Conway, M., and Stewart, C.C., 2004, Creating and Sustaining Social Foresight in Australia: A Review of Government Foresight, Australian Foresight Institute, Swinburne University, Melbourne Australia.


Introduction

The use of futures approaches in government is not new. Governments around the world have been using a range of approaches since the mid 20th century. Most of this work has, however, been focused around science and technology foresight, rather than social foresight. Long-term societal well-being – that is, recognising responsibility for future generations – has not generally been a primary focus of government foresight projects to date. But, as Blackman14 suggests, there is hope:

“After the wilderness years of the 1980s and much of the 1990s, governments are again showing serious and increasing interest in futures research and thinking. This extends far beyond the technology foresight programs which have been established in many countries in recent years (and of which I think it is fair to say those at the centre of government remain highly sceptical). Rather, there is a renewed desire at the heart of government to assess whether and how futures thinking and foresight can be of more help right across government departments: what machinery could be there at the centre of government that would help manage risk better … Or seize opportunities …”

Better understanding of exactly how futures thinking can be integrated into business decision-making and government decision-making processes. This means knowing not just the best way to use a particular methodology, for it depends critically on the context in which the exercise takes place. This section provides an overview of government foresight projects, and research and evaluation studies on the efficacy of foresight in government, in order to establish some understanding of the scope and outcomes of past and present activity.

Government Foresight Projects and Programs

Appendix 1 summarises a desktop scan undertaken to identify past and current government foresight projects and programs. It does not pretend to be inclusive, particularly since information about government foresight is to be found in many and varied sources. It was often difficult to cross reference information about projects across sources in order to avoid duplication of entries in the scan. Projects identified in different sources sometimes appeared to be very similar, but had different titles or websites. Partial listings of government foresight work were found in many studies, but most were limited in scope. A notable exception was the German Futur site (http://www.futur.de/en/index.htm) which has an extensive database of foresight projects around the world. For the purposes of this research, it was considered to be more important to obtain a view of the range of government foresight work rather than attempt to identify and include every project or activity. The scan therefore started again to build a representative, rather than comprehensive, listing of government foresight work. It provides a snapshot in 2004 of the clearly widespread use of futures approaches by governments across the world as a tool for developing input into policy decisions in the past and the present. Some overview observations on the scan can be made:

  • foresight projects in government have been underway for a long time; this is not a new methodology for government, but its popularity as a policy tool has been cyclical,
  • early use of foresight appears to have been in specific government projects, led by particular departments, and focused around forecasting, with some projects continuing over a significant period of time,
  • there has been increased emphasis in recent years on regional foresight, particularly in Europe and Latin America, led by governments or governmental agencies,
  • early projects preferred Delphi methodology, with scenario planning becoming more common in the 1980s/1990s, with a related move to involve a wider range of stakeholders and panels in the process,
  • there has been a shift away from the predictive, forecasting approaches used in early foresight projects to a more open, exploratory approach and a parallel desire for more methodological rigour in those approaches,
  • a shift from a focus on ensuring prediction and tangible outcomes to one that places value on the process itself and more intangible outcomes such as networks, and
  • the overwhelming focus has been on science and technology foresight, with a shift to integrate a more social focus in recent years.

A number of phases in foresight work can be identified. A rationalist, more technical and quantitative approach characterised the 1960s, with a focus on technology forecasting and short term projects using technical experts. A second generation in the 1980s saw recognition of chaos and unpredictability and had a broader focus that included markets, integration with commercial feasibility issues and used a wider range of experts, including academe and industry. A third generation in the 1990s was characterised by a view of futures work as a way to generate commitment and engage stakeholders and included more emphasis on social aspects.15 Generally, however, decisions to use foresight appear to have been based on short-term imperatives rather than because government recognised the need to develop a social foresight capacity to underpin its policy making processes, or because government recognised its commitment to ensuring a sustainable future for future generations. Foresight appears rather to have been viewed as a tool that would facilitate improved understanding of future development in science and technology and to allow governments to focus spending on identified priority areas: The contribution of foresight is twofold: it provides difficult-to-acquire strategic information for decision-making, and it functions as a socio-economic mobilisation tool to raise awareness and to create consensus around promising ways to exploit the opportunities and diminish the risks associated with new science and technology developments.16 The inherent value of studying the future in a more systematic way to improve the quality of the strategic thinking17 which informs policy development does not appear to have been an overt factor in the use of futures approaches by government.