By Robert Hickson 21/03/2017

Jonathan Boston, of Victoria University, is launching two books this week on anticipatory governance. These are based on his study tour looking at how other governments look ahead. One, Safeguarding the future, from Bridget Williams Books is an extended précis of his larger Governing for the future.

Jonathan notes New Zealand and many other governments have a “presentist” bias – making short term political decisions. His books note possible ways to address this bias. His thesis is well researched, and timely.

However, while political structures are important for longer term thinking, they aren’t sufficient. A broader appeal is necessary to make these structures effective, and enduring.

Cat Tully notes the need to integrate foresight into policy and decision making as a business as usual practice, and to look beyond simply the creation of institutions toward supporting long-term governance “ecosystems”.

I’ve written previously about anticipatory governance, the need to think unpalatable thoughts, and the haplessness of creating a Minister of the Future.

Which is why the analogy of “gravitational pull” appeals to me. It’s simplistic but useful. Mark Bonchek discusses this in the Harvard Business Review in relation to digital strategy. It also applies to foresight, since it focuses on foresight as a force not a thing.

Foresight that works well, like gravity, is more about attraction than repulsion, influencing at a distance, and using it to help change a trajectory efficiently (if you think how NASA uses the gravity of other celestial bodies to get some of its spacecraft to other planets).

Effective foresight is about creating the right forces of attraction. Pulling people (or organisations) to make decisions, rather than pushing. You need to have the right people involved to get the good insights and actions. Part of that is about understanding the motivations of who you are working with, where they may want to go, and what they need in the short term.

While gravity can pull things to the ground, Bonchek notes gravity can also keep things in orbit – that is enable on-going relationships. The future is always changing, so the best foresight projects aren’t about simply dropping a report, but about keeping the interest going, and helping build capability within an organization or community.

Being a “force multiplier”. Big moons have little moons, and so on ad infinitum (well not really). The benefits or impacts of foresight are often unclear, or poorly portrayed. So foresight needs to be able to clearly demonstrate short term as well as longer-term benefits, demonstrating its value and stimulating further activities. A “centre of gravity” of foresight in government, to help individual agencies build capability, and connect across the public service is a useful start.

It’s vital that not only should government be taking foresight, or anticipatory governance, more seriously, so should everyone else. If the public aren’t demanding better anticipation then government is less likely to do it, and more likely to ignore foresight activities. Institutional structures are important, but it involves more than a “build it and they will come” mindset.


Featured image: USGS, Hawaiian Volcanic Observatory