Chapter 12. Using foresight methods to adapt development co-operation for the future

Catarina Tully
School of International Futures
Piero Fontolan
OECD Development Co-operation Directorate, in collaboration with
Wiebke Bartz-Zuccala
OECD Development Co-operation Directorate

To design long-term solutions that ensure no one is left behind, it is necessary to consider the possible alternative futures that lie ahead. Strategic foresight, an approach to think systematically about the future, can support actors in development co-operation to engage with uncertainty and develop solutions that meet both existing and future needs. It allows them to sense and shape the future as it emerges, while building resilience, harnessing the potential of emerging technologies and other trends, and mitigating future risks.

This chapter examines the potential for the development co-operation policy community to use strategic foresight to increase the effectiveness of development interventions; to support developing country governments and citizens; and to achieve the 2030 Agenda for all, in a lasting and adaptable way. It provides examples of how foresight has been used in the sector and concludes with practical ideas for applying foresight to development co-operation.

This chapter also includes an opinion piece by Achim Steiner, UNDP’s Administrator, on “Why technological change raises the stakes for action to leave no one behind.”


“Strategic foresight means better policies … [it] is one way to inform good decisions. It is about questioning what we expect, and testing whether our hopes are realistic. It is about reaching beyond forecasting into exploring the unexpected”.

Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General (2018[1])

“[We] need enhanced capabilities in foresight methodologies and approaches that take volatility and complexity as their starting point to generate insights that enable transformative actions towards inclusive and sustainable development.”

Report of the UN Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda (UN, 2017[2])

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set an extraordinarily ambitious agenda out to 2030 and a vision of a sustainable, secure, inclusive world where no one is left behind. Countries are committed to “implement the Agenda for the full benefit of all, for today’s generation and for future generations” (UN, 2015[3]). Clearly, this requires them to govern for the long term: to explore and understand the 2030 horizon and beyond, the implications of technological transformation (Box 12.2), as well as the global environmental, demographic and geopolitical shifts that are creating new volatility, with associated risks and opportunities.1

This chapter explores how strategic foresight can enable development actors to respond to this context by helping policy makers – and communities – systematically look out at the future to anticipate unexpected changes and prepare for a range of plausible scenarios. In the first section the chapter identifies emerging development co-operation bottlenecks and challenges, and then explores in more detail how foresight can help the field adapt. It then explores examples of foresight in policy making, including in the development sector. Finally, the conclusion outlines a roadmap to build a development co-operation that is future-fit.

Rising challenges in development co-operation

Development co-operation is facing multiple simultaneous bottlenecks and challenges, including how to engage with new topics and technologies, which, as emphasised by Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator in his “In My View” piece, raise the stakes for action to leave no one behind. Development co-opertation is also challenged to adapt to an evolving global landscape, to build better partnerships, improve authentic multi-stakeholder dialogue and enable sustainable investments beyond the electoral cycle.

In a survey conducted by the OECD in 2015, partner countries anticipated that development challenges will undergo significant shifts, focusing on sustainable economic growth and equitable growth for the poorest, employment opportunities, climate change and agricultural productivity. They also anticipated that development co-operation providers will need to play a more enabling role to meet these challenges in the future (Davies and Pickering, 2015[4]).

Yet despite encouraging gains, evidence also indicates that development co-operation is struggling to adapt to a dynamic and evolving development landscape where concerted efforts is required to unblock systemic bottlenecks (OECD-UNDP, 2016[5]). It faces a growing need for strategies that are adaptive and responsive to rapid change and high uncertainty. Traditional, linear planning approaches based on historic data and narrow forecasts may have limited use within highly evolving or rapidly changing environments where planners lack necessary understanding and evidence (UNDP-GCPSE, 2014[6]).2 The future cannot be predicted, and preparing only for what is expected is risky.

In my view: Technological change raises the stakes for action to leave no one behind

Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator

The 2030 Agenda presents a historic opportunity to set the world on track to a sustainable future. In twelve years’ time, a litmus test for its success will be: have we made good on the promise to ‘leave no one behind’? The answer will depend, in some measure, on our responses to the fourth industrial revolution.

The speed and ubiquity of technological change offers unparalleled opportunities for sustainable development, but it also comes with the risk of rising inequalities within and between countries. It is up to policymakers to leverage this transformation for good, and to mitigate their risks.

Artificial intelligence can improve the quality and reach of health care with half of the world’s population still not having access to essential health services. Digital technologies can boost agricultural productivity. Satellite imagery can combat deforestation. Big data analytics can identify needs and help track progress in real time. Drones can deliver essential supplies. And digital finance can enable new models to deliver basic services.

Estimates suggest that 133 million new jobs may emerge in the shake up between humans and machines by 2022. However, at the same time 75 million jobs may be displaced. Artificial intelligence could add as much as USD 16 trillion to the global economy by 2030. But 70% of the gains are expected to accrue in North America and the People’s Republic of China alone.

Many countries do not have the means nor infrastructure to take advantage of technological developments. Hence, the risk of a “great divergence” limiting the scope for structural transformation in countries left behind. Development that relies on traditional industrialisation may no longer be adequate, as manufacturing continues to lose the potential to absorb workers from agriculture or informal occupations.

Presently, one billion people worldwide lack the necessary digital literacy and skills. Less than half the world’s population use the Internet. And there is a clear gender gap: globally, 200 million fewer women are online than men.

Harnessing the opportunities of technological change to achieve the SDGs for all requires a profound and urgent shift of gear. We need a new breed of policy responses and business decisions that are guided by the commitment to end extreme poverty, curb inequalities, confront discrimination and fast-track progress for the furthest behind.

UNDP offers a framework for governments and stakeholders to analyse how people are left behind through five factors: discrimination, poor governance, shocks and fragility, their socio-economic status and where they live. Policy makers should take action to examine the disadvantages people face across five key factors; empower marginalised and poor communities to participate meaningfully in decision-making; and enact policies that confront the root causes of inequity and deprivation and unlock human potential to adapt creatively to new realities, including those that come with technological change.

Though the broad trends of the fourth industrial revolution are clear, nobody knows the exact extent of their impact. We therefore need to be wary of canned and precooked policy recommendations. UNDP is eager to work with countries, firms and others to identify customised pathways - to help ensure that the benefits of technological advances reach those that are furthest left behind.

The 2030 Agenda requires all sections of societies and communities to contribute their ideas, insights, resources, action and oversight to transform and redesign policy, to co-create strategy, and to ensure implementation and accountability (OCDE, 2018[7]). Dynamic and innovative partnerships are vital in the effort to leave no one behind, where the combined contributions of all development actors can lead to more inclusion (GPEDC, 2016[8]). The Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation sets openness, trust, mutual respect and learning at the core of effective and inclusive partnerships, recognising the different and complementary roles of all development actors: governments, bilateral and multilateral organisations, civil society, the private sector, and representatives from parliaments and trade unions, among others (GPEDC, 2011[9]). Evidence from the Making Development Co-operation More Effective 2016 Progress Report (OECD-UNDP, 2016[5]) has shown a positive evolution towards more inclusive partnerships in many countries, with readiness to engage demonstrated by all parties. However, constraints persist on the organisational side.3 To realise fully inclusive partnerships, the development community needs to explore new approaches to strengthening multi-stakeholder dialogue at the country level, fully reflecting the diversity of stakeholders and maximising the synergies among them (OECD-UNDP, 2016[5]).

Finally, there is great uncertainty around sustaining political support for the SDGs through to 2030. Political cycles lead to changes in leadership and priorities, which complicates efforts to sustain focus and investments on longer term results and visions. Keeping-up efforts on SDG implementation going beyond the electoral cycle will be an ongoing challenge: decision makers need to find an equilibrium between the intergenerational nature of the SDGs and short-term development priorities (Davies and Pickering, 2015[4]).

Strategic foresight: Preparing development co-operation for alternative futures

Strategic foresight is not a synonym for forecasting or prediction, although forecasts and predictions are useful inputs for it. Strategic foresight is an organised, systematic process for engaging with uncertainty. It enables the identification of future opportunities and challenges in a complex, volatile and disruptive environment (OECD, 2018[10]). History is important, and foresight also uses historic data, but the lessons from the past do not always translate usefully to the present; instead of predicting by extrapolating past trend lines, foresight generates questions that help decision makers understand and shape the future. It harnesses the capacity to think systematically about the future to inform decisions today – a capacity developed by individuals, within organisations and within society (Conway, 2015[11]). As such, it has three key benefits.

First, strategic foresight helps prepare for alternative futures. By adopting a “what if?” approach to specific situations, foresight has the merit of expanding the range of plausible alternative futures beyond the most expected ones, allowing decision makers to prepare better. Foresight helps reveal assumptions, explore emerging drivers of change, identify and analyse trends, and bridge the expectations of multiple stakeholders. It seeks to identify steps that need to be taken to shape the future in desirable ways; however, it also draws attention to weak signals which indicate that a disruption away from the current status quo may occur, and to the possibility of “black swan” events.4

Second, strategic foresight helps communities, organisations and leaders develop a common vision and purpose. Understanding alternative futures allows leaders and communities to understand how these may emerge, what is desirable and undesirable, and how to move towards their desired future. Foresight helps stakeholders make their assumptions about the future explicit, challenge them, and engage with multiple alternatives. This helps them build a common understanding of what kind of future they desire, the basis for a shared vision.

Finally, strategic foresight can help transform development policy making towards an agile and outward-facing approach that reflects today’s volatile, interdependent and uncertain world (Davies and Pickering, 2015[4]). It helps to build organisational culture to seek out, consider and prepare for the unexpected, as part of a strategic planning approach (Mintzberg and Jorgensen, 1987[12]). Over time, people and organisations develop “futures literacy” (Miller, 2007[13]) and scan the environment, more alert to possible developments. Current strategies, capabilities and concepts can be stress-tested against possible alternative scenarios and foresight can help develop robust new ideas. Strategic foresight succeeds when leaders and organisations challenge the “official future” – the implicit organisational view of the future, which is usually a continuation of the status quo.

Strategic foresight for the SDGs

The world is not on track to achieve the 2030 Agenda (OECD, 2017[14]); (Ritchie, 2018[15]). In the 12 years remaining, the trajectory of progress towards the SDGs will have to undergo a major transformational change. How can countries so rapidly achieve the necessary scale and ambition of change, while leaving no one behind? A common, strong and collaborative vision of an aspirational future can contribute. The 2030 Agenda is a starting point for that vision – and strategic foresight processes can help bring communities, businesses and civil society together with government to clarify the details, the roadmaps and the joint aspirational vision at national and local levels to generate momentum, new commitments and resources, and radical new ideas (Box 12.1).

Box 12.1. The way strategic foresight works

While there are many strategic foresight tools and their use is context- and resource-dependent, strategic planning processes usually have five key components. These components are not necessarily sequential, however; strategic foresight is always an iterative process, as “the future is always a dialogue, not just a report” OECD Secretary-General Gurría (2018[1]).

  • Examine the strategic context. Analyse trends and drivers of possible futures contexts and their interdependencies – whether demographics, emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, digitisation, domestic and international migration, economic fragility, geopolitical transitions, or attitudes to gender equality and participation in the workforce. Monitor shocks, risks, opportunities and assumptions and identify alternative outcomes in an adaptive way.

  • Openly engage a wide set of views. Strategic foresight is participatory and collaborative. It allows citizens, communities, businesses and non-traditional actors to participate in shaping and delivering the 2030 Agenda, and includes vulnerable and very poor citizens. A diversity of perspectives helps to understand and separate the “signal from the noise”, and to develop common knowledge and ownership. Dialogues and relationships should form the basis of future scanning and re-adjustment of policies. Challenge received wisdom (for example, that trends will continue), examine dynamics, consider multiple time horizons (e.g. one, five and 15 years) to inform budgetary and operational planning decisions without being constrained by them.

  • Identify possible alternative futures and trends. Use scenarios and assumptions not just to guide strategic planning, but most importantly to inform decision-making in the moment. “Strategically navigate” by monitoring how the environment is changing so plans and activities can be adjusted as the world evolves – in this way, a leadership team or organisation can lead by looking forward instead of using the rear view mirror of historical data.

  • Build on policy implications. Review what genuine strategic alternatives look like and understand what assets, capabilities and policies can help build resilience in alternative futures, as well as how to achieve your desired outcome.

Take an adaptive and innovative approach to reviews, monitoring and implementation. Build the institutional capacity to learn and adapt (data collection, monitoring and finance, and a risk-friendly approach to evaluation). Conduct reviews and monitoring in real time, as far as possible, including through assessment of data to monitor assumptions, risks and success. Track the value of an adaptive approach over time. Things often go wrong during the implementation phase so it is important to be as flexible as possible.

Strategic foresight is not a silver bullet, but a potential complementary approach for development co-operation. Its methods can help the development community engage with uncertainty and develop solutions that meet the existing and future needs of all people, thus supporting necessary improvements in the quality, effectiveness and impact of development co-operation (UNDP-GCPSE, 2014[6]); (Krake, 2018[16]). It can help create future-ready, alert institutions that adapt as the future evolves, contributing to countries’ strategic planning and budgetary capacities. And the development community can use it to consciously explore how changes (whether slow, compound annual trends or fast, disruptive shifts) might threaten communal well-being and SDG achievement.

The mindset of those engaged in strategic foresight is one that seeks to embrace, rather than control, uncertainty. One way they do this is by seeking out “pockets of the future”, which frequently lie on the periphery, in communities which are outside of the “centre” (Sharpe, 2013[17]) and may, indeed, be left behind. When applying strategic foresight to the SDGs, it will be especially important to bring in those who are left behind and are failing to participate in the benefits of development. When all members of a community are able to collaboratively discuss their futures, the results can be deeply empowering for those on the margins, who are in a position to establish “stories for the storyless”.5

The growing discipline of foresight: Examples

Although strategic foresight has been established as a discipline for some 70 years, it has been on the periphery of governance, policy making and public administration practice until recently. It is perhaps unsurprising that there has been a rush of interest in strategic foresight across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors in a time of financial crises, new disruptive technologies like blockchain (Box 12.2), migration flows and volatile oil prices. At the same time, increased interest within international development and related fields results, in part, from the 2030 Agenda itself. It is an agenda that requires long-term thinking, and it proposes that to achieve the future we want for the world, and to ensure no one is left behind, means to plan for the future strategically and collaboratively.

Box 12.2. Technological innovations are being harnessed for inclusive development

Technological innovation can be hard to predict, and its applications even harder to conceive. In 1994, as the Internet was emerging, it would have been hard to imagine the impact of companies such as Uber or Google, the emergence of the sharing economy, or technologies such as blockchain. The potential and future applications of technology, therefore, may go far beyond the examples presented here, but that should not stop the development community from trying to anticipate or harness technology to support the 2030 Agenda.

Technological innovations have shown some of their potential to create opportunities for everyone by challenging established business models. M-PESA, a mobile payment system invented in Kenya, is a well-known example of how the mobile phone can enable millions of users in a range of developing countries and emerging markets to access banking services (World Bank, 2017[18]). Advances in connectivity and data have also allowed for cheaper and quicker access to insights informing decision making, as with the use of mobile data for disaster relief or monitoring epidemics (OECD, 2017[19]).

Blockchain technology provides secure and decentralised ways to make and record transactions, without the need for a centralised authority such as a government or bank. Popularised through cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, blockchain technology has the potential to support transparency and accountability and reduce corruption through decentralised legal contracts, supply-chain monitoring, tracking payments or funding, and providing transparency of data. Another promising use case of blockchain is digital identity. SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions outlines the ambition to provide legal identity and birth certification to everyone. The ID2020 Alliance has been formed to explore the potential of technologies such as blockchain to generate identity documents for all, helping more people vote, access financial services and receive healthcare and other social services. Other applications supportive of leaving no one behind are being explored in fields including education, health and energy access.

Big data analytics refers to new ways of harnessing and analysing digital data. It enables governments to anticipate and meet the needs of those left behind in real time and at low cost. For instance, governments of countries such as Bangladesh or Tanzania are using geospatial datasets to assess levels of literacy or availability of contraceptives in their population (OECD, 2017[19]).

Artificial intelligence (AI) “seeks to endow machines with reasoning capabilities that may one day surpass those of human beings” (OECD, 2016[20]). The impact of AI on employment has been widely discussed, with contrasting and sometimes polarised perspectives as to whether it will replace or augment human work and lives. The distributional impact on labour-intensive jobs is a particular concern. While some analysis predicts that automation may only lead to limited “technological unemployment” in developing countries (ESCAP, 2017[21]), others predict that labour markets will be unable to adjust quickly enough (CGD, 2017[22]). AI could also have meaningful upsides for achieving the SDGs and leaving no one behind. For instance, in the health sector AI may be able to generate more accessible diagnostics by analysing relevant information as images (OECD, 2016[20]) or help to anticipate infectious disease outbreaks by predicting potential carriers (Fiorillo, Bocchini and Buceta, 2018[23]); see also (Furtkamp, 2017[24]); (De Jesus, 2016[25]); (Singer, 2013[26]).

These and other emerging technologies, from biotechnologies and advanced materials to distributed ledger technology and new forms of energy production, have the possibility to disrupt the status quo of developing countries due to their leapfrogging potential, which is enabled by low-cost business models and efficiency gains (OECD, 2016[20]). A proactive approach to innovation is needed, and strategic foresight can help. It supports an anticipatory approach to regulation, decision making and the adoption of technology, while helping to explore such technologies’ challenges and risks, as policy makers seek to minimise the distributional or negative impact of technology around the world.

In OECD countries, interest in strategic foresight is manifest in national development planning exercises with a growing number of “national strategic narratives” and cross-cutting, integrated whole-of-government planning approaches, including in donor development agencies. Many governments around the world are using strategic foresight with different purposes, informing agendas and identifying new solutions, enhancing the relevance and effectiveness of consultations, and creating multidisciplinary connections between policy silos.

In countries like Canada, Finland and Slovenia, these systemic approaches to the future are taking place at a whole-of-government level; in others such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, they are being conducted within ministries; while in Australia, research organisations are supporting the government in the effort.6 Many other national governments are realising that effective long-term policy making requires governance innovation in the executive branch, bureaucracy, legislature and judiciary, where many new units, structures and roles are being created – even Ministers of the Future.7 In some cases, this includes creating national development strategies. For instance, Finland’s vision, enshrined in the implementation plan of the National Commission on Sustainable Development, provides a long-term framework for sustainability. Among its priority actions are aligning foresight activities more closely with SDG implementation, developing competence among government officials, and creating conditions for long-term work.

In Germany, the 2013 coalition agreement established a more systematic within-ministerial activity including the German Corporation for International Co-operation, as well as a cross-ministerial network led by the Federal Academy for Security Policy. The latest coalition agreement reinforced this activity – despite short-term internal and external pressures including migration and trade disputes – establishing a foresight unit in the Chancellery. National development agencies have also adopted foresight approaches, in Germany and in other Development Assistance Committee (DAC) member countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden and Ireland.

“Using methods such as horizon scanning or scenario analysis, we at [the Ministry] identify trends and drivers that indicate which futures are possible to get a better sense of uncertainties and to be better prepared for possible developments and futures. The resulting analysis and openness for alternatives and different paths forms an important basis for strategic decision-making and planning of German development policy.”

Head of Political Staff, German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, Michael Krake (2018).

Other examples include the network of Future Generation Commissioners from 13 countries; the Welsh Assembly’s 2015 Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, which established the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner with legal duties and policy incentives (Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, 2015[27]); the campaign for a Lords Committee for Future Generations in the UK8 ; as well as the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System, a collaboration between the European Institutions.9 This cross-system, multi-actor approach to establishing institutions for the longer term is absolutely necessary to create an ecosystem of governance institutions that is strong enough to resist the constant pressure to focus on the present.

In emerging economies, too, development planning processes are increasingly moving from the control of a single ministry (of planning or finance) to a cross-departmental approach embedded in a wider and longer-term understanding of the international context. In some cases they are also becoming more flexible, participative and iterative, as is happening in Colombia, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Pakistan, Rwanda and Tunisia. There have been foresight exercises at city and regional levels, with Brazil and Indonesia conducting interesting examples; commitments to institutions to introduce new planning practices, such as in Thailand; and collaborations, such as between Cameroon and UNICEF (UNICEF, 2018[28]). In many countries strategic foresight is becoming a powerful, effective way to harness diverse views in a unified approach to national planning – with Latin American ministries of planning, as well as Mauritius and South Africa, being particularly innovative and committed to this agenda.

“[W]e need to review our existing policies, planning methodologies and set the national targets in line with both the SDGs and national development priorities to ensure more holistic and sustainable development of the country. In doing so, it is believed that the foresight and innovation would be used as an effective tool to formulate a more robust and strategic national development framework for the country.”

Niroshan Perera, Sri Lankan Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs (2016[29])

Transformative examples of foresight within civil society tend to be under-reported and under-acknowledged. These include the North Star Scenarios for Port Elizabeth, South Africa by the Northern Areas People’s Development Initiative (Reos Institute, 2013[30]) the Society for International Development work in the Horn of Africa since the 1990s; and work by the International Civil Society Centre (ICSC, 2018[31])10 and Inter-Agency Regional Analysts Network (IARAN)11 convening development and humanitarian actors to explore the sectoral structures, policies and responses needed to meet future humanitarian needs.

We are also witnessing increased innovation and co-operation in multi-stakeholder development initiatives, including between international agencies and multilaterals, OECD donor ministries, and other development actors like international NGOs, businesses and civil society.

Within the United Nations, the Secretary-General’s and Deputy Secretary-General’s development reforms emphasise the importance of the role of Resident Co-ordinators using strategic foresight to carry out a “One UN” approach in country and to support the government working with its development partners to achieve the SDGs. Other examples include:

  • The International Monetary Fund has recently been using scenario planning in its Africa programme, as well as to develop organisational preparedness and capabilities to respond to upcoming global crise (IMF, 2009[32]).

  • The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Future Literacy Labs and network are promoting innovative thinking and solutions.

  • Work by the United Nations Children’s Fund Tajikistan to mainstream issues of ethnicity, youth and employment has resulted in exceptional youth engagement in shaping the future (UNICEF, 2018[28]).

  • The International Labour Organisation and United Nations Development Program project on the future of youth employment in Egypt shows the power of cross-donor collaboration (Feki, 19 April 2017[33]).

  • The International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) is working with national supreme audit bodies to examine their role in ensuring government ministries create policy that is aware of the long term.

  • The Omidyar Network is examining the potential for combining design thinking, systems thinking and strategic foresight approaches to accelerate social transformation in the work it supports, in Nigeria and elsewhere.

  • Foresight is also becoming a key tool for the OECD’s work (Box 12.3).

Box 12.3. Foresight at the OECD

Strategic foresight is a key part of the OECD’s support for whole-of-government, inclusive policy approaches to developing new long-term national development strategies. The OECD can also provide a space for discussions on the role of strategic foresight for development co-operation.

Within the OECD, the deepening of strategic foresight capacity and mainstreaming into all streams of work is a priority. In parallel to the growing recognition among official donors of the need to understand the future environment, strategic foresight capacity across the OECD is considered instrumental in informing a more coherent and interconnected agenda to meet global challenges. The Strategic Foresight Unit at the Office of the Secretary-General helps governments, OECD Directorates and the OECD itself build the capacity to better anticipate and prepare for uncertain, complex and turbulent futures. Among others, this unit leads the OECD Government Foresight Community, an epicentre for strategic foresight expertise in national administration dedicated to building foresight capacity throughout the organisation, assisting governments in strengthening their anticipatory governance, and bringing futures thinking to global policy dialogue.

Furthermore, the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate set up a dedicated foresight unit in 2018 with the aim of building foresight intelligence and futures literacy to ensure that development co-operation policies stay relevant and fit for the future. The unit will work with the DAC to identify non-linear and dynamic game changers and megatrends affecting development co-operation. This work will inform DAC discussions on the future of development co-operation, including challenges and opportunities. Other foresight-based projects under way at the OECD include discussions of long-term megatrends in the Trends Shaping Education report (OECD, 2016[34]); horizon scanning for new metrics in the Statistics and Data Directorate; and country-specific scenario planning in the Multi-Dimensional Country Review projects.

A roadmap for implementing strategic foresight

With a renewed interest in foresight, there is also a growing acknowledgement that the act of reflecting on the future collectively – and the capability to do so – is valuable for all communities and countries, at all times. It is central to the act of development itself, and critical if the world is to meet the SDGs. Foresight is not a luxury; it is a necessity.

As the development co-operation community seeks to ensure real progress towards ensuring no one is left behind, they need to make strategic foresight an integral part of policy and action. To enrich their policies and guide strategic leadership in implementing the SDGs for all, Providers of development co-operation can harness strategic foresight to be future fit and build on insights from it to explore futures together.

Strategic foresight can help transform development co-operation so it is future fit

The following points identify strategic and operational opportunities and situations for development co-operation where it can benefit from strategic foresight to be more fit for purpose:

  • As countries adopt whole-of-government, long-term forms of policy-making, development co-operation will be an integral part of these new approaches since it helps enable mutual benefits. For example, development policy expertise on global public goods and the SDGs can be important contributions when these are missing from a national conversation.

  • Seize opportunities to invest in collective, future-focused analysis and dialogues - at country level, around individual SDGs, and on frontier issues. Support developing countries in conducting long-term planning exercises (to 2030, or longer), and ensure that the possible distributional, access, governance and equity considerations of emerging technologies are being explored (see the “In My View” piece by Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator).

  • Public donor development interventions should use strategic foresight in programmatic design and delivery for interventions that are resilient, participatory and transformative – and leave no one behind. They should use long-term trends and scenarios in risk management and disbursement processes to ensure that development investments will provide lasting value for money; integrate uncertainty into policy making and delivery; and develop flexible and agile governance, accountability and consultation mechanisms that are community focused and sensitive to future developments.

  • Rethink the usual approaches to partnership and collaboration with other development actors. There are opportunities to bring companies, academics, civil society organisations and other institutions and organisations into the conversation on foresight for development co-operation, in order to create genuinely transformative visions of the future and uncover suitably radical new ideas and resources for achieving them. It is a simple and powerful idea to create a space for multi-stakeholder exchanges around a joint future – but it can be complex to design and implement. More effort is needed to ensure this happens.

  • Support developing country governments’ demands for expertise and capability to engage citizens at both national, city and other subnational levels as a core governance and public sector reform activity. Capabilities that are critical governance infrastructure include the ability of the executive to look systematically at the longer term; training of civil servants; building inclusive institutions; supporting the legislature; and processes of audit commissions and data bodies.

  • Take opportunities to support and scale up knowledge sharing and innovation between development co-operation organisations. It is critical to support the efforts of individual development sector actors who develop new capabilities, research, initiatives and instruments to help countries harness emerging opportunities or respond to emerging crises, and ultimately ensure that no one is left behind. These endeavours are constantly vulnerable to the seductive pressures to cut costs, to prioritise current stakeholders and concerns, and to focus on the short term.

Building on insights and capabilities to explore futures together

  • Seek to identify weak signals that can be early indicators of game-changing events – whether disruptive activity that could lead to conflict or disease (in which case, invest in associated preventative solutions) or that could bring major opportunities for human well-being. Megatrends12 have the potential to cast a dark shadow on the near future, but at the same time they represent basins of great opportunity that allow people to imagine a brighter future.

  • Apply foresight to the prevention of slow harms. Once an emerging future issue is scanned and identified (such as a humanitarian crisis from crop failure, or the need for a health system to prepare for new zoonotic vectors), political will must be built to invest in preventing the harms from being actualised.

  • Use “lean and agile” foresight approaches to support innovation in foresight practices suitable to development contexts. Such approaches must rapidly harness insights and allow for participation and agency in situations where there may be a lack of resources, time or capacity.

  • Pursue future-generation governance and policy making that reflects how different stakeholders and the future institutional framework will evolve.


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← 1. See (OCDE, 2018[7]);compare also with the Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development Framework (OECD, 2016[41]), which sets “long-term planning horizons” as one of its eight key elements.

← 2. See also (Snowden, 2011[35]), “Risk and Resilience,” YouTube,

← 3. Only 51% of countries have all the elements in place for meaningful dialogue with civil society organisations, while in 63% of countries the potential for quality public-private dialogue is affected by a lack of champions to facilitate such an exchange (OECD-UNDP, 2016[5]).

← 4. “Black swans” are events that are unprecedented, unexpected, have major effects, and are often inappropriately rationalised after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The UNDP-GCPSE (2014) associates them with “unknown unknowns” (situations that planners are unaware that they do not know) and “wild cards” (low-probability and high-impact events). The OECD Seretary General Gurría, (2017[36])has employed the expression “unprecedented unpredictability” to describe today’s world of ever more volatile, uncertain, rapid and simultaneous changes.

← 5. The expression “stories for the storyless” is common parlance in foresight fora. The reference can be found notably at the International Futures Forum:

← 6. The OECD Strategic Foresight unit helps governments, OECD Directorates, and the OECD itself build the capacity to better anticipate and prepare for uncertain, complex, and turbulent futures.

← 7. For examples of this role or

← 8. See

← 9. See

← 10. See

← 11. See

← 12. Megatrends are global, sustained and macro economic forces of development that impact business, economy, society, cultures and personal lives thereby defining our future world and its increasing pace of change.

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