Designing better futures to better inform the present


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THE PIA REVIEW: PIA ANDREWS This is a Public Sector Pia Review — a series on better public sectors.

How often do you have a chance to think about the long-term impact of what you are doing right now? How often do you consider (or get supported to consider) how a long-term goal should change what you are doing right now? We are unfortunately systemically motivated — and rewarded — in Australian public sectors to focus on short-term outcomes. An announceable, a cost efficiency, a compliance tick-off or customer satisfaction metric. The problem is, of course, that short-term measures aren’t necessarily aligned with long-term goals, and the same activity that gains a short-term gain may actually lead to or delay the solving of a longer-term problem or a missed opportunity.

Consider service delivery as a case in point. You might have 100% customer satisfaction and low cost of delivery, but if the original policy intent of the service was to support people ageing comfortably in their homes for longer to reduce the cost and indignity of aged care, then the service metrics are nice-to-haves, at best. Even in situations where policy intent is measured alongside implementation measures, often we see disconnected or contradicting policies that don’t come from a common vision or agreed future state, especially when you consider the policy landscape holistically across portfolios and across jurisdictions.

If you are facing a crazy deadline, you have to make tough choices to prioritise fast delivery over good delivery, whether it is a policy, piece of legislative drafting, or new service. When you are always prioritising speed, you lose opportunities to engage, collaborate, reuse or even test. The human cost is not insignificant, as constant fast delivery also burns people out and lowers the quality and commitment to work, which can seem incongruent with public servant values of serving the public good. In service delivery, you also incur significant technical debt over time and lose the opportunities to build modular, scalable and all-of-government digital architecture.

If you don’t aim toward something commonly agreed, you have very little chance of naturally converging or complementary policies, programs or efforts. After many years of trying different methods, I have come to the conclusion that it is only by having agreed goals or vision with systemically motivated partners in the room that you get present actions naturally aligned to that purpose.

I like to think of this as ‘institutional nudging’.


READ MORE: PM&C leader makes case for ‘nudging’ people with public policy


So, how do you develop a long-term goal or vision that can inform your strategy, tactics, investment, programs, prioritisation and success criteria? Well, if you accept the idea that the public sector can provide the foundations for successful societies, then, arguably, our common vision should be based on a better future state in which all people can thrive. “Good” means different things to different people, but collaboratively exploring different ideas of good, and indeed different ideas of bad, provides a great way to design a future state toward which the public sector could progress.

Some people struggle with anything beyond five or 10 years, and oftentimes, this means short-term strategies that perpetuate the status quo with shiny new things and, at best, incremental benefits.

I would suggest that we need to think about what sort of life we want to have, the 50- or 100-year optimistic futures for society, because only then can we confidently plan and transform the structures, roles, programs and approaches around us. This doesn’t mean we have to all agree to all things, but we do need to identify the common scaffolding upon which we can all build.

This article challenges you to think systemically, critically and practically about five things:

  • What future do you want? Not ‘what could be a bit better’, or ‘what the next few years might hold’, or ‘how that shiny new toy you have could solve the world’s problems (policy innovation, data, blockchain, genomics or any tool or method)’. What is the future you want to work toward, and what does ‘good’ look like for you, your family, your neighbourhood or community? Forget about your particular passion or area of interest for a moment. What does your better life look like for all people, not just people like you?
  • What do we (collectively) need to get there? What concepts, cultural values, paradigm, assumptions should we take with us and what should we leave behind? What new tools do we need and how do we collectively design where we are going?
  • What is the role of government, academia, other sectors and people in that future? If we could create a better collective understanding of our roles in society and some of the future ideals we are heading toward, then we would see a natural convergence of effort, goals and strategy across the community.
  • What does a different future mean for today? Once you do some work to reimagine better (and worse) futures, then you can effectively reverse engineer what it would take to get there. If you can always keep your best possible future in mind, and if you can imagine a truly inclusive future, then every action you take will naturally align to that future. It becomes part of your value system.
  • What will you do today? Are you differentiating between symptomatic relief and causal factors? Are you being critically aware of your bias, of the system around you, of the people affected by your work? Are you reaching out to collaborate with others outside your team, outside your organisation and outside your comfort zone? Are you finding natural partners in what you are doing, and are you differentiating between activities worthy of collaboration versus activities only of value to you (the former being ripe for collaboration and the latter less so)?

How to design optimistic (and pessimistic) futures

There are three ways I have used (and seen) for designing different futures. They all involve a combination of identifying and understanding values and human needs with diverse groups of people, exploring trends and technologies, and actively looking at what good and bad would look like from an individual’s perspective.

1. Extrapolating user needs

In the New Zealand Government Service Innovation Lab, one of our first experiments was to explore and understand what future state services people actually wanted. It gave us a chance to map user needs, understand and analyse different types of interactions, and then rapidly prototype extrapolated versions of those hypotheses to create evidence-based future states that reflected both the needs and values of citizens interacting with government services. The three modes of services that we found people wanted when interacting with government were: conversational, proactive service delivery, and “help me plan” services. Check out the research paper and future state prototypes work here. This evidence-based work then provided something for us to reverse engineer to determine the most important digital infrastructure to focus on, and where we could leapfrog current efforts.

2. A day in the life

What does “a day in the life” look like, based around a life event, theme or the previously identified values or needs? Speculative design, system design and critical analysis provide some methods for exploring different futures. In New Zealand, we were inspired by the idea of 50-year futures, and we brainstormed with a group of public servants all working in different portfolio futures and actively sought a Maori perspective as part of the work to create a “day in the life” story. We then worked with a great VR company to bring it to life. We then ran an event to invite a very broad range of people and ideas to share their ideas of 50 years good, which provided quite dramatically different futures that still had some similarities upon which people could agree, and which helped us explore the role of the public sector moving forward. In the NSW Government, we did a similar activity which we called “Futurespectives” and got a range of future goods that helped us consider our work moving forward.

3. Extrapolating policy or trends

There is a lot of work around people exploring the likely impact of a megatrend, emerging technology or social trend within their organisation. While this can be a helpful thought experiment, I caution people to recognise that it can lead to putting all eggs in too few baskets, particularly if you limit yourself to tech trend. But extrapolating a broader trend, or indeed policy settings you want to test, can be really helpful.

The best example of this I’ve seen was Auckland Council, which did a particularly nice piece of work to take three or four particular policy levers — the different extremes of those policies — and to extrapolate them out into (I think it was) 16 different future states, from which they could clearly see what was and wasn’t desirable. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it published anywhere, but it was fantastic work! Wellington Council also did exceptional work to project different options for planning purposes, and I’ve been in many “megatrends” workshops in which agencies try to understand the likely impact of emerging technologies and trends on their assumptions and operation models.

My optimistic future

Because I am a life-long and proud geek, my optimistic future is a blend of tech and society. Here is my optimistic future, which is a little more principles-based than the more practical day-in-the-life approaches above.

Technology is only as useful as it affects actual people, so my vision starts, perhaps surprisingly for some, with people. After all, if people suffer, the system suffers, so the wellbeing of people is the first and foremost priority for any sustainable vision. But we also need to look at what all sectors and communities across society need and what part they can play:

  • People: I dream of a future in which the uniqueness of local communities, cultures and individuals is amplified, in which diversity is embraced as a strength, and in which all people are empowered with the skills, capacity and confidence to thrive locally and internationally. A future where everyone shares in the benefits and opportunities of a modern, digital and surplus society/economy with resilience, and where everyone can meaningfully contribute to the future of work, local communities and the national/global good.
  • Public sectors: I dream of strong, independent, bold and highly accountable public sectors that lead, inform, collaborate, engage meaningfully and are effective enablers for society and the economy. A future in which we invest as much time and effort on transformational digital public infrastructure and skills as we do on other public infrastructure like roads, health and traditional education, so that we can all build on top of government as a platform. In which everyone can have confidence in government as a stabilising force of integrity that provides a minimum quality of life upon which everyone can thrive.
  • The media: I dream of a highly effective fourth estate that is motivated systemically by resilient business models that incentivise behaviours to both serve the public and hold power to account, especially as “news” is also arguably becoming exponential. Actionable accountability that doesn’t rely on the linearity and personal incentives of individuals to respond will be critical with the changing pace of news and with more decisions being made by machines.
  • Private, academic and non-profit sectors: I dream of a future in which all sectors can more freely innovate, share, adapt and succeed while contributing meaningfully to the public good and being accountable to the communities affected by decisions and actions. I also see a role for academic institutions in particular, given their systemic motivation for high-veracity outcomes without being attached to one side, as playing a role in how national/government actions are measured, planned, tested and monitored over time.
  • Finally, I dream of a world in which countries are not celebrated for being just “digital nations” but rather are engaged in a race to the top in using technology to improve the lives of all people and to establish truly collaborative democracies where people can meaningfully participate in the shaping the optimistic and inclusive futures.

Technology is a means, not an end, so we need to use technology to both proactively invent the future we need (thank you Alan Kay) and to be resilient to change including emerging tech and trends.


READ MORE: The policy futurist’s reading list. How speculative fiction can inform better public policy as our society changes and grows in response to new tech


Let me share a few specific optimistic predictions for 2070

  • Automation will help us redesign our work expectations. We will have a 10- to 20-hour work week supported by machines, freeing up time for family, education, civic duties and innovation. People will have less pressure to simply survive and will have more capacity to thrive (this is a common theme, but something I see as critical).
  • 3D printing of synthetic foods and nanotechnology to deconstruct and reconstruct molecular materials will address hunger, access to medicine, clothes and goods; and community hubs (like libraries) will become even more important as distribution, education and social hubs, with drones and other aerial travel employed for those who can’t travel. Exoskeletons will replace scooters.
  • With rocket travel normalised, and only an hour to get anywhere on the planet, nations will see competitive citizenships where countries focus on the best quality of life to attract and retain people, rather than largely just trying to attract and retain companies as we do today. We will also likely see the emergence of more powerful transnational communities that have nationhood status to represent the aspects of people’s lives that are not geopolitically bound.
  • The public service has highly professional, empathetic and accountable multi-disciplinary experts on responsive collaborative policy, digital legislation, societal modelling, identifying necessary public digital infrastructure for investment, and well controlled but openly available data, rules and transactional functions of government to enable dynamic and third-party services across myriad channels, provided to people based on their needs but under their control. We will also have a large number of citizens working one or two days a week in paid civic duties in areas for which they have passion, skills or experience to contribute.
  • The Paralympics will become the main game, as it were, with no limits on human augmentation. We will do the 100m sprint with rockets, judo with cyborgs, rock climbing with tentacles. We have access to medical capabilities to address any form of disease or discomfort, but we don’t use the technologies to just comply to a normative view of a human. People are free to choose their form and we culturally value diversity and experimentation as critical attributes of a modern adaptable community.

I hope this has provided some useful thoughts, examples and strategies for designing better futures, and I hope you share your approaches and examples too.

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