A New Push for Foresight and Resilience – Notes from the ESPAS conference 2020

Art by Hanno Rink

The conference of the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS), 18-19 November 2020, offered a surprise factor in two ways. Foresight is becoming one of the key strategic tools with high expectations associated. Moreover, resilience serves as a new “compass for EU Policies”. Both have received a remarkable and firm commitment, as laid down in the new Communication and the publication „2020 Strategic Foresight Report – charting the course towards a more resilient Europe” and as reflected in the rich discussions during this year´s virtual conference.[i]

This is meaningful and reasonable in times of the most dangerous pandemic, surfacing all the global interconnectivities and close dependencies, the climate crisis, the accelerating inequality gap, and the precarious role of multinational collaboration. The pandemic crisis has shaken the EU and its Member States more than any previous crisis such as the migration crisis (2015) or the financial crisis (2008 onwards). The ESPAS can be seen as a mirror in this context.

Ten years ago, foresight did not receive as much attention as today and the term resilience has seen a ´jupitarian rise´ in the last few month, as one of the panellists put it. With the pandemic, the world is different. The conference set out to explore how to strengthen the link between global trends’ analysis and the practical needs of EU policymaking. It showed, however, also the difficulties of understanding and using a wide span in defining both terms or tools.

Strategic foresight should be embedded into EU policymaking, leading to immediate use to recover trust in politics and foster decision-making. And/or, how far can then foresight still be used as an open space for new ideas and alternatives, for innovative debates between informed experts and interested public stakeholders in a continuous dialogue? The Commission aims to seek both possibilities and it thereby wishes to strengthen resilience in complementarity. Resilience has become a new compass for EU policies with the COVID-19 crisis. Be aware, resilience has in the past often been used, but in most cases not perfectly defined. It can be used e.g. as the desire of quick recovery of business, health and social sectors and to go back to “normal” or existing situation including its failures and various ongoing crisis. Or, take resilience as a momentum for changing, adapting and continuously learning for the future. The EU Communication on Strategic Foresight defines resilience in its socio-economic, geopolitical, green and digital dimensions, as “the ability not only to withstand and cope with challenges but also to undergo transitions in a sustainable, fair, and democratic manner. Resilience is necessary in all policy areas to undergo the green and digital transitions, while maintaining the EU’s core purpose and integrity in a dynamic and at times turbulent environment…”. And, it will be monitored in due time.

How far can foresight offer a foretaste of the future? – one of these panels with remarkable speakers brought about hope based on good examples from Finland as a champion in foresight since many years, equally the Government of Singapore, and Germany presently having the EU Council Presidency, allowing the assumption that the understanding of foresight and resilience will be open and used in a plausible forward looking way.

Part of the further outlook in the EU is the strategic autonomy and sovereignty debates, which links to the EU´s transatlantic and global positioning; this also requires increased collaboration, co-creation and participation. The EU will be launching an EU-wide foresight network to develop partnerships that draw on Member States’ public foresight capabilities, think tanks, academia and civil society. With all this progress, however, on should not forget, the valuable predecessors in the ESPAS, former experienced advisors and publications such as Angela Wilkinson´s Primer on Foresight.

After two days listening to many celebrities, including Madeleine Albright, Prime Ministers and experts, one is curious to follow this process closer and see how the EU will succeed in 2021. Good luck for finding ways for a real transformation towards a more sustainable, equitable and democratic future, – of course by means of continuous adaptive learning.

[i] https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/new-push-european-democracy/strategic-foresight/2020-strategic-foresight-report_en