Crises such as the recent pandemic, food and energy supply disruptions, transport bottlenecks, refugee flows due to conflict, climate change or the unexpected inflationary trend in Europe are among the most evident shocks in the recent years. We live in a dynamic and unpredictable world, where citizens, governments and the private sector perceive and experience the present and build the future in different ways.

In the last decades, interest in resilience has been rising rapidly as predicable and unexpected shocks continue testing the limits of the coping capacities of individuals, regions, countries and institutions. The need to embrace uncertainty in decision-making and public policy becomes ever more important. Building sustainable futures means a constant reframing exercise that needs to contextualise and scope changes and clarify which actions need to be taken by whom and for what purposes. Resilient policy design requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders who will share knowledge and views in a process of collective learning. This article reflects on the design of appropriate policy frameworks in an increasingly uncertain world.

Planning during uncertain times

Shocks do not happen in isolation but involve a variety of human-induced factors that exacerbate crises effects. Anticipation becomes a key for organisations to consistently perceive, understand and act on the possible and plausible futures. It requires a shared understanding about how the world works. Foresight methods can help build resilience by informing policymakers on how to design future-proofed strategies and action plans. It refers to the ability to constantly perceive, make sense of and act upon signals about future change emerging in the present. It constitutes a form of collective intelligence, which can only be generated and accessed through dialogue.

Dedicated knowledge centres already support decision makers increasing their knowledge about and promoting the application of the available foresight tools and methods. The Competence Centre on Foresight of the European Commission aims to develop an anticipatory culture inside the European Commission and continue experimenting to make the existing tools most useful and usable in practice. In a similar vein, the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) provides an overview of the available toolkits and knowledge resources to promote the embedding of anticipation in public administrations across the member states. The aim is to support public institutions in the development of policies and governance approaches that ensure a sustainable future and enhance resilience.

There is a wealth of tools and techniques available that support the process of anticipation and foresight. Horizon scanning using desk research, trend observation and expert surveys like Delphi method are relevant tools for data gathering on possible and plausible future events and signals. Methods like cascading and technology assessment help to systematically explore these signals in various ways. Cascading approach investigates a small number of signals about the future and tries map first, second and third order consequences. Technology assessment attempts to examine in a systematic and iterative way the possible social, economic and ethical consequences of a new technology. The abundance of signals about possible futures put sense-making techniques at the centre of foresight efforts. Scenario planning, roadmapping, backcasting, systems modelling and even risk assessment are all tools that help decision-makers to navigate possible future options. Lastly, approaches like visioning and gaming help to propel actions towards alternative futures by learning from envisioned or simulated situations.

We take a deeper look into two most frequently implemented foresight approaches – scenario planning and roadmapping.

Scenario planning as exploration of plausible future paths

Scenario planning is a method that creates representation of multiple plausible futures of the system of interest, for example energy, transport or conflicts. It requires a collective analysis of the drivers and barriers as well as opportunities and threats that can be recognised based on the existing information. This method contributes to the analysis and understanding of complex systems, involves a high degree of collaboration and helps in long-term strategic planning process. Faced with uncertainty scenario planning can help to distinguish which aspects decision-makers can control, which they can influence, and which reach beyond their influence.

For instance, the EC Competence Centre for Foresight proposes the use of Scenario Exploration System. Typically, this kind of scenario framing responds to the question “what can happen in the future” based on megatrends analysis as well as evidence on drivers and barriers of certain future events. It is: (i) a future simulation tool to explore possible paths towards the future; (ii) a solution-oriented approach that applies to any policy topic; and (iii) a simulation game to stimulate stakeholder engagement.

The recent Strategic Foresight Reports put forward resilience as a key topic for EU policy-making. The understanding of resilience goes well beyond its definition that concerns the ability to withstand and cope with shocks. Resilience has a central contribution to advance the twin green & digital transition which is sought to unfold in a sustainable, fair, and democratic manner. Indeed, the Commission recently developed the Resilience Dashboards – a tool that can contribute to sustainable futures. These dashboards assess resilience as the ability of the Member States to make progress towards policy objectives by informing on their relative strengths and weaknesses in four key areas: social and economic, green, digital, and geopolitical. It is an innovative tool that allows to create plausible scenarios based on robust information about drivers and barriers in developing and strengthening resilience.

Roadmaps as collective strategies

Roadmapping is a foresight technique that helps bridging the gap from understanding possible future trajectories to designing appropriate policies. Galvin defined that “roadmaps provide an extended look at the future of a chosen field of inquiry drawn from the collective knowledge and imagination of the groups and individuals driving change in that field.” Roadmaps require structured and clear objectives and imply developing collective strategies through co-creation activities with multiple stakeholders. As method to frame policy strategies, they contribute to communicating visions, attracting resources, stimulating research and monitoring progress.

The European Commission has recently developed several comprehensive roadmaps, involving wide range of stakeholders in a collective visioning and knowledge creation process. For instance, the Strategic Transport Research and Innovation Agenda (STRIA) roadmaps aim to structure the research and innovation landscape in diverse specific niches within the mobility sector such as alternative fuels, smart mobility, vehicle design, etc. These roadmaps align with the green transition strategy and set the outlook of research and innovation actions to boost competitiveness in the sector. Further examples comprises the recently developed Industrial Technology Roadmaps within the European Research Area (ERA) strategy. The roadmaps aim to strengthen research, innovation and technology development across the EU in concrete priority areas, such as low-carbon technologies or circular industrial technologies.

Future-oriented policy frameworks

Foresight methods help to move from the forecast-based approaches in decision-making towards a more anticipatory culture that accounts for and is ready to react to multiple plausible future developments. It requires more creative thinking and use of collective intelligence to understand not only the existing drivers and opportunities but also possible barriers and threats that could be encountered along the mid-term and long-term future trajectories. Results from anticipation and foresight efforts should further feed concrete policy recommendations oriented towards sustainable and resilient transformations, such as the identified twin transition strategies in Europe. This process requires new type of capacities in public administrations to support and enable co-creation activities involving large and diverse stakeholder groups and to lead sense-making deliberations and prepare actionable scenarios of policy options that contribute to more sustainable and resilient futures.

At EFIS Centre, our work focuses on providing evidence-based insights and policy recommendation that aim to create sustainable futures in different areas. For instance, we have recently concluded a Technology Trends Study for DESY (PETRA IV) in a collaborative exercise aiming to identify future trends that may trigger innovative research. We have also worked with Nordic Innovation on a project that aimed to nurture learning and to support the development of new innovation programs and adaptation in dynamic environments in three cross-sectoral programs: Nordic Sustainable Business Transformation; Health, Demography and Quality Life; Nordic Smart Mobility and Connectivity. Finally, in the coming months we will launch a project that will connect research and innovation policies to resilience approach. This new project through diverse pilot initiatives will apply foresight approaches to test innovative policy solutions that help different kind of organisations such as cities, regions, NGOs or SMEs to cope with future complex scenarios.

*Article written by Matias Barberis Rami and Elina Griniece.