What does it look like when a government takes the future seriously? Can states create formal foresight positions?
One example might be found in Wales, which just appointed a Future Generations Commissioner. Sophie Howe’s job is:
to be the guardian of future generations. This means helping public bodies and those who make policy in Wales to think about the long-term impact their decisions have.
That position was authorized by a 2015 Welsh law with an unusually futures-oriented remit:
The Well-being of Future Generations Act requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.
So what is commissioner Howe working on now? Topics include decarbonization and improving stewardship of resources, along with leading a prioritization process aimed at identifying one of these areas to address: skills, social prescribing, adverse childhood experiences, planning, housing, and transport. There’s also an awful lot of consultation and conversation.
The commissioner doesn’t have much power. Her job is largely advisory at this point, although the Guardian points out that she can intervene in and influence key decisions.
Are there other examples of governments building in futuring functions? The same Guardian article (by Oliver Balch) points to several other recent and current examples. Israel’s Knesset maintained a Commission for Future Generations from 2001-2006. Hungary also launched a Commissioner for Future Generations in 2008. I can’t tell if the position still exists. Futurepolicy.org describes it in the past tense. I could imagine Viktor Orbán axing it.
Meanwhile, Canada’s federal government has a Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, which offers a somewhat narrower focus:
the Commissioner provides parliamentarians with objective, independent analysis and recommendations on the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development.
The current office holder, Julie Gelfand, has a term expiring in 2021.
Is there an American equivalent? There was, in a very narrow sense. in the form of the Office of Technology Assessment (1972-1995) And now, in our neoliberal age, we have a private entity, the excellent Long Now Foundation.
Let’s take a step back and look at these efforts as a group (and please let me know of others). These positions have several things in common. They are futures oriented, obviously. They work with legislative bodies and have some ability to monitor public and private activity. Their focus can be very broad (future populations) or somewhat more narrow (resources or technology). And at least one half of the extant examples are currently held by women.
FuturePolicy.org thinks of these offices as “Ombudspersons, or Guardians for Future Generations.” The former makes sense, given the breadth of the positions, even the Canadian one. The latter is more ambitious.
I’m writing this after yet another trip, late at night. My internal clock is recovering from a quick trans-Pacific trip and America’s daylight savings, so perhaps my mood is odd. But these private and public projects inspire me. They seem like small signs of humanity lifting its eyes to look ahead beyond the current semester, business quarter, or election season. Perhaps they are indications of evolution. At the very least I think they could represent progress.