What will the South-East Asian region look like in 2040? What are the big drivers of change happening now?
The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the need for future preparedness like never before. Like well-practised regions such as Europe, the ASEAN region is now building foresight capacity so it can build a shared vision of the future. Or should we say, multiple visions.
My work with Australia’s Data61 – the data analytics arm of CSIRO – is working to facilitate that. I have been convening a forum of planners and government officials from ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) countries to train in foresight techniques and peer into the future for all countries in this part of the world.
Over the past year planners and policy makers from ASEAN nations have come together in a series of online workshops to develop foresight skills in the areas of science, technology and innovation. The initiative is a partnership between CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, and ASEAN Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI), with the support of the ASEAN-Australia Development Cooperation Program (AADCP II).
Foresight is the science of medium- to long-term planning, focussed on determining over-arching drivers of change, sometimes referred to as “megatrends”. The aim of the project will be to develop foresight skills across all ASEAN nations, particularly within the areas of science, technology and innovation, to improve resilience and investment decisions, forge collaborations and determine early warning signals for critical challenges.
It’s incredibly important that we build a community of foresight practitioners across the ASEAN member states because many of the issues we face in the coming decades can’t be solved by nations on their own. They will need cross-border collaboration; they will need us to work together in order to make any difference. They are issues such as building cyber security, acting on climate change, responding to technological change and opportunity, and yes, combatting pandemics. By building foresight skills we can see critical points for action, create shared goals on these issues, and act more efficiently when investing for the future.
The most recent in this series of workshops was in August 2021, with representatives from all ASEAN nations doing a demonstration roadmapping exercise exploring possible post-COVID futures and roads to recovery for the ASEAN region.
To me, it is about triggering imagination as much as developing datasets and trend analytics. Trying to imagine the future over the next 20 years is part science and part art. It’s important that any data analytic tools we use are grounded in community support and realistic operational boundaries. People and their judgements are still the experts in future plans.
Twenty years is beyond what most forecasts can reliably predict, as forecasts are just the extrapolation of numbers. We need long-term planners trained in the field of foresight to identify the longer trends, apply filters and prioritise them. That requires judgement and in-depth complex knowledge.
The foresight training with ASEAN follows on from previous work in Vietnam for Australia’s Aus4Innovation program. Aus4Innovation is a multimillion development package supported by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Vietnam. In a first of its kind for Australian Aid, it focusses on supporting technological advancement and scientific co-operation between Australia and Vietnam. I led the first project in the program with a foresight study into Vietnam’s Future Digital Economy. It was launched by the Prime Minister of Vietnam in May 2019 and has impacted policy development and actions contributing to economic development in the country of 93 million people. It has been a great demonstration on the power of foresight to shape investment and planning in the future.