The UN Report 'Our Common Agenda' and Foresight – 2

The UN Report 'Our Common Agenda' and Foresight – 2

In last week’s blog, we looked back at the UN Secretary-General’s Report, “Our Common Agenda”, published in September 2021 in response to a request from Member States for recommendations on how to respond better to current and future challenges.

This week, we consider a report published this month from the Millennium Project, an international participatory think tank, on behalf of the international foresight community, looking specifically at five elements for improving global foresight mentioned in the original report. The report was carried out by a Real Time Delphi Study calling for judgements about the criticality of each of the five elements, and enabling participants to give their views, and then, if they so wished, in the light of comments made by the other participants, to refine their views to enable a considered consensus to emerge. The author was one of the contributors.

189 professionals from 54 countries participated, and it should come as no surprise that, given the nebulous nature of the topic and the variety of the respondents, at first sight the report seems to overwhelm the reader with a veritable avalanche of creative comments and ideas. This is the massive endorsement that the international foresight community has given the five foresight elements of “Our Common Agenda”. It is best described by a selection of indicative comments made by the contributors: the five elements will be considered in turn.

The element regarded as very critical with the largest number of votes was the creation of a Futures Laboratory (“Futures Lab”). This would include conducting future impact assessments of major policies and programmes, convening foresight and planning experts across the United Nations system and its multilateral partners and regularly reporting on megatrends and catastrophic risks. This could support states, sub-national authorities and others to enhance long-termism, forward action and adaptability. Respondents felt that the UN system had lacked a high-level space for futures and foresight, and it would give a focal point for collecting global futures research and assessing strategies to improve the prospects for humanity. Alternatively, it could use futures intelligence networks that already exist to connect specialists, experts, entities that work on these issues and the countries that need this support.

The element regarded as very critical with the second highest number of votes was the regular issue of Strategic Foresight and Global Risk Reports. One striking comment made was that this would help to improve the consensus of global elites and national leaders and stimulate future thinking on a global scale. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had originally proposed to present a report every five years, but one respondent pointed out that accelerating change meant that a two-year time frame would be better with an intermediate report every year. (The present writer voted for annual reports.) Another contributor noted that one benefit of ongoing reports was that you could highlight what had changed from the previous report and why and what remained persistent.

However, the element regarded as either critical or very critical that had the highest number of combined votes was the UN Summit of the Future. Mr. Guterres has proposed that this be held at the 78th session of the General Assembly (in 2023). This attracted many supportive comments. One stated:

“The Summit provides an opportunity for each nation to record its role in achieving a desirable future; these views could be analysed and synthesised for a report by the Office of the UN Secretary-General for a “state of national thinking about the future”, which could then become a focus or benchmark for improvement.”

The serious involvement of key countries could be a catalyst for raising interest and putting policies into action. It could encourage countries to integrate the goals and objectives of “Our Common Agenda” into their national long-term plans.

If this sounds rather optimistic, respondents also realised that at least the opportunity was there to bring Heads of State together in informal off the record meetings with forward thinkers and innovators and try to “change [the] development models of leaders”.

The need to use the Summit to engage the general public worldwide was also recognised. The Summit should be broadcast live with commentators and futurists interpreting what was happening as if it was the Olympic Games. This would increase global awareness of actions to be implemented locally.

The last two elements, the Special Envoy for Future Generations and the Trusteeship Council repurposed as a Foresight Body, were also warmly welcomed if seen as slightly less critical. It has always seemed to me that anyone dealing with foresight and the long-term was by definition thinking about future generations. But as a speaker who had become a grandmother pointed out at a foresight meeting I was attending whilst in the middle of writing this blog, for her the long term was an abstract, for her grandchild it would be real. Youth should have a greater presence in the profession. The Trusteeship Council, which formerly supervised UN Trust Territories through to self-government or independence, has been dormant since 1994, but as one respondent pointed out:

“The Trusteeship Council can be an overseer of the Summit of the Future results.”

Finally, in response to an open question about further strategies, it was suggested that the UN should set up an Office on Strategic or Existential Threats. These tend to be omitted from national plans as “beyond the remit”.

If these proposals come about, they would push foresight and collective intelligence to the heart of global planning in the organisation responsible for trying to keep the planet in equilibrium. A Summit of the Future in a year’s time would be a unique opportunity both to engage world leaders in this thinking and to capture the public imagination. Without leaders on side and a better informed general public, nothing will happen. Anyone with an interest in foresight should be thinking now about how they could advance this agenda over the next twelve months.

Tony Diggle is a SAMI Associate and published playwright. He was a contributor to the Millennium Project Real-Time Delphi Study and writes in a personal capacity.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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