Profession: futuristic… and officials

Photo: Adrian Wyld, The canadian Press
Policy Horizons will report to a committee of a dozen of deputy ministers to ensure that his work is heard in high places.

While in the beginning of the year, it is fun to predict what will 2018, there is the federal government a team rather quiet for the prediction of the future is the daily work. The “futurists,” as they are sometimes called, are not Jojo Savard or deployment descriptors of coffee, but rather of federal public servants whose task it is to imagine various plausible futures in order to feed the decision-making process. Welcome to the world unknown exploration policy !


The office of policy Horizons Canada, nestled on the 15th floor of a building in the city centre of Ottawa, detonate compared to these hives cubiculées crammed usually the federal officials. Here, the meeting chairs have swapped the black for the lime green, when these are not the chairs themselves have been swapped for armchairs circular fireman red that you would think came out of an Ikea catalog. On workbooks are a few construction helmets white, a megaphone. Everywhere, in this universe, who carbide in the discussion groups and workshops, walls, and glass partitions are colorful writing, diagrams, and a ” post-it “.


It is that creativity is to be part of Horizons, an entity of the federal government which has seen the light of day in 1996, but took its current form in 2011. Thirty-one people work there. Some carry the title of futurist. Others prefer the prospectivistes. Their mission : to detect trends in technological, economic, environmental and societal emerging, imagine their evolution over a future 10 to 15 years and to prepare for policy-makers scenarios to take into consideration.


“Foresight does not predict the future, but it explores a range of plausible futures,” urges the Web site of Horizons. The mantra of the box : anticipate, experiment, explore.


Pierre-Olivier DesMarchais has worked at Horizons for almost five years. In a virtual way, of course. This officer actually lives on the South Shore of Montreal. His presence in the office is ensured by Christine, a tablet perched on a telescoping pole motor that he remote from his home. The invention of Double Robotics, specially designed to “embody” the teleworkers, and allows him to follow his colleagues in their movements, watching them in turn during a conversation, the follow up to the dining area for a bite to eat in their company.


“We, we take as an assumption that we don’t know what will happen in the future. We seek what we call weak signals, “explains Mr. DesMarchais, in the interview, “in person” with The Duty. The low-level signals, what are these discoveries, events, or small changes that could presage major upheavals later.


He gives the example of 3D printing, on which he has written a note in 2013. His work was to imagine what might look like the transport of goods in a context in which the property could be printed locally. This would allow it to relocate production, and thus reverse the concentration trend in manufacturing in China ? The transport demand would be reduced ?


“This is the type of things you explore,” says Mr. DesMarchais, and that politicians could take into consideration when they pay for infrastructure, for example. “Our mission is to inform the decision makers and tell them : “Think about it !””


Studies of prospectivistes often begin with the premise ” What if ? “, continues Mr. DesMarchais. “Recently, I wrote a text entitled, “And if the autonomous car was replacing the transit systems ?” I shared it with the Caisse de dépôt et placement and the person responsible for the project [construction of the REM to Montreal]. I have not been back… “


The challenge of the application


Because this is one of the challenges of the future : the put in application. How to ask the decision-maker to take account of plausible futures if they are numerous and sometimes contradictory ?


“This is the frustration of working in this area-there is more blur,” admits Ian Lambert, the director-general of Horizons. “What is difficult, is that it does not make recommendations. We can not say that the deputy minister has adopted three of our six recommendations. It is hard to say if it is our study that influenced the direction of policy. […] It is not always clear, even though you never know. “


Then the critics would they have reason to believe that the forward-looking is only a conceptual exercise helped ? “This is not up to us to develop the probabilities and risk factors, says Mr. Lambert. It should be left to statisticians and economists the task of determining the chance that [the scenarios anticipated] arrive. It comes out of our domain. Our domain is to determine that it is reasonable to think that it could have an impact on the profitability of a project. “


Duncan Cass-Beggs recognizes this challenge. This counsellor for strategic foresight work is now at the OECD in Paris, after having passed through Horizons in Ottawa. “All those who work in forward-looking within governments are facing the particular challenge of bringing this up in discussions of public policy,” he said.


In the worst case, it does not fit our methods to be robust in the face of various plausible scenarios because it is considered too expensive. “But even in this case, it is advantageous, as it is an informed choice. One takes a risk, but not blindly. “


In the best case, the decision maker opts for a plastic solution to adapt if one of the scenarios materializes. He gives the example of the communication satellites are designed to last up to 20 years, but the rapid evolution of technologies makes it vulnerable to cyber attacks. “We would have been able to identify this problem in advance and opt for one of the satellites less expensive, than it is to replace or recycle on shorter cycles of five years. “


Mr. Cass-Beggs is currently working on the digital transformation of the labour market. The virtual work allows the workers of the world to offer their talent to a market unlimited. But it enables us to consider a “convergence of wage” which will not be beneficial for all. “Sometimes, to be the voice of moderate, reasonable, or responsible, it must not just give the forecast center’s most probable, but also show the great divergence of possibilities. “


Policy Horizons will report to a committee of a dozen federal deputy ministers to ensure that his work is heard in high places.


Weak signals


Each Friday, the team at policy Horizons meets so that everyone can share his “surprise” of the week. A surprise, it is a piece of information that could be a sign of a future trend.


This may be the decision of a british court to allow two persons having a platonic relationship to adopt a child. Doesn’t it portend a change in family structures and rules of filiation ?


This may be the decision of a German court to hear the case of a Peruvian asking for compensation for the environmental impacts incurred in their country because of the pollution generated in Germany by a local company. This means there is a development of the law in relation to extraterritoriality ?


This can be also the announcement of the construction of a sand road to the Territories-the North-West and the potential occupation of the northern territory that it would provide in a context of an influx to Canada of climate refugees. “Sometimes, it is the intersection of several surprises that lead to reflection,” says Ian Lambert.


A discipline franco-american


The prospective is a discipline that has grown in parallel in the United States (Herman Kahn), and France (Gaston Berger and Bertrand de Jouvenel) in the middle of the last century. Attributed to Gaston Berger, a philosopher and senior French civil servant, the invention of the word ” prospective “. “The future is not what comes after this, but what is different from him,” he said.


The Association of futurist professionals, which has 400 members, is estimated that there are between 5,000 and 15,000 futurists in the world, found as much in the corridors of government and in businesses. The canadian government, some departments are their own unit of forward-looking, including world Affairs. Most european governments have units similar to the Horizons, according to Ian Lambert, as Singapore, South Korea, Japan and the United States. The united arab Emirates, the unit, Dubai Future Foundation, housed in premises entirely 3D printed.