Futures and Public Policy in Asia

Created on

February 23 2021

Created by Medha Basu. This summary was largely done for my own note-taking, sharing it just in case it adds more value to other people. Any errors are mine :)


LKYSPP virtual panel hosted by Cheryl Chung on 23 Feb 2021


  • Liana Tang - Deputy Head, Centre for Strategic Futures, Prime Minister's Office Strategy Group, Singapore
  • Susann Roth - Chief of Knowledge Advisory Services Center, Asian Development Bank
  • Duleesha Kulasooriya - Executive Director, Center for the Edge, Deloitte


  • Bringing challenges to the table and giving them names can be impactful. It allows leaders to talk about them. For eg, Singapore gov has talked about 'people as businesses' (what is now called gig economy) since 2013-14
  • If you can convince people about something in their heart (their emotional side), it becomes easier to change their minds (their more logical side). This can help move past cognitive dissonance. For eg, using short stories/bite-sized cards, rather than long reports
  • Short term wins buy you space to do more long term stuff, so it's important to have a mix


Liana Tang

  • CSF leads strategic futures practice in public policy
  • Focus on three key things:
    • Scout over the horizon for what's coming, signals of change, seeds of new ideas, changes in behaviour/system that we should be better prepared for
    • Challenge the way we think today, especially that which is out of sync with what's coming up in the future
    • Grow the number of people using the tools, methods and ways of thinking in the practice of foresight.
  • Started systematising scenario planning in 80s and 90s, starting with Ministry of Defence (this is not unusual because of the hefty investments required in that sector).
  • Instilled discipline in how we think about the future. Create strategy for the future but also stress test current strategy
  • Centre very deliberately makes sure that talent circulates through the centre and goes back into the policy space and share what they've learnt
  • How much do decision makers influence the process?
    • We don't put out the stories they want to hear because then we're not being very helpful. But you do want your audience not to reject you, so have to think about creative ways to present things that might be unpalatable to them.

Susann Roth

  • Developed ADB's first futures programme. Opportunity to overcome group think and debate at the edge. Engage with countries differently. In the past looked at 3-5 year horizon.
  • Lessons learnt: need local partners and a local ecosystem. Eg, in Armenia there was a recent conflict. Foresight could be used to create optimism and positive outlook beyond the current situation. Timor Leste showed how culture changes last. We need to bring emotion and culture into the changes we're looking to make.
  • How is the futures approach changing the way ADB works with governments? What will that mean for its relationship with the private sector, particularly tech companies?
    • We are testing how futures and foresight tools can change how we engage with countries- more issue-based, more interdisciplinary. But we need to ensure our staff have the skills to engage in such a foresight dialogue.
  • Susann's new book:

Duleesha Kulasooriya

  • Partnered with EDB to share case studies 'at the edge' - did bite-sized cards rather than long reports

Foresight and the current pandemic

  • Liana: invest in foresight for the long game. SARS was a transformative crisis. Need to be a 'paranoid policymaker'
    • Singapore is always concerned about its existence. Vulnerabilities have made it more resilient and prepared during the pandemic
    • Foresight helped inform policies in 2020. That was not thinking about 2021, it was thinking about next month. Policymakers struggled to respond in a way that was a couple of steps ahead, in situatuon that was changing weekly
    • One tool for eg is the Futures Wheel which the gov used to look at specific events and think about second, third, fourth order effects of that event
  • Susann's biggest lesson: need a critical mass of champions to bring progress. Making people believe in the vision
    • Have had interesting discussions with Mongolio and Uzbekistan on longer term policy changes

Is futures thinking a developed world phenomenon? How can it be used in the developing world, where public policy capacity might not be as developed?

  • Susann: futures experts used to be expensive. it's becoming more of a commodity now
  • Duleesha: developing world has an advantage that they do not have embedded infrastructure that they have to change. You don't have to work against the lobbying of the incumbents. ADB can be hugely helpful in driving these opportunities.

What can public and private sector learn from each other?

  • Duleesha: a corporate culture can be easier to manage as compared to a nation, and some of these lessons can be transferred to the public sector
  • Liana: Private sector is a source of radical vision and thinking that public sector can learn from. However in the public sector, the long game is more evident (at least in Singapore) because there's no bottom line to chase.
  • Susann: companies that balance foresight with present strategy are more successful and survive longer. There is a business case to make for foresight.
  • Cheryl: private sector some times expresses envy at the Singapore govt's ability to think far ahead into the future

Is there a trade off between longer term, participatory projects vs one-off workshops? Where do each one of them work?

  • Liana: Depends on how you define impact. For eg, it could be bringing certain challenges to the table. By giving it a name, we are enabling leaders to talk about it.
    • For eg, before gig economy was a big deal, we gave it a name: in 2013-14, we called it 'people as businesses'
    • Short term wins buy you space to do long term stuff, so important to have a mix
  • Duleesha: "zoom out zoom in" approach. Have to go after quick wins, because that builds momentum for the long term
    • Words matter. They allow people to talk about things that are driving change.
    • If you can convince them in their heart that something is going to be fundamentally different, they can make that change in their minds themselves and move past cognitive dissonance
    • Doing short stories, and get people to think about their kids
    • Psychedelics are going to change the world
  • Susann: show positive pathways for the changes that are happening