Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has a futures group. They’ve just released a report called Australia 2030: navigating our uncertain future.
There are some nice aspects to the report, and it is good to see rigorous futures techniques being applied in our hemisphere. But, overall, I was underwhelmed.
The report is based around four scenarios:
- Digital DNA – where digital services play a greater role in the economy
- Mining & dining – where minerals, energy and food have a renaissance
- Clean & lean – where economic growth occurs alongside environmental sustainability
- Weathering the storm – global economic stagnation affects Australia too
These scenarios could, largely, also apply to New Zealand (except for digging out huge amounts of ore). Some of the challenges they lay out, such as relatively poor productivity and low investment in research & development, are also familiar issues here.
They look at the impact of these on five existing sectors of the Australian economy and how “innovation” can help improve Australia’s social and economic prospects. The sectors are:
- Food & agriculture
- Healthcare & pharmaceuticals
- Oil, gas & energy
The intention of the report is to highlight how changes may affect existing key industries in Australia, and to stimulate thinking about how science and technologies could help realise opportunities that emerge from these changes.
The main weaknesses or limitations of the 2030 report relate to the effectiveness with which the scenarios are described. Where I think they could improve is in their novelty, telling an interesting story, being logically consistent, drawing out similarities and differences between scenarios and impacts, and looking at systems rather than individual technologies.
Firstly, while they seem to have put a lot of resources into the work, there isn’t much that’s new. Digital transformation, sustainability, resource innovation and stagnation are all common tropes in scenarios.
Still, their main audiences may not be familiar with the issues, so good for them in making them relevant to Australian firms.
Secondly, the scenarios didn’t really come to life for me. In part this is because they are high-level and short, light on the specifics. They could have made the scenarios more relatable by, for example, having a short story about a day in the life of a farmer (or miner, or engineer, or office worker) in 2030, or highlighted a particular example. As Wilkinson & Kupers noted good storytelling is critical for a scenario to work:
“If it’s sufficiently vivid and memorable, it allows executives to discuss difficult issues without having to revisit arguments connected with them: A few words can evoke a world.”
Thirdly, some of the thinking isn’t shown. For each scenario they describe the general impacts on the economy, society, environment and industry. I liked that, but how they arrived at the impact level wasn’t explained.
For example, in the Digital DNA scenario they note that many people may no longer be in the workforce, but they rate the social impact high and positive. I wanted to know how this would come about given all the discussions about the negative impacts of automation on people.
Stepping back to look across scenarios
Fourthly, they tend to look at each scenario and sector impact separately. This risks seeing each scenario as discrete, rather than illustrating the less certain nature of the future. A more useful approach would be to identify common factors, or discontinuities, across the scenarios, which could inform strategies that help prepare for any of the scenarios (or other ones).
Focus on systems not just individual technologies
Lastly, I did like the fact that they spent time looking at how each of the scenarios affects the five sectors. However, they generally focused on particular technology enablers, rather than stimulating readers to think about the increasing complexities of interactions within systems. For example, they mentioned low cost genome sequencing in relation to food and agriculture for one scenario, and agronomics for another, but didn’t flag how these different technology and science sets could be used in combination (and with other emerging technologies) for a more systems level approach to agriculture.
In my opinion these limitations create risks that organisations or sectors will focus on the scenario that they prefer, or seems easiest to tackle. Or they may not sufficiently realise the assumptions and complexities involved in thinking about possible futures. And they may not be challenging or interesting enough to get senior people thinking and preparing adequately for that uncertain future.
I also thought that having a strategic framework section was useful. But it just seems to offer strategy 101 advice, so is probably of not much utility for organisations with good strategic planning already in place. However, if the report stimulates those who aren’t undertaking good long term strategy to do so then that is a good result.
But process matters more than product
It’s easy to pick apart a report. As the CSIRO’s Executive Director notes in the forward, the report involved discussions with 7000 people. It is the process and conversations that matter more than the product. So accolades to Australia for thinking at a country-wide scale.
Futures work in NZ
New Zealand has tended to take a issue or sector specific approach to futures.
You see an issue or sector specific approach in other government agencies too, each one doing their own bit of futuring, and then moving on.
New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes have had various futures phases. Landcare Research undertook scenario work for several years, but funding for their futures programme has not continued. Scion had an active futures programme too, which informed their strategic change from being called the Forest Research Institute, but they don’t appear to have sustained that level of effort.
Should we do something similar in NZ?
The one thing that struck me most from the CSIRO approach was that they could tap relatively easily into a broad range of expertise across all of their specialist areas. That doesn’t seem as feasible here, with Crown Research Institutes being separate. And they won’t have all the knowledge and skills to do it alone. The Royal Society also isn’t funded to do such in-depth work on a regular basis either.
Developing high-level scenarios could be a good way of starting a set of discussions about New Zealand’s possible futures. However, given New Zealand’s reluctance to think about the future systemically, a better approach would be to focus on more particular issues. We have a tendency to expend a lot of money, enthusiasm and energy talking about generalities to little effect. (Remember the Knowledge Wave?)
We tend to do better on particular issues. This would allow more engaging stories to be told and a closer involvement of decision makers in the exploration of assumptions, issues and potential options. This would, hopefully, demonstrate more tangible benefits for futures approaches, building confidence and support for continued forward-looking activity in other areas.
A report is also not enough. Landcare Research in their futures work developed games and other approaches to get people more engaged and thinking for themselves about possibilities.