Now for the Long Term

By Robert Hickson 21/10/2013

The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations have just released a report – Now for the Long Term.  In addition to laying out the megatrends and challenges facing the world, they also propose some solutions.




The report does a generally good job in setting out concisely some of the  “megatrends” (ie long lasting trends that are likely to have significant, but not immediately apparent impacts), although the discussion on technology megatrends is disappointingly mostly about information technologies.

It links these megatrends to five types of challenges that are likely to shape the future of human societies:

  • How can growth and development be made more sustainable and inclusive?

  • How can food, energy, water and biodiversity be made more secure?

  • How can public health infrastructure and processes respond to the needs of all?

  • How can power transitions be the basis of fresh forms of collaboration?

  • How can businesses, institutions and governments contribute to more inclusive and sustainable growth?

The second part of the report looks back to see if there are historical precedents for how societies have handled crises well or badly. I found this section, by summarising a range of different events and developments – involving past crises, shared interests, leadership, inclusive governance, and collaborative institutions – particularly useful. Some of the examples include the global financial crisis, genocides in Somalia and Rwanda, Y2K, the EU’s Single Market Programmes, the Helsinki Accords, the Montreal Protocol banning ozone-depleting chloro-fluoro carbons, tobacco control, and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations.

I got the sense though that the examples were, unsurprisingly, chosen to support their proposals for how to address the challenges.

The report does a very good job in highlighting that there isn’t a quick and easy fix to what we, the world, are facing. They note the factors that make change hard are:

  • 20th century structures and institutions are poorly equipped for 21st century challenges

  • Political and business timeframes encourage short-sightedness

  • Declining trust in politics and limited opportunities for constructive public engagement

  • Issues are becoming more complex and evidence may be less certain

  • Cultural barriers within and between societies are a big hinderance

Their proposed solutions are neither easy, nor often particularly appealing or exciting at first (or even second) glance. They place a lot of emphasis on developing standards, having better data, and greater transparency.

More multi-stakeholder partnerships – what they call a “Coalition of the Working – bringing together countries, companies and cities to counteract climate change. While of some merit, I feel their selection of which groups to involve is restrictive. Only companies affiliated with the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, for example. No constructive NGOs or smaller community organisations that could have useful experience and insights to contribute.

They also propose the creation of new, or at least re-invigorated, global institutions, that focus on long-term resilience. Not exciting stuff, but they do point to existing institutions that can form the basis of the new ones.

Other proposal include:

  • Reduce fossil fuel and agricultural subsidies.
  • Establish a Voluntary World Taxation and Regulatory Exchange so to encourage harmonise taxation systems for multinational corporations are more transparent about .
  • Implement existing proposals for long term accounting frameworks, so that there isn’t a bias against future generations.
  • Develop a long-Term Index to measure governance.
  • Break inter-generational poverty through greater focus on social protection schemes.
  • Address the youth unemployment crises.
  • Articulate a common global vision and shared values for global civilisation.

All in all a liberal agenda. Some, like a common global vision, may be unachievable, or of little actual utility even if they were.

The Commission responsible for the report is impressive, but in my view would benefit from having a few more hard-headed business leaders involved.

As a Guardian columnist noted following the report’s release, building more institutions may not create the most agile, innovative and effective means of addressing some of the problems. But she also noted that currently available alternatives made her queasy too.

Still, as Rick Boven noted in his Guest Work here on Sciblogs, the top down approach by itself won’t work. More attention could be paid to the ability of individuals and small(-ish) groups to effect change at the local level.

The report does a good job of indicating where we can pick up on some smaller scale activities and institutions that may work at larger scale. But that isn’t a given. With the scale and range of challenges we are facing, more experimenting rather than lock-in is necessary. However, time and money for exquisitely designed randomised controlled trials isn’t available.

The Oxford Martin Commission is to be commended for bringing together a lot of information into a useful compilation, and suggesting solutions. They may not be the best solutions, but they can stimulate the discussions and thinking.

My question to the Commission is “what next?” A lot of effort went into the report, what’s your encore? There is no indication of that at the moment.