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Weekly notes – week 20: is our foresight work aimed at the right issues?

Teppo Turkki examines two examples where foresight may not be hitting the right spot...



Early May saw the publication of two fascinating online publications on the increasing importance of foresight and think tanks. The Financial Times (published on 4 May 2015) reported on the decision of the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping to set up 100 new, American-style, more independent think tanks in China. And Professor of Future Studies at the Turku School of Business, Markku Wilenius, wrote in his blog about the Club of Rome member meeting, held in Switzerland.

According to the Financial Times report, the key trigger and reason for this rather surprising decision by the Chinese government to set up 100 national-level, more independent think tanks was the inability of existing Chinese academic research institutions to predict the end result of the local elections in Taiwan in November 2014. The ruling Chinese nationalist party, Kuomintang, suffered a significant and historic defeat in the election, contrary to the forecasts of the mainland’s main policy advisory body on Taiwan.

In China, the political analyses and background reports for the government and the Communist Party have traditionally been drawn up by researchers and professors of research institutions operating under academies and universities. The most influential and well-known academic institution is the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The efforts of various individuals and organisation in building the future and preparing policies have been closely linked to China’s industrial and foreign policies and the strategies of large state-owned enterprises. Policy papers are most commonly written by Chinese academic experts, whose identities resemble those of government officials more than independent-minded academics. IAnd, as a rule, funding for these projects is provided by the Chinese government.

The current view of President Xi and the Chinese government is that overly close-knit links between research institutions and major firms, conglomerates and ministries are causing problems in the production of up-to-date contemporary analysis and information on the future. China’s future is further blurred by strategic institutes run by retired executives or former diplomats, which have their own interests and agendas. The predictive information provided by such institutes to administrative bodies is neither sharp and topical nor based much on reality. Xi’s plan for 100 of these new bodies is expected to enable the new think tanks in China to replicate the US model, enabling greater harmonisation and independent interpretation.

The plan is actually interesting: it tells us a lot about the current Chinese leaders’ aim to take on a more strategic approach. The work of the new think tanks will be full of challenges, because the Chinese research tradition does not include a culture of open discussion, policy dialogue or independent-minded unaffiliated experts. The experts also lack open access to international discussion forums and sources of information available on the internet. President Xi’s massive anti-corruption campaign has also silenced many academic researchers and political experts.

Markku Wilenius reports on what was discussed at the Club of Rome member meeting and describes how current foresight work has an in-built dilemma: on the one hand, the thinking and global scenario work of researchers should be carefully focused, but on the other hand, it should be free of conventional and linear models. Strategic foresight cannot be too narrow, or based on a standard neo-classic approach.

According to Wilenius, the meeting participants were critical about the recent global scenario work conducted by the structural policy analysis division of the OECD, OECD Policy challenges for the next 50 years, which the Club of Rome members felt represented a conventional economist and linear way of assuming the future. It is a neat exercise with a clear logic. However, too much emphasis is placed on individual phenomena rather than relations. Focusing on monitoring and analysing individual phenomena will not provide sufficient understanding of changes to the “big picture”.

Wilenius also mentions the Club of Rome’s recent estimate that the world’s rare and critical raw material resources and their availability are becoming a key bottleneck for the global economy and for the growth and development of local economies. The resource issue is not even mentioned in the future scenarios of the OECD. In the future scenario of the Club of Rome, the resource issue will define the real politics and outcomes in the world for the next few decades.

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