Foresight tools provide the anticipatory capacity to systematically consider the future, and prepare ourselves for different contingencies. Kwa Chin Lum examines how Singapore’s foresight experience helps to anticipate and prevent crises, and mitigate the consequences when they occur.
The experience of the past 10 years shows an increasing frequency of crises and other shocks to our systems – 9/11, SARS, natural disasters, financial crises and social uprisings. That the world we live in today is highly inter-connected goes without saying, but its complexity means that cause and effect are not easily determined. A single event can trigger and amplify other events in very unpredictable ways, sometimes leading to catastrophic consequences. An example is the Arab Spring, which, though fuelled by the rise of social media and undergirded by festering political grievances, was triggered by the sudden rise in food prices resulting from poor weather and lower yields.
Foresight and Crisis
Singapore has generally been able to deal with crises when they happen. Our compactness and a growing Whole-of-Government culture have enabled us to work together across government agencies and with non-government actors in the private sector and the community. During both the SARS outbreak and financial crisis, the way in which the government worked with business and community partners to respond quickly with implementable solutions helped to contain the impact of the crises and facilitate the recovery thereafter. The ability to handle crises when they happen is being strengthened by the foresight work of the Centre for Strategic Futures (CSF)in helping to anticipate such crises.
Some crises are more foreseeable, but may have been allowed to happen due to inaction, other cognitive failures or policy mistakes in response. But often, crises, and their timing and impact, are inherently difficult if not impossible to predict. We seek to neither predict the future nor eliminate the uncertainty associated with it, but instead to develop the anticipatory capacity through foresight, and prepare ourselves for different contingencies.
By systematically considering the future, and identifying and assessing possible risks, we can avoid or mitigate the risks that lead eventually to such crisis situations. This may not prevent or avert the crisis, but it could certainly help to moderate its impact, and to prepare ourselves better to respond.
Risk Identification and Assessment
The CSF and our partners undertake different projects that allow us to identify and assess the risks associated with developing trends better. Through horizon scanning – via the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning programme run by the Horizon Scanning Centre (www.rahs.org.sg) – and studies of emergent strategic issues and possible wildcards, we hope to pick up weak signals that could suggest an emerging problem.
By asking the right “what if” and “so what” questions, we curate strategic conversations about the future, provoking thought on possibilities and pushing the discussion towards issues that we would not otherwise have considered. This helps us to identify trends better, understand how developments could lead to stresses, and how these stresses interact, particularly when catalysed by technology
But good risk identification and assessment cannot be done by central government agencies alone. We need to maintain good networks of diverse views – both international and local – that can help overcome inherent cultural and cognitive biases, and lower the risk of institutional surprise. Equally important is the collaborative approach within the Government that we have adopted. This Whole-of-Government approach towards risk management gives us a fuller appreciation of the risk issues and events, and possible interconnections between them. Through these processes, we can better define for ourselves the weak trends and early warning signals to watch out for, and then monitor these potential developments. This allows us to calibrate our responses as the operating environment evolves.
Risk Communication and Mitigation
Beyond risk assessment, a clear communication of assessed risks is arguably even more important, so as to gain acceptance and guide prioritisation of risks, thereby prompting risk response and mitigation. In this “solutioning” process, taking the Whole-of-Government perspective is just as critical, as solutions would inevitably require collaboration among various agencies, often with resource implications and policy trade-offs. While these risk responses may not be implemented immediately, the process of having thought through possible responses in certain scenarios positions us well to react as the situation develops, and when the risk eventually develops into crisis, with a deeper understanding of the consequences of these actions.
As an illustration, linkages could be made between the effects of climate change and associated risks (see Figure 1), which could eventually lead to weather crises and other catastrophic outcomes. Would shocks to global resource supply chains, coupled with an increased energy demand locally to counter the effects of climate change, increase Singapore’s resource vulnerability? Would changes in climatic factors such as temperature and humidity increase disease incidence, making pandemic outbreaks more likely, or exacerbate haze situations? What if sea-level rises were to lead to greater flooding, a loss of land space and a threat to freshwater reservoirs? Would our public institutions and critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, ports, electric grids and water utilities, be able to cope with the increased stresses on the system? Each of these outcomes – or worse, in combination – would impact Singapore’s liveability for our population and our competitiveness.
These risks do not fall within the purview of a single government agency. Naturally then, the responses to these risks require efforts across different agencies looking at various issues, including energy efficiency, drainage infrastructure, resource security and pollution management. Considering the different modes of potential crises also helps policymakers think through possible gaps in capabilities and processes, allowing us to prepare ourselves in time for such events.
Foresight plays a valuable role both in anticipating and preventing crises, and mitigating the consequences when they occur. By developing an understanding of the factors and potential responses, we can manage the contributory risks, and build the necessary capabilities required to deal with the crisis should it happen. Once the crisis occurs, however, we need to remain adaptable and be responsive to the operating environment as the crisis unfolds, constantly probing and testing the solutions to address the events and issues that arise.
Kwa Chin Lum is Head of the Centre for Strategic Futures, Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore.