On 18 and 19 November last year, the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) held its annual conference. “Thinking about the Future: Europe’s Road to 2030” took place entirely online – a shame for those of us who enjoy the opportunity to travel to Brussels and meet colleagues from around Europe, but a real proof that these events, when properly thought through and managed, can be just as effective from attendees’ respective bedrooms.
The list of speakers was pretty stellar – the President of the European Parliament, the former Prime Minister of Finland, the Prime Minister of Spain, Madeline Albright, senior members of the European Action Service, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the DG of the Council of the EU, and many more.
There has been a change that feels seismic for our field in the EU since Ursula von der Leyen assumed the Presidency: raising foresight to a named, vice presidential responsibility. Maroš Šefčovič is “Vice President for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight”.
It’s perhaps difficult to overestimate the importance of this simple title change. Foresight has been an essential part of policy work in Brussels for many years. Indeed, SAMI has undertaken some of this work and has recently completed an 18-month project for the Commission’s Directorate General of Research and Innovation. There has, though, been a feeling that whilst foresight is important, it is not central; a “good to have” rather than a “must-have”.
Vice-President Šefčovič’s appointment, terms of reference, and his announcements at ESPAS move futures thinking into the “must-have” bracket. We’ll have an opportunity in these blogs to look in more detail at some of the initiatives, especially the first annual Strategic Foresight Report, “Charting the course towards a more resilient Europe”.
One of Šefčovič’s other announcements is, though, a good place to start this series of blogs.
In almost his penultimate paragraph, he announced: “I am launching an EU-wide Strategic Foresight Network, which will see EU institutions, Member States, think tanks, academia, civil society, and international organisations joining forces.”
Foresight is a relatively small profession. There are ‘communities of interest’ in government (such as the UK government’s Heads of Horizon Scanning Network) and organisations such as the Association of Professional Futurists, the recently launched Futures Space, and SAMI’s Cohort of futures practitioners.
But the promise of the Strategic Foresight Network is different. With support at the vice-presidential level and an extensive membership across society and government, the potential is enormous. One can imagine projects of real range and depth; a determination to tie foresight to policy development; and inclusiveness which sometimes government foresight projects have failed to find.
We have been here before, of course. Exciting, multi-actor initiatives are difficult to sustain; challenging to maintain coherently, and prone to bursts of action followed by long periods of stasis. Subsequent EC presidencies can change vice-presidential portfolios’ and roles as quickly as President von der Leyen has done. Nothing, as we always remind people, is permanent.
So we – by which I mean Europe in its broadest sense – now need to take this by both hands. Orienting futures thinking in the heart of policymaking in the EU will drive it into the hearts of governments within and beyond the EU. And that will make better policy, and perhaps help us better deal with a future which remains desperately uncertain. During the conference, a throwaway line – that there might be a network of “Ministers for the Future” – offers the possibility of a crucial development, which we shall be watching closely.
This blog is the first of a series on the state of foresight in government. Subsequent articles will cover the first EC’s Annual Strategic Foresight Report. We shall examine the concept of “open strategic autonomy” in the EU’s thinking; and compare government foresight initiatives. We will look at how the triple shocks of Brexit, the Trump administration, and the pandemic, have forced governments to think hard about the future. And we will look at what they need to do next.
Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.
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