By Robert Hickson 20/06/2021

Goldilocks, the house breaker, always had a choice of three, one of which always appeared to be just right.

Temporally, there’s three types of futures too. Short-term, medium-term, and long-term.

Those are all relative, depending on what you are looking at. Some technologies, for example, change very quickly, so “long-term” may be less than a decade. In contrast, societal change often plays out over decades, while environmental changes may occur over a century or more.

Unlike for Goldilocks, none of these futures timeframes will be “just right”, because the future isn’t edible or a piece of furniture. Nor is it a destination. But it’s important to consider which timeframe(s) best suits the issue(s) you are interested in.

Often futures reports seem to pick a date out of the ether and then fit the subject matter into it, regardless if that timeframe is “too hard or too big” (that is, too long) or “too soft or too small” (too short) for what’s under consideration. Or they avoid trying to think in several timeframes.

Many recent futures projects by governments, and other organisations, seem to be going for the soft futures option. Twenty to thirty years is now seen as ambitious. This may reflect how seldom we look ahead, and how poorly we handle uncertainty. There is a reluctance to stray too far from what we can anticipate.

Three decades is only six to 10 election cycles, and roughly one new generational cohort. Not long-term thinking at all. But it gives the impression of confidence that we can plan out to that date.


España 2050

A recent example of the shorter term futures approach comes from Spain.

Spain is seeking to transform itself by 2050. It has produced a huge report, España 2050 (in Spanish, naturalmente), that sets out how education, health and social services, the public sector, transportation, regional development, and the tax system need to change.

The Spanish government is asking for feedback on the plans, and will be holding a “national dialogue” later this year.

Aspects of the report are summarised in English here.

Sensible stuff for the most part, though changing taxes and pension schemes will be sure to create heated discussions.

From España 2050. Translation: “Strategy design (phase II of the exercise)”. “Estrategia de Largo Plazo” = Long Term Strategy; “Futuro deseable”  = Desirable future.

From España 2050. Translation: “Strategy design (phase II of the exercise)”. “Estrategia de Largo Plazo” = Long Term Strategy; “Futuro deseable”  = Desirable future.


Notice the nice smooth curves. Very soothing. Nothing messy or chaotic. And it is going up, so that must be good. Everything is under control.

On the whole the report is technocratic rather than inspiring. Useful as far as it goes, but it seems to focus on attributes – better educated young people, more efficient health system, a more productive economy. There’s no bigger picture, such as what Spaniards would like their lives and society to be like in 30 years.

It has defined the preferred future and is asking for feedback, rather than involving communities and businesses in exploring a range of futures.

Apart from proposing new taxes, it seems to be promoting a “business as largely usual” and “catching up with the neighbours” approach, with new money into old systems. Some structural changes, but nothing much deeper.


New Zealand’s myopia

New Zealand is still struggling to think just a few years ahead. Goldilocks hasn’t got very far inside the house yet.

An example is the Public Service Act 2020. This includes a requirement (in Schedule 6) that departmental chief executives publish a long-term insights briefing to the appropriate Minister at least once every 3 years and must do so independently of Ministers. The purpose of these are to make publicly available “information about medium- and long-term trends, risks, and opportunities that affect or may affect New Zealand and New Zealand society.”

You would have thought that this type of activity is already a core part of the public service. It’s a belated start, given how the world has changed over the last few decades.

As Dennis and colleagues point out there isn’t much internal capability for these briefings. There is a risk that departments will do them poorly if they view them as simple in-house exercises using staff inexperienced in foresight practices.

I’ve read plenty of “insights” documents from the public and private sector, and most present very few real insights. See my Types of futures reports post for a visual summary. [And if you are looking for help in developing good insights reports Day One Futures can assist]


Examples of futures thinking in New Zealand

There are some kiwi beacons. But on the whole they are short-termist.

Several years ago the Ministry of Transport looked 25 years ahead to consider demand. That’s reasonable for what they were looking at.

Taranaki’s 2050 Roadmap looks to the region’s economic and social future. Developing it involved considerable community engagement, though implementing the roadmap now appears to be a problem.

Predator Free 2050 is already working on achieving its vision.

And, The McGuinness Institute has been promoting discussions about a long term future for Aotearoa New Zealand.

On a much longer time scale Kono (a food and beverage company) has a 500 year vision to “preserve and enhance their taonga for the benefit of current and future generations.” Other Maori organisations are also thinking multi-generationally. The strategies for achieving these aren’t, though, always clear.

Zealandia and other ecosanctuaries have 500 year visions with more tangible plans and outcomes.

 So, we have tended to look ahead in terms of decades, with a few ultra-long term aspirations at the other end.


The 100 year gap 

Thinking five-to-30 years out is a start. It can help build familiarity, capabilities and confidence. It may be a realistic frame for the issue, such as modelling transport demand. Sometimes, as with Predator Free, the timeline provides a strong challenge that stimulates action and innovation.

But we shouldn’t limit futures thinking just to two or three decades. We can fool ourselves that real change can be quicker to achieve than it often is, or that more radical change isn’t feasible. Twenty or 30 years out is often seen as a destination, rather than just a way point.

Thinking in terms of five centuries can be inspiring, but is just aspirational if it isn’t linked to more than short term actions or a set of principles.

What we shouldn’t overlook is the 50-to-100 year timeframe. I’ve found very few examples of that in New Zealand. (I’m currently working with an organisation that is looking 50 years ahead).

This is the realm where you are forced to accept uncertainty, and explore a range of more diverse futures. For some it will be more uncomfortable than just looking ahead two decades. For others it will be liberating. The consequences of system changes usually emerge within this time zone, and it takes us out of thinking about our own lives and generation.

It is more than just having a set of sentiments or picking off attributes (like greater socio-economic equity, or more environmentally sustainable) that we address in isolation. It is about imagining what living in those worlds could be like, making choices now about them, and developing actions to help us start creating a better future for coming generations.

“Where does New Zealand want to be 100 years from now?” is a critical question for us. This requires creating a shared vision and actions to move toward realising it, not just a slogan. Having a longer term collective focus makes it more than likely we’ll be more able to help shape the future, rather than just reacting to change. Something, the pandemic has highlighted.

Elsewhere, some have been calling for more “Cathedral thinking” – setting long term goals, or a far-reaching vision that won’t be fully realised for several generations. This shouldn’t be just narrowly focussed mission-style problem solving.

Reducing carbon footprints, mitigating the impacts of climate change, and eradicating pests don’t give us much insight into how we will be living our lives once (or if) we achieve these. Aotearoa New Zealand hasn’t got to this stage of thinking yet.

In the end Goldilocks is discovered and thrown out, so the house’s inhabitants can go back to their comfortable life. The tale is sometimes viewed as a cautionary tale, warning about the hazards of wandering off and exploring unknown territory.

In contrast, futures thinking and foresight is about that wandering and exploring. We shouldn’t be settling for the first chair, bowl of porridge, bed, or reassuring time frame we come across.


Featured image: Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson, eds. The Book of Knowledge (New York, NY: The Grolier Society, 1912), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons