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The Institute for Buzzword Realisation - how not to do political foresight

In an unusually calm and quiet House of Lords this morning, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) held a breakfast briefing for parliamentarians on ongoing government futures and foresight work.

POST has recently been charged with leading horizon scanning for new trends and technologies on behalf of Parliament. So our discussions also covered the role they could play to complement and challenge Government activities.

There were updates on the two year UK Government Foresight project on Cities and last year’s shorter Blackett Reviews of emerging trends: the Internet of Things and Financial Technologies.

Put together in one room, this work is overwhelmingly impressive. The studies require difficult, careful mingling of diverse expertise to reimagine future systems in a politically relevant, even actionable way. They illustrated exactly why foresight is useful for politics; it operates as a bridge between policy development, which can get stuck in the here and now, and political debates, which by their nature are about building a better future. 

My role was to throw in some ideas for how foresight could be improved, and implicitly where POST should be concentrating their efforts. I found it easiest to start with two options for what it needs to not become:

The Institute for Buzzword Realisation (IBR)
This would be a new mini-institute, populated by self-identified systems-change experts and former disruptive innovation evangelists. It would use advanced web scraping techniques to rank the evolution of the latest buzzwords in a select group of monthly magazines, blogs and international conferences. It would then decide which of these to investigate further depending on potential partnerships with multinationals that use the same key phrases. The outputs are mainly videos about key trends that the Government should address, with proclamations that it will make £X billion for UK PLC by 2020. The team would not look to the wider public or to the civil service and their networks, as their Key Performance Indicators are media impact, mentions in speeches and initiating public-private R&D partnerships between government and companies.

The Scientistic Technology Foresight service Centre (STFsC)
A network of small teams of civil servants and foresight academics would deliver on-demand foresight services to Government. They are organised into a hub and spoke model, anchored in a university campus somewhere in the South West. The reports they provide are often in collaboration with the European Commission Joint Research Centre. They have to be approved by directorates in Brussels as well as all relevant UK departments and agencies. Although projects vary slightly, they usually require interpreting expert testimony into lists of opportunities and challenges. Using national statistics and market projections, these are translated into complex system diagrams detailing potential shape of a sector or policy area. Dedication to this science of foresight means that the centre has strict rules against intervening in emerging policy debates or experimenting with new forms of foresight.

These satires pull together some of the most undesirable features of any political futures work. Current government projects probably sit in the middle of a spectrum with these imagined initiatives at either end. And so, some of these undesirable features are actively avoided in current practices. They can be seen as warnings for what not to become. Other features are closer to home.

They reflect two problems that can affect long term, technically complex futures work:

  • the problem of dilution: having a large group of people driving the direction of the study and who have to approve its outputs and recommendations
  • the problem of timing: having to keep to a rigid timetable.

Responding to both of these problems comes down to thinking about communication differently. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, Nesta puts sophisticated communication at the centre of our futures work and can offer a few principles that help us:

Tell stories about the future

We concentrate on imagining what it is like to live in certain scenarios in the future in a way that inspires and engages people. The research behind the Longitude Prize, managed by Science Practice, used beautifully designed maps of future technologies to challenge and check experts’ sense of the future of their area of knowledge. It allowed us to retain ownership of the prize development, while getting inside the uncertainties and opportunities of six fast-moving areas of science and technology. It also meant we had clear ideas to take to the BBC Horizon team when they had to turn each idea into a short TV segment.

DIY futures are better than glossy ones

Rough and ready ideas for what it might be like to live and work in the future are much more approachable. Our Future Londoners were not finished products, but useful provocations in an ongoing debate. They were straw men and women, if you will.

Events not papers

It’s important not just to start the discussion about potential changes to the systems around us. We try to go with the grain of debates as they happen, intervening in what would otherwise happen elsewhere. FutureFest in March was an exercise in taking debates outside Whitehall, universities or large tech companies. We invited the public to immerse themselves in a melting pot of different ideas and take charge of the future. Over 3,000 people let a robot touch their face, debated alternative forms of money or got their own soapbox at My Other Future standup.

This is not a blueprint for government or parliamentary futures. Much of what we do does not lead to the sustained long term changes in policy and regulation that can only be made from inside government. Nor does our public and stakeholder engagement so far go much beyond inspiring, provoking and convening. Longer projects we’ve started in healthcare, local energy and food futures are trying to bridge the agility of Nesta's work with the deep analysis of foresight in government. 

POST's briefings - their POSTnotes - are still a fairly traditional way of communicating trends and issues. And how they improve on this as part of their new role in horizon scanning is not clear; they have a very specific audience with a short attention span for anything outside immediate parliamentary business. They face a real challenge in increasing their visibility over the next parliamentary term. But for their horizon scanning work to have real meaning, they need to go beyond these briefings and traditional parliamentary liason. 

Image credit: Johnson Cameraface via Flickr CC 2.0


Jessica Bland

Jessica Bland

Jessica Bland

Principal Researcher in Futures

Jessica was a principal researcher in the Policy and Research team. She explored how Nesta could best support responsible development of disruptive technology. She organised Hot Topics…

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