Could we have been better prepared for what we experienced in the past few years?

The world continues to face complex and intersecting crises – including the Covid-19 pandemic, climate crisis, social and political upheaval, war, poverty, and the digital divide. The socio-economic consequences of these layered and interconnected global challenges are impacting our present and future in profound ways, spreading far and wide, often hitting vulnerable groups the hardest.

Since Bhutan confirmed its first Covid-19 case in early 2020, our development trajectory has been strained with the Covid-19 related response measures and restrictions, massively disrupting the country’s economy. The impacts of these unexpected disruptions are being further entrenched by long standing challenges in the country, including an underdeveloped private sector, a looming unemployment problem, an increase in the productive workforce leaving the country, and rising inflation, leading to a rising cost of living. We also feel the devastating toll of climate change, impacting our food security directly.

These emerging and intensifying trends act as indicators and drivers of change, unpredictable and uncertain, yet laden with risk. Current projections of these trends offer glimpses of a bleak future – how do we adapt when complex uncertainty is outpacing our best efforts? How do we centralize our focus onto real, emerging risks and threats and prepare to respond adequately?

This is a job for strategic foresight.

Strategic foresight is a process that allows us to collectively sense signals of change and imagine alternative futures and possibilities of the emerging landscape. The approach brings clarity the impact and likelihood of emerging risks and to co-create response strategies to effectively mitigate the risks.  At its core, strategic foresight allows us to better understand, prepare, and influence the future. 

But amidst the onslaught of challenges – both expected and unexpected – where do we begin? What are the first steps and entry points in utilizing foresight to identify and manage emerging risks?

We can start by answering two questions: First, do have adequate capacities and the space to put strategic foresight into practice? Second, is there institutional demand and support for strategic foresight?

In the case of UNDP Bhutan, the Accelerator Lab team attempted to respond to the first question by introducing foresight techniques to public sector agencies as part of the ongoing Future Workforce and Skill Anticipation study led by the Bhutan Ministry of Labour and Human Resources. Besides, the intend to develop government capacities to carry out foresight exercises, the study aims to generate actionable intelligence on the skills gaps and future changes and needs in sectors of agriculture, creative and digital.

To bolster the foresight momentum within the Country Office, a learning session on strategic foresight was held August 2022 to build conceptual and methodological literacy in future thinking amongst public servants, led by UNDP Senior Advisor on Strategic Foresight, Aarathi Krishnan. 

With the participation of over 60 officials from Government, academia, and research institutions, the session centered on the future of Bhutan, examining Bhutan’s current landscape as the country recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic and prepares for the drafting of the 13th Five Year Plan (FYP). Signs and signals indicate this to be a unique opportunity for public investments to enhance the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as usher in technological and digital transformations within the country. 

The workshop led participants to examine and interrogate the expectations and assumptions about the future upon which the 13th Five Year Plan (FYP) is based and encouraged them to rethink the conditions under which these expectations and assumptions would cease to be reliable. 

During these discussions, participants were confronted by the urgency of short-term and the sticky challenge of being unable to address the future because of the immediate action required by present issues and challenges.

It is an illusion that there is a clear distinction between the present and the future. As we all actively learn from the crucible of climate change, sustaining this illusion will be dangerous. It lulls us into falsely thinking that our answers lie in the future – with new technology, innovation, or collaboration, rather than in the present.

To support governance that is anticipatory in this way, we must mainstream foresight literacy into our work and strengthen anticipatory capacities. Doing so will support public servants to respond strategically to complex challenges short-, medium- and long term and to explore what kind of strategy or policy interventions may be required to thwart risk of undesirable futures.

The true value of foresight is most often realized at the end of the foresight process, particularly when the process results in substantial insights influencing decisions. As the benefits of utilizing foresight in planning efforts take time to crystallize, we look to success stories to indicate the value of incorporating foresight methods at the onset of policy and strategy planning.

The Government Foresight Network of Finland carries out scanning of trends and weak signals – one such tool of strategic foresight – to coordinate anticipation work in different ministries. To institutionalize this, a Foresight Consortium for Labour Force and Educational Needs was established to initiate a mutual foresight system for coordinating all the Finish government actors’ decision making regarding vocational education and labour market competency needs issues.

Likewise, the Centre for Strategic Futures, the Strategic Futures Network and the Strategic Foresight Unit  are all parts of the Singaporean public strategic foresight system that support the collecting and harnessing of anticipatory intelligence and improved situational awareness through a whole-of-government futures thinking process.

For us to make sense of the intelligence that can emerge from applied foresight tools, methods, and approaches, we must take an iterative approach, constantly reappraising what we know. Only by institutionalizing an imaginative approach can organizations establish a continual give-and-take between the present and the future. 

Whatever the post-pandemic investment and development plans are for Bhutan, one thing is for sure: we will still be making those decisions in a context of tremendous uncertainty about what the future will bring – leaning on futures thinking and foresight approaches to better prepare for the unexpected. 

Contributed by 

Tshoki Zangmo, 

Head of Exploration, UNDP Bhutan

Aarathi Krishnan, 

Senior Advisor on 

Strategic Foresight, UNDP