Posts Tagged ‘futures’
At the 2010 Global Futures Forum, Futures Group was asked to share our experience on developing futures capabilities over the past four years (soon coming to five!). Cheryl wrote the text of the speech, and it covers a fair number of the FAQ on the who, how and what of the process we went through in developing futures capabilities that I think it’s worth putting up here.
“Developing Futures Capabilities in MTI”
Global Futures Forum
13 September 2010
Link to presentation:
1. Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen.
2. I have to confess that I accepted the invitation to speak at today’s
forum with a sense of intrigue. As I understood it, the Global Futures
Forum is a gathering of practitioners of the art of futures thinking. I
couldn’t quite see how a modestly‐sized government unit could add
to the depth of the discussions which would take place at the forum.
Then I realised that much of the discussion would be focused on the
practice of futures in the security domain. So perhaps there is a
perspective we can provide, which is : why there is a need for futures
capabilities in an economic agency such as the Ministry of Trade and
Industry, and how we have gone about doing so.
I. Challenges in Thinking About the Future from MTI’s perspective
3. Let me first set out the 3 challenges in thinking about and preparing
for the future from the perspective of an economic ministry.
4. The first challenge of “anticipating” is well conveyed in what the
author William Gibson once said, and I quote, “The future is here, it’s
just not evenly distributed.” What he meant, in today’s context, was
that there are weak signals in the present that can perhaps help us
picture the future. Of course, weakness here does not necessarily
mean less data or information. There could be a lot of information,
most of which is noise and irrelevant, from which the signal must be
picked out. The paradox is that information which is noise can only
be identified as noise after the signal is discerned. So the challenge is
to discern, exante, the signal from the noise and do that while
suspending our assumptions of what the future could look like. This
is an exercise which is rather complex when the future that we are
discerning signals for is that of the economy.
5. The Ministry of Trade and Industry, or any government agency, is of
course not alone in this problem. An IBM survey of 1500 global CEOs
this year found that CEOs placed “managing complexity” as the most
important thing on their agenda. IBM’s CEO, Sam Palmisano put it
this way ‐ “Events, threats and opportunities aren’t just coming at us
faster or with less predictability; they are converging and influencing
each other to create entirely unique situations.”
6. The second challenge is in leveraging networks, which I will
somewhat simplistically call “networking”. How do we pick up weak
signals, cross silos and disseminate insights? Like most
organisations, MTI operates on the basis of a functional and
hierarchical structure. The resulting clarity of divisional
responsibilities is a double‐edged sword. On the one hand it
facilitates focus and operational efficiency. On the other hand, it then
becomes all too easy for teams to work in silos independently from
7. MTI is not a particularly large ministry, but the danger is there. Even
on a day‐to‐day basis there is a need to leverage on expertise and
tacit knowledge housed in various units across the ministry, as well
as networks outside the ministry. This is especially true for futures
work because such networks play multiple roles here. For example,
what if what one division regards as noise and irrelevant actually has
implications for the work of another division? What if isolated trends
spotted by individual divisions may not appear to signify much, but
the intersection of these at specific points in time, can cause
disruption? Synthesising signals across networks helps to surface
weak signals, to connect seemingly unrelated issues and also to
disseminate insights to a wider audience.
8. The third challenge is in “translating”. How do we translate weak
signals into actionable insights that impact policy? Even though we
may be able to detect weak signals and may be able to determine that
they are relevant to our organisation, what next? We need to project
how they might come together to disrupt today’s patterns. It is also
not always clear how we might be able to do things differently. To
put it in another way, the idea needs be developed and translated
into insight, and then influence policy development and decision
9. For MTI as a policy ministry, translation also needs to take into
account time sensitivity. In other words, we need to be aware of the
timelines of the events or developments which the signals might lead
to, as well as time needed for policies and plans to be developed.
10. The 3 problems of “anticipating”, “networking” and “translating” for
MTI can be reframed as follows: Which emerging trends are relevant
and important for Singapore’s economic future? More specifically,
how can the ministry better spot and understand weak signals that
could impact the government’s goal of enabling strong economic
growth, job creation and higher standards of living?
11. The reality is that this is hard. At a leadership retreat in November
05, senior management of MTI and the statutory boards reflected
that the day‐to‐day urgency of policy work sometimes made it
difficult to think in depth about the future. It was decided that a
dedicated Futures unit would be set up to identify nascent and
emerging trends which might bear significance for the economy in
the medium to long‐term, and coalesce these into insights which
would inform policy development and initiatives. The Futures Group
is charged not with predicting the future as such, but with the task of
generating new insights into implications of emerging trends to the
Singapore economy, to augment and complement regular policy
formulation and catalyse new areas of focus.
12. As it turns out, this role ends up with the Futures Group looking at a
very wide range of issues. It is not only economic issues that impact
the economy. At MTI, we have learned that we should be prepared to
look at any trend that might have economic impact on Singapore,
from science and technology to emerging economies to
environmental issues to demographics and society and disruptive
business models. For example, we might look at an issue like “youth”,
which might be typically viewed as a social issue. MTI looks at this
issue from an economic perspective and we ask ourselves questions
like, “What jobs do today’s youth want to do when they join the
II. Strategic Foresight at MTI
13. A constant challenge a futures group like the MTI Futures Group
faces is how to balance the forward‐looking nature of the research
topics with practical implications. Too far out into the future, and we
are talking about flying cars and jet‐packs; ideas that are too
removed from reality and will not be taken seriously. Too pragmatic
and we could lose the ability to see blind spots and detect potentially
14. The MTI Futures Group finds ourselves playing the role of a scout
who is on the lookout for an anticipated event just over the horizon.
The team also tries to catch trends that might fall in through the gaps
because it may look at the same issues but from a different
perspective and from a much longer timeframe. Let me give you an
example. At the end of 2007, the world experienced an
unprecedented spike in the price of oil, which led to unexpected food
price shocks. The MTI Futures Group had just prior to that, produced
a research piece on the Future of Food, anticipating the food price
shocks but also identifying mitigating threats and opportunities in
the agricultural industry. In the research, we had highlighted how
other countries were setting up overseas food zones to address
longer‐term food needs of their populations. We shared the research
at various government platforms, coinciding with the beginning of
conversations of whether Singapore should set up overseas food
zones. In May this year, the Ministry overseeing National
Development announced a collaboration with the Jilin food zone
project in China.
15. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, it can be easy for silos to form. A
vast pool of knowledge and expertise already exists within the
ministry and its agencies. To be effective, the Futures Group has had
to leverage and connect with these sources, both to inform and
validate our work as well as platforms to receive ideas and research
findings. We also tap into the wider Government network of
foresight teams through sharing of methodologies and doing joint
project. This has been invaluable in helping the Futures Group ramp
up our foresight capabilities.
16. Thirdly, having a rich pool of ideas does not mean that it is clear how
they would inform policy decisions. The ideas still need that
gestation period to breathe, percolate and develop into insight and
strategy. For example, the Futures Group undertook a study on
“batteries” in 2008, but it was not until we highlighted the
implications for electric vehicles that an idea like “batteries” became
actionable insight for the Singapore Energy Market Authority, which
then set up a inter‐agency taskforce to look at the feasibility of testbedding
electric vehicles in Singapore.
17. Let me illustrate how this all comes together. Last year, during the
financial crisis, MTI, like the rest of the public service, was very busy.
There were many conflicting signals on how the economy might
unfold. The reality was that we understood and could make sense of
very little about what was happening. At the same time we were
under immense time pressure to deliver policy solutions. At that
time, the Futures Group partnered with the economists at the
Ministry and embarked on a study to look at the Future of Global
Demand – how the post‐crisis world might look like after all the dust
18. With the global financial crisis, the short term was like moving
through a volatile and uncertain fog as economies and the financial
system sought to adapt and respond. But the key question in all of
this was, which future will emerge? This was where the Ministry
found that having a dedicated Futures Units to do in depth analyses
and suggest possible paths beyond the “fog” was very useful. The
Future of Global Demand study postulated 3 possible future
scenarios and gave clarity at a time of great chaos. We were able to
use the insights from the research in many ways – to explain the
crisis to our colleagues at MTI and the statutory boards through an
informational video, to set the context for discussions at the
Economic Strategies Committee through a detailed report on the
scenarios and their implications and to inform the wider government
through an article in the Civil Service College publication, Ethos.
III. Lessons learnt along the way
19. We see building futures capabilities at the Ministry as a continuing
process. We are still learning and growing. I would like to share with
you some of the lessons that we have learnt along the way.
20. Firstly, because the Futures Group focuses on content generation, we
select and apply futures methodologies on a research‐ and projectspecific
basis. . While this means that we are not wedded to specific
methodologies, it also means that it is easy to become a jack of all
trades and master of none. So we make a conscious effort to keep our
toolkit updated. This is where tapping on the wider network of
foresight practitioners within the Singapore Government and beyond
has been very useful.
21. Secondly, a strong Government network is a necessary but
insufficient condition to do good futures work. As an economic
agency, it is very important for the Ministry to be plugged into the
private sector to better understand their plans and concerns and how
they view the future. For example, in undertaking our research on
the Future of Chinese Enterprise, we interviewed more than 100
Chinese business leaders. Interviews were crucial in getting an “on
the ground” understanding of where Chinese enterprises were
heading. We were able to gain access to these interviews through
tapping on the strong industry networks of government agency
partners such as the Economic Development Board and IE Singapore.
22. There is still room for improvement here. While we present
regularly at private sector fora and interview many companies as
part of research projects, engagement of the private sector is still
quite ad‐hoc. We are now trying to make this more systematic. In
recent months, we have compiled a trend pack summarizing key
ideas from the last 4 years of the Futures Group’s research and are
beginning to approach and engage companies in a much more
23. Finally, the Futures Group needs to translate ideas generated into
meaningful insights that inform and impact policy in order to be
effective. This is a standing challenge. The examples I described
earlier, the Future of Global Demand and the Future of Food were the
result of collaborations with divisions and agencies under the
Ministry and even agencies outside the immediate circle of agencies
under the Ministry. Such iterative conversations help refine and
bring clarity to the “what ifs” in the models we are developing.
24. I hope I have offered some insight into the role and challenges of a
futures team in an economic ministry. Although the Futures Group in
MTI was one of the earlier teams formed to undertake futures work
in such a non‐security setting, there are now many more government
agencies in Singapore doing so. This growing network will offer
excellent platforms for us to hold precisely the iterative
conversations I highlighted earlier, which almost certainly will enrich
and strengthen outcomes of futures projects.
25. Let me now conclude by highlighting an aspect of our work which we
spend quite a lot of attention on. A key capability that MTI Futures
Group has focused on and is still developing is the ability to
communicate ideas and start conversations. To this end, we have
tried to experiment and be quite creative in sharing our insights with
26. Earlier this year the MTI Futures Group, together with our colleagues
at SPO, produced a video, the People’s Republic of Change. We first
screened this video at an internal Ministry event to share insights
from our research on China and to start conversations about how a
rising China might impact Singapore. We are happy to share it with
you today as an example of how we communicate our ideas and
27. Thank you very much.
Link to video:
This is a classic artifact from the future. This is WoHa’s projective Strange Times, part of DesignSingapore’s Design 2050 Studios – created as a “gateway to the future” to hub a creative community to create future design propositions on various aspects of life in 2050 – which sets the island state of Singapore in the year 2050 in times of rising sea levels and shortening fuel resources. What imagination!
(yes, this came out in 2009 and I’ve always wanted to post the softcopy of the newspaper, here it is.)
A quick update on the Innovation Conference in Helsinki. Day 1 was an Innovation Framework 101 session where many countries shared their experiences on research councils, incentives, org charts etc. Day 2 (where I presented) was about turning knowledge into strategy.
TEM (Finn Ministry of Employment & The Economy) and TEKES (Finn Funding Agency for Technology & Innovation) opened the conference with an update of key innovation issues in Europe. In Finland, one new focus was on demand-pull innovation. Then Brazil, USA, and the European Commission shared their views on innovation policy and research.
Next was a panel session about evaluating national innovation systems – Finnish, Flemish and Austrian. The panel was interesting, in particular the on-going project by the ETLA (Research Institute of Finnish Economy). It worked with a team of foreign and local experts to review the Finnish National Innovation System.
An unintended message that came across was how to innovate for the growing mass of 4bil consumers out there. Four speakers (incl myself) alluded to the idea of No-Frills or BOP innovation. Innovation policies have thus far been looking at high-end consumers. Is it time to think about the other half of the world, and innovating for them – for their needs or to help move them out of poverty?
Even in the midst of downturn, developments like these keep USA on the fringe of innovations and breakthroughs. I’m intrigued that there are people out there willing to take such leaps of faith to start something like that, to bring “sci-fi” into reality sort of. Very niche, very forward looking.
The Singularity University was recently announced at the TED conference this week. It is established based on Ray Kurzweil’s futuristic The Singularity is Near – a very non-mainstream ‘forecast’ on AI, robotics and what future human life would be like. The SU is sponsored by wealthy individuals who support scientific breakthroughs (X-Prize, Google, VCs etc), and had a founding conference comprising who’s-who luminaries in the futuring and ‘extension of humanity and technology’ fields. SU aims to bring together graduate students working in different fields, to look at same problems from different lenses for new breakthroughs. Eg. Nanotech student gets expert briefings in futures studies & finance etc amongst 10 disciplines. Faculty includes science celebrities, and students are also expected to pitch ideas to nearby VCs for funding. SU is located in one of NASA’s research centres in Silicon Valley.
See too, recent Business Week article on this.