Using foresight to develop strategy and policy

Using foresight to develop strategy and policy

This is the first in a series of blogs based on a report to the European Commission by SAMI and a consortium of partners, IFOK, Cadmus, and Teknologi Radet, to develop a system for using foresight to develop EU R&I policy.

This first blog sets out four global scenarios for 2040. The next two blogs will:

  • look in more detail at one global scenario – the one that most closely reflects the current state of the world; and
  • describe how the scenarios can be kept up to date, factoring new information, reflecting new drivers of change, and wild card events.

After that, a series of ten blogs will look in turn at scenarios for each of the regions covered by the study. The ten regions are:

  • China;
  • Japan, South Korea & Taiwan;
  • ASEAN;
  • India & its Neighbours;
  • Australia & New Zealand;
  • Russia & Central Asia;
  • The Middle East & North Africa;
  • Sub-Saharan Africa;
  • Central & South America; and
  • United States, Canada & Mexico.

The Report is available to download here.

The Global Scenarios

The bedrock of the scenario framework consists of two key concerns:

  • whether the World will be more integrated, and collectivist ideologies will prevail, or whether it will be less integrated and dominated by individualist and/or localist ideologies; and
  • whether the organizing principles of the global system in the future will continue to be dominated by the current economic paradigm or whether there will be a paradigmatic shift in the direction of sustainability and planetary health.

During the study, working with the EU client, and with other experts, gaming was used to explore the most powerful factors that could, in the future, push regions from one meta-scenario to another. We will look at this in the third blog in the series.

This is how the global scenarios look in diagram form. The “tree” identities match neatly the different characteristics of the four scenarios.

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic encapsulates the importance of building flexibility into the scenarios, and the need to face potential surprises that history may have in wait for us. The pandemic teaches us is that foresight itself is not immune from the shocks of turbulent change.



Other major factors that will drive change in the regions include:

  • The world is already becoming poly-nodal, as opposed to the post-war period when there were two major power blocs forming two poles. The rise of China and India, along with the consolidation of the economic power of other regions, signals a shift in power from the West and North, to the East and South.
  • Climate change has moved decisively from a hypothetical future event to a major event in the present: climate impacts on different regions will vary in their nature and gravity, and the regional scenarios will say more about this, but no regions will escape climate change impacts;
  • Demographic change will vary, but in most regions by 2040, populations will either be stationary or falling, and aging. The main exceptions are Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Indian sub-continent. A reducing and aging population will affect the culture and values of the regions affected as well as their economic prospects;
  • The global economy looks increasingly unpredictable, as a result of the global recession and disruption to trade caused by the Covid-19 pandemic;
  • Science, research and technology will continue to advance rapidly.

While the future is wide open, scenarios themselves are built to bound ranges of critical possibilities, and to enable in-depth exploration of potential futures for specific regions of the world, given the different situation of each region.

The road to the future needs to contain some elements that are common across all global scenarios and all regions. The first such element is the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The second such element, following the pandemic, is the global economic depression that again will produce different results in different regions. The third such element, further forward into the future, described how the region recovered from the economic depression.
The graphic below shows a notional timeline summarising the touchpoints from the narrative arc.


SAFIRE timeline

Summaries of The Four Scenarios:

BAMBOO – Transforming Together
Axes: globalism and inclination to transform geopolitical and economic systems

The Covid-19 pandemic illuminated fundamental inequalities within countries and between countries. Across the world virus denialism crashed into epidemiological reality. The pandemic accelerated exploration of previously unthinkable policy options across civil society and in governments. With national governments stumbling, provincial, state, and city governments rose to the challenge – often organizing cooperative efforts with each other, or even with counterparts in other countries.

The pandemic lit up new possibilities of people working together in new ways. People raised the hope that the world emerging from the pandemic would take a new tack, and chart a new course into a more sustainable future. International policymakers and agencies called for nations to unite in addressing the pandemic, setting aside other hostilities.

Having weathered the 2020 pandemic, and the food crisis of the early 2030s, countries approached 2040 with stronger links across borders, and greater citizen participation at home. Digital governance platforms enabled new models of direct democracy and government accountability.

By 2040, the global economy was more distributed and decentralized. Social equity was higher both within countries and between countries. Many of the most innovative and flexible new product designs emerged from the global South.

WILLOW – Future as Fortress
Axes: protectionism and inclination to transform geopolitical and economic systems

Covid-19 was a shock to the system. Despite calls for a unified response from global bodies, national leadership was often much less prepared for global collaboration. What did become clear were local strengths, local innovation, and local adaptation: in Brazil, drug cartels locked down favelas for public health when the government failed to do so; in South Africa, the health service adapted mobile TB testing units for on-the-spot Covid testing and localized their test reagent supply; and in Kiev, monks made hand sanitizer in Vydubychi monastery. With little effective global or national coordination, communities and businesses – even organized crime! – just went ahead and “got it done”.

In the first five years after the 2020 pandemic, most countries maintained a cordon sanitaire around their populations and resources. Or they tried to – the disruption to global food production and supply both from closed borders cutting off the migrant agricultural work force and from countries holding on to their supplies for security reasons put pressure on closed-border policies. The crisis highlighted a need to maximise national self-reliance in food and in medical supplies. This shifted research priorities and funding to bioscience – both in agriculture and in health and medicine.

By 2040, the global economy was more distributed and decentralized – localised value chains produced isolated mercantilism and weaponized markets. Trade agreements were a tangle of unilateral negotiations – one result was very complicated intellectual property rights regimes. Governance around the world focused on the nation and national security. Politicians and voters were suspicious of the agendas of other governments, of multi-national corporations, and of NGOs.

OAK – Protectionism Predominant
Axes: protectionism and focus on business as usual

Covid-19 smashed around the globe like a tsunami. Social and political systems fractured along fault lines of power, privilege, wealth, and bias. Strong leaders tightened their grip on structures of governance. Vladimir Putin manoeuvred Russia’s Constitutional Court into amending term limits, enabling him to run for a fifth and even a sixth term as president. In Hungary’s ‘coronavirus coup’, the Hungarian parliament granted Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree for an indefinite time, and declared new penalties on speech and breaking quarantine. In Brazil, Joao Bolsonaro reinforced populist fervour by focusing on the economy over epidemiology.

In the first five years after the pandemic, most countries were simply struggling to address massive unemployment and the homelessness and food insecurity that followed. Lockdown surveillance persisted as an overall restriction on people’s movement and rights of assembly. Fears that incomers might trigger additional infection fuelled anti-migration sentiments. An abrupt end to remittances from migrant workers to poor relatives in their home countries heightened poverty and desperation.

National digital IDs were widely deployed – many countries used them for identification, driver’s licenses, virus and infection tracking, and ration cards. Social credit in turn opened or closed access to resources and rights.

In 2040 populist political movements had kept many authoritarian leaders firmly in power, backed by wealthy supporters. Inequity had increased both internationally and internally – big data-hoarding companies had concentrated wealth and digital power mechanisms in the hands of a few. Surveillance capitalism became the surveillance state. Social liberties were eroded, with citizens limited in movement, action, and expression.

REDWOOD – Stockholder Society
Axes: globalism and focus on business as usual

Covid-19 threw a large spanner in the gears of the global economy. Energy demand collapsed and the critical shortage in oil markets became storage, not crude. Small and medium-sized businesses struggled, flailed, and despite government bailouts, many went under. But even as millions lost jobs, the rich became richer. Big firms and multinational corporations benefitted from closer ties to political power structures, capturing more direct assistance at a larger scale.

In the first five years of the pandemic, countries tried to claw their way back to economic stability. As a result, corporate goals over-rode social and political niceties: what was good for the multi-nationals was good for the world. Political and business leaders united to prop up oil markets, locking fossil fuel energy and plastics into global supply chains. Climate crisis impacts simply became another market for services and innovations.

In 2040, the global economy was more than ever a ‘stockholder society,’ with global corporations directing flows of resources – whether ideas, raw materials, automated systems and software, or people. Society had become even more unequal and more fragmented. National governments had become more hands-off. International institutions and NGOs had gradually strengthened but global governance was driven more by the private sector than by politicians.

Written by David Lye, SAMI Fellow

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

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