Foresight in governments – practices and trends around the world

30 May 2013

This study provides the initial results of a survey of foresight activities undertaken by a select group of governments around the world.

The study was begun following the recent initiative by European Union (EU) in- stitutions to build a joint foresight capacity (European Strategy and Policy Analysis System – ESPAS) that assesses long-term global trends to help them strengthen policy planning. In addition to contributing to the discussion about this new EU activity, the study is also intended to be of interest for the wider European policy planning community and to anyone interested in learning about how governments practise ‘the art of the long view’ (Schwartz, 1991).

This study looks at the way governments approach foresight, the issues they try to grapple with and the challenges they face in connecting foresight and policy. Its focus is on foresight exercises that look ten years or more into the future. The study does not include within its scope foresight activities undertaken at the initiative of business, academic or non-governmental organisations, though some government-led activities do involve these other actors.

Foresight work includes a range of activities related to the production of knowledge about possible futures. This knowledge is not of the future, nor any real future, but rather ‘the manufactured knowledge of [a] restricted number of possibilities’ (Sardar, 2010). The output of foresight work very often involves the creation of scenarios for the future which can be analysed for their likelihood and potential impact. Foresight also commonly uses practices such as ‘trend impact analysis’, ‘horizon scanning’, or the Delphi method.

This study presents an initial tour d’horizon of a limited number of countries who undertake foresight activities: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). The countries were chosen to represent a diverse selection of countries based on location, economic profile, power status and political regime. The analysis is based on desk research and interviews conducted with professionals in government, academia and think tanks. This study also looked at the foresight activities of a range of international organisations with mandates for public service and which interact with governments as sources of knowledge and policy advice. As foresight activity tends to be scattered across departments and not always made public, it was not possible to be exhaustive in our analysis of the countries in this study. Time constraints and language barriers may also have affected the outcome of the study.

The first part of the study identifies the main issues that governments grapple with and offers a preliminary historical overview to shed light on current practice. The second part compares the approaches to foresight taken by governments and the institutional setting for foresight activities. The third part tries to assess the conditions for fruitful foresight.

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