BLOSSOM — Bridging long-term scenario and strategy analysis: organisation and methods

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

1.1 The need for long-term thinking in government and policymaking

Today, many of society's most pressing problems are long-term policy challenges, lasting a generation or more. Policymakers and business leaders often face strategic decisions with uncertain future outcomes. Yet, despite numerous unpredictable factors beyond their control, decision-makers need to be confident that they can achieve specific outcomes. Failing to do so could result in systemic failures with major consequences for society.

The environment sector presents a good example of these challenges. Environmental policymaking is characterised by highly complex problems and uncertainty about long-term future developments. Problems often unfold over several decades, driven by a myriad of forces across multiple scales, resulting in complex interlinkages and feedback loops (Volkery and Ribeiro, 2009). And failure to manage such risks could lead to catastrophic impacts.

Over recent decades, academia and the public and private sectors have become increasingly interested in approaches and tools for long-term future analysis. The tools now available to make long-term decisions more robust include horizon scanning approaches, model-based projections and comprehensive scenario-planning approaches (EEA, 2009; EFMN, 2009; Zurek and Henrichs, 2007).

The European Foresight Monitoring Network (EFMN) and the Woodrow Wilson Center's 'Foresight and governance' project confirm the vibrancy of the field, highlighting numerous case studies applying a diversity of methodological approaches. Public administrations and international organisations have also established dedicated units or departments to focus on this work.

However, while academic literature has thoroughly assessed the pros and cons of different methodological approaches, systematic analysis of their use, impacts and effectiveness in environmental policymaking is still superficial or absent. The role and relevance of political context and the institutional embedding of futures thinking in governmental practice has also received little attention (EEA, 2009).

EFMN (2009) sought to map the nature and extent of foresight (1) in Europe and other regions of the world, focusing on a review and quantitative analysis of a large number of foresight studies across all sectors. The study mapped and categorised them geographically, methodologically and in terms of content. While the extent and diversity of foresight work is impressive, much is taking place in technological, medical, agricultural and business-related fields, and the report does not seek to explore environmental foresight in any detail, nor the institutional and governance aspects specifically.

It is evident that the institutional and governance aspects of foresight work need to be given more attention. Making better decisions under conditions of deep uncertainty requires more than just rigorous analysis. Even well constructed, thoroughly analysed scenarios are of little use and relevance if the organisational capacity to absorb them is poor — if there is no political backing, or if relevant characteristics of the policymaking process have not been taken into account. Valid information can be useless because it is simply not needed.

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