next?

In the coming weeks and months, there will be a lot of foresight work coming out of UNDP Accelerator Labs thanks to a global effort. We will be using various methods and tools and rely on a diverse set of sources for relevant signals. And luckily, labs won’t be doing it alone; we have formed a strong collective which should only improve the quality of the work we do and the intelligence we gather. The insights we will generate are meant to inform the practices of UNDP Country Offices (COs) where Accelerator Labs are based, but they should also provide strategic value for our partners and other stakeholders.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a crisis go to waste”. The COVID-19 pandemic, as tragic as it is, should be a wake-up call for all of us. The heightened realization of how important preparedness is should give us the much-needed impetus for developing future-oriented strategies in search of a more sustainable world. If not now, when?

Gokce Tuna is Head of Exploration at UNDP Accelerator Lab Turkey and RBEC Focal Point for UNDP’s emerging signals workstream. You can follow her on Twitter.

[1] The number of deaths from COVID-19 is estimated to be in the region of 310K as of 15/05/2020