In the words of António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, “many of today’s multilateral frameworks are outdated and no longer fit for purpose.” As the world becomes more complex and globalized, local policy decisions can become highly consequential. It is therefore becoming increasingly apparent that we need to consider the long-term impacts of our policies and decisions. Care for future generations is common across cultures and has been for centuries. However, our institutions lack the tools to systematically design future-proof policies.
Future-proofing is the process of designing policies with a lasting positive impact on future generations while not harming current people. It is a systematic approach to considering the long-term effects of our decisions, based on the assumption that future generations are moral beings and that current generations should preserve their choices and quality of life. Future-proofing is essential as it ensures that policies consider future generations and helps to hold policymakers accountable if they fail to implement the resulting recommendations.
A specific political context prompts the reflection on future-proofing policies. An increasing number of states are considering the needs of future generations in their constitutions, and the UN Secretary-General’s Common Agenda is asking for tools that go beyond “strong rhetoric, which is not backed by practical means of implementation.” Additionally, the mid-term review of the Sendai Framework and considerations of global catastrophic risks necessitate policymakers to consider their decisions’ long-term impact.
The absence of future-proofing policies can lead to unintended negative consequences and the calcification of institutions, unable to adapt to the pace of change.
Aral Sea disaster
The Aral Sea disaster is a prime example of the absence of future-proofing. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union began diverting the rivers that fed the Aral Sea to irrigate cotton fields in the desert. This decision had a catastrophic impact on the lake, which predictably shrunk by over 90%. As the lake’s salinity levels increased, most of the fish died. The remaining water is heavily polluted, causing significant health issues for the local population. Additionally, the drying up of the Aral Sea has led to a rise in dust storms, which have increased respiratory diseases. This failure to consider the long-term impacts, involve local communities in the planning process, and anticipate unintended consequences led to irreversible environmental damage and significant human suffering.
UNAIDS’ lack of flexibility
The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) is a prominent example of institutional calcification. Established in 1996 to tackle the HIV/AIDS pandemic, it has since been criticized for its failure to adapt to new challenges. While UNAIDS has successfully lowered HIV infection rates, it has been criticized for its lack of focus on other major health crises, such as diabetes. Indeed, despite causing twice as many deaths per year as HIV/AIDS, diabetes receives only a fraction of the funding UNAIDS does. The lack of institutional changes and failure to future-proof its policies has led to a misallocation of resources and a misalignment with the current global health challenges. UNAIDS is an example of how an organization can lose sight of its purpose and fail to adapt to changing needs. It highlights the importance of future-proofing to ensure institutions adapt and remain effective.
How future-proofing works
Our “Future-proofing Adaptability, Impact, and Representation framework” (FAIR framework) comprises three elements of classic policymaking: design, assessment, and participation. The framework provides a list of questions that policymakers must consider when designing policies that are inclusive of the future. It also includes different examples of how to implement these considerations.
The framework is flexible and should be adapted to the need and specificity of each policy. It is a helpful structure that policymakers can build upon and use in the most efficient and practical way.
Finally, it is essential to note that while this future-proofing framework is necessary to build policies that account for future impact, it does not claim to be sufficient or exhaustive in achieving ideal policymaking.
Our future-proofing design framework relies on three interconnected principles: adaptability over time, assessment of the impact over a long time frame, and representation of future generations.
What does it mean?
Adaptability means ensuring the design offers sufficient flexibility to change over time. Future-proofing is about ensuring that policies stay relevant over a long period of time or come to an end. It is essential to consider how to allow for policies to change depending on evolving needs, contexts, and knowledge.
Why is it important?
Context, needs and knowledge evolve over time. Policies tend to operate only within a specific context, which quickly renders them obsolete or leads to unintended or perverse impacts. It is therefore essential for policies to have built-in mechanisms which can respond to change and adapt to a range of anticipated and unanticipated factors. Additionally, designing policies flexibly is likely more efficient than attempting to predict all possible futures.
What mechanisms can assess whether the policy should be maintained, transformed, or terminated over time?
Provide a time frame and midterm review
- See: the Midterm Review of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030)
Use red teams
- See: the Red Teaming Handbook of the United Kingdom’s government
What mechanisms can transform or terminate the policy over time?
Integrate automatic adjustment for anticipated changes
- See: Swanson et al., (2007) ‘Adaptive Policies: Meeting the Policymakers Challenge in Today’s Complex, Dynamic and Uncertain World’, p.9.
Adopt a formal amendment procedure
- See: Bowman M.J., (1995) ‘The Multilateral Treaty Amendment Process: A Case Study’
What does it mean?
Impact is the assessment of the policy’s long-term effects on the world. One way to future-proof is to expand the time horizons under consideration to yield lasting results. This does not mean that policies should be implemented over years or decades, but that their potential impacts should be assessed on longer timeframes. Conducting impact assessments over long timeframes requires forecasting and foresight.
Why is it important?
Extending the timelines under consideration is important to counteract the short-term incentives of most institutions. Taking a longer view also changes the data we consider and forces us to consider the impact of our policies not only on the near term but also on future generations. While it is difficult to accurately predict the future, we can use techniques such as forecasting and foresight exercises to evaluate potential impacts and extrapolate current trends.
What should the timeframe of this policy be?
- Consider its intended implementation duration
- Consider its intended impact duration
- Consider its unintended impact duration
How to ensure this policy yields the intended impact over the next 5, 15, and 30 years?
Consider trends and foresight techniques:
- Forecasting: making predictions of the future based on past and present data and most commonly by analysis of trends.
- Nowcasting: predicting the present or the very near future of a value (for example the weather tomorrow). It can also include the prediction of a very recent past state of a value (for example economic indicators are often determined only after a long delay and are subject to revision).
- Prediction markets: prediction markets (also known as betting markets, political betting markets, predictive markets, information markets, decision markets, idea futures, event derivatives, or virtual markets) are exchange-traded markets created for the purpose of trading the outcome of events. The market prices can indicate what the crowd thinks the probability of the event is and can hence be used to give an indication of the likelihood of an event occurring.
- Horizon scanning: horizon scanning is a technique for detecting early signs of potentially important developments through a systematic examination of potential threats and opportunities.
- Scenario planning: scenario planning maps out different scenarios to enable organizations to develop flexible long-term plans.
- Strategic foresight: strategic foresight involves considering multiple alternative futures and their implications. It doesn’t seek to offer a definitive answer about what the future will hold but aims to expand the range of plausible developments to allow for planning.
Use elicitation and simulation methods
- See: evidence-based computational modeling and other tools in Kwakkel & Marjolijn Haasnoot (2019) ‘Supporting Decision-making under Deep Uncertainty: a Taxonomy of Methods’
Use stress-testing methods
- See: European Parliament Briefing (2021) ‘Future proofing EU policies - The why, what and how of stress testing’
How to ensure that the policy is financially viable over the next 5, 15, and 30 years?
- Consider the expected cost of this policy over time, including how the policy’s context will impact the cost
- Consider who will finance the policy and whether they are willing to dedicate the necessary funds
What does it mean?
Representation consists of considering future generations as stakeholders in policy design. Representing future generations means appointing guardians or spokespeople who act on behalf of future generations and ensure that their interests are safeguarded. While we cannot know their exact preferences, we can assume that their interests will include basic human rights, existential security, and the capacity to self-actualize.
Why is it important?
Future generations have the same moral worth as those currently living today. One driver of short-termism is that they cannot speak for themselves. This means that it is our responsibility to make decisions that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to live fulfilled lives.
How to ensure that future generations are considered as stakeholders?
Appoint an Envoy or Commissioner for future generations
Rely on an advisory committee for the future
- See: the Committee for the Future in Finland which is a standing committee of the Parliament
Task the policymakers themselves to consider the interests of future generations
How to ensure that representatives account for the diversity of future generations?
- Consider the diversity of generations over years (5 years, 10 years, 50 years, …)
- Consider the diversity of generations depending on regions (Asia, Africa, Europe, America, …)
- Consider the diversity of generations depending on income (below the poverty line, middle-income, …)
The FAIR framework introduced above provides a basis for future-proofing policies. We would like to refine the conceptualization and applicability of this framework through your experience. Please provide your feedback, ideas and examples via this survey.