Beyond the Horizon: Understanding the Future for Better Development TodayDecember 16, 2013 By Kathleen Mogelgaard
When Super Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the Philippines last month, the incredible damage visited on the people, infrastructure, and land was shaped by trends that have been in motion for decades. The country’s population has been growing rapidly, with high concentrations of people living in cities and along the coast; economic growth had been steady, but weak governance and corruption may have exacerbated vulnerability; and the gradual loss of coastal forests and mangroves left many communities exposed to the full brunt of the typhoon’s storm surge. On a positive note, wireless technology and crowd-sourced data helped in disaster response.
If we could go back in time 20 or 30 years, would a more intentional analysis of such trends and their interactions have led to a better outcome as Super Typhoon Haiyan struck Tacloban City? And looking ahead, what trends are emerging today that will influence the humanitarian and development outcomes of tomorrow, in the face of new disasters, other shocks, or simply the status quo?
Development Planning in a Rapidly Changing WorldWhat trends are emerging today that will influence the humanitarian and development outcomes of tomorrow?
Such questions are at the center of “futures analysis” – an exploration of ongoing and emergent trends that are likely to shape societies in the years to come. In The Future Can’t Wait, a new, freely downloadable book produced jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. Department of State, National Defense University, and Wilson Center, a multidisciplinary group of experts apply their expertise to explore complex questions: What are the most important ongoing and emerging trends that will shape the future? What sudden, game-changing events might be just over the horizon? How might these trends and events interact? And how can development initiatives be strengthened through such understanding?
The book, like the 2011 USAID Symposium on Future Development Challenges on which it is based, is organized around four general tracks that will shape the future: population; science and technology; policies and economies; and the environment. Assessing what the future may hold in these areas – and thinking through how changes they may interact with one another – can help shape development strategies and interventions today that will strengthen prospects for peace and prosperity.
‘The Future Can’t Wait’ launch and discussion at the Atlantic Council
“Futures analysis can help us better understand where today’s development investment will have the biggest payoffs tomorrow, as well as how to better structure and prioritize current development programming to meet over the horizon challenges,” said Steven Gale, senior advisor for strategic opportunities at USAID’s Office of Science and Technology and co-editor of the volume. “In the past, we lived in a much less connected, less fast-paced, and less globalized world. Today, the nature, power, and velocity of technological change means that foreign aid, to be effective and resilient, must free itself from past development models and out-dated donor strategies.”
Lessons From the Intelligence Community
While futures analysis and scenario development is common in the intelligence community, the military, and the private sector, it has not been consistently applied in the practice of development.
The National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends reports are prime examples of comprehensive futures analysis. The Council provides long-term strategic analysis for the U.S. government’s intelligence community, and its Global Trends reports are released at the beginning of each U.S. presidential term, offering a comprehensive look at plausible long-term disruptions and changes to the global order. The latest edition, Global Trends 2030, outlines a series of plausible global scenarios for the future, finding that demographic shifts and environmental changes are likely to be significant shaping forces.
USAID’s Donald Steinberg speaks at the Symposium on Future Development Challenges
“We have alternative futures. Some of them are not very good, and we could be rapidly heading toward one of these alternative worlds,” said Mathew J. Burrows, director of the Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council and lead author of Global Trends 2030, at the Wilson Center. “At the same time, we could also go in a positive direction. One of the key factors will be understanding the dynamics, trends, and possible disruptions.”
Yet as common as such analysis is in the military and intelligence communities, it is not done in a systematic way to shape international development strategies. “More attention and focus needs to be devoted to addressing emerging development trends like the youth dividend, urbanization, the senior bulge, and looming threats to biodiversity,” writes Gale. “Not focusing on future development trends is a risky and bad policy. Looking at trends and alternative futures can only be ignored at our peril and, more importantly, at the expense of those we are trying to empower around the globe to have better and more productive lives.”
Hurdles to Thinking Outside the Box
“To have more meaningful dialogue across development, diplomacy, and defense, all three fields need to be engaged with tools like long-term trend analysis,” Geoff Dabelko, a chapter contributor and director of environmental studies at Ohio University’s George V. Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, told me. “Such analysis is the foundation for productive conversations across fields and sectors.”“If you know everyone at the meeting or on the project team, you are not doing your job.”
But single-sector, “stove-piped” approaches to the analysis and practice of development can undermine international development efforts to improve well-being, particularly in areas of highly interconnected challenges like climate change, food security, fresh water access, and global health threats, writes Dabelko in his chapter.
He points toward common challenges that keep development planners and practitioners in their silos – finite resources, tight funding streams, simple and discrete indicators of success, and institutional and professional penalties for working “outside the box.” Despite these challenges, integration can have significant rewards, and Dabelko shares examples of success stories from integrated development approaches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Philippines that have successfully addressed challenges arising from related long-term trends in environmental degradation, human health, and population dynamics.
“Bringing analysis from these topically and geographically remote areas into local-level development planning is a process that requires practitioners to be willing to go outside the typical bounds of their brief,” writes Dabelko. “More simply, if you know everyone at the meeting or on the project team, you are not doing your job.”
Diverse Trends, But Consistent Themes
The importance of understanding the interaction among long-term trends is reflected in common themes running throughout the 10 chapters of The Future Can’t Wait. Co-editor Steven Gale identified the use of “big data” and analytics, health innovations, breakthroughs in nanotechnology, 3D printing and robotics, and education transformation among the key changes he believes will dramatically alter the development landscape over the next 15 to 20 years.
Richard Cincotta on age structure and political instability
Demographic change is another trend that arises as a common factor in several chapters. Richard Cincotta, demographer-in-residence at the Stimson Center, writes about the importance of “age-structural maturity” – the relative distribution of children, adolescents, working-age adults, and seniors in a country’s population – for a country’s political, economic, and social conditions. For example, he notes that over the past four decades, states with youthful age structures have been the most vulnerable to outbreaks of civil conflict and political instability. A better understanding of how population age structures are likely to change over the coming decades – and demographic projections indicate there is likely to be substantial change – can help us identify areas that may be ripe for focused policies to promote and support democratization, for example.
Evolving demographics are also likely to be a key factor in the future application of science and technology for development objectives, writes Andrew Reynolds, senior advisor for space and advanced technologies in the Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. He points toward the growing use of social media and online communities by students and “millennials” (young people in their teens and twenties transitioning to adulthood), which has helped to connect people around the world and may have applications for more global collaboration and innovation in international development. “Traditional institutions and stakeholders must cultivate and harness this potential as quickly as possible,” Reynolds writes.
The Velocity of Change Demands Action Today
Given the interconnectedness of the trends that shape the future of development, finding ways to institutionalize futures analysis in the field is critical, but remains an ongoing challenge.
“The velocity of change demands that we look more closely at emerging trends 5, 10, and 15 years out because these development trends require action today,” Dabelko writes. “Futures analysis should not be a ‘day’ you set aside for a symposium, but rather something that development practitioners do every day,” writes Gale. “Part of the solution as USAID, therefore, must be to communicate the significance of the trends, the perils averted if we take them into consideration, and then incentivizing the use of the information by those in Washington and among our 80-plus field missions.”
But such incentivizing can be challenging in the context of limited budgets, overloaded portfolios, and limited exposure to the tools of long-term trend analysis. Gale points toward growing interest in capacity-building for development staff both in Washington and in the field, but it will need to be cultivated to produce change.
Cincotta suggested, at least when it comes to demographic trends, greater attention to futures analysis be paid even before practitioners begin their careers:
Because university curricula in political science, international relations, and international development rarely require a course in demography, most students will graduate without understanding the degree to which age-structural transition, family size, and fertility decline bear upon the focus of their studies. Unless this is omission is corrected, America’s next generation of foreign affairs analysts and development practitioners will be deprived of a window through which they might better understand the present behavior of states, and glimpse critical features of the global future.
The same could be said for the other themes touched on in The Future Can’t Wait. A more intentional and consistent analysis of the ways in which emerging global trends are likely to evolve and interact with one another and influence the development landscape could perhaps prevent the kind of multi-systems failure seen in the Philippines and strengthen resilience in the face of other challenges that await beyond the horizon.
Mathew J. Burrows, Richard Cincotta, and Geoff Dabelko joined Mark Feierstein, Barry Pavel, Susan Riechle, and Roger-Mark De Souza for the launch of The Future Can’t Wait at the Atlantic Council on December 17.
Kathleen Mogelgaard is a writer and analyst on population and the environment, and a consultant for the Environmental Change and Security Program.
Sources: AP, The Huffington Post, PRI, Nature, USAID.
Photo Credit: The U.S. Navy provides aid after Typhoon Haiyan in Guiuan, courtesy of Peter Burghart/U.S. Navy. Webcast: The Atlantic Council.