How We Got There: Futurists in Public Policy

How We Got There: Futurists in Public Policy

Created on

April 6 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 :)


General Assembly 'How We Got There' series - 6 April 2021

  • Prateeksha Singh, Head of Experimentation, UNDP Asia Pacific Regional Innovation Centre, United Nations Development Programme
  • Lizan Perante-Calina, President, Philippine Futures Thinking Society
  • Dr Gog Soon Joo, Chief Skills Officer, SkillsFuture Singapore
  • Cheryl Chung, Programme Director, Executive Education Singapore Futures, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore (moderator)


  • Conversations can't replace desk research. Important to understand what's happening on the ground and observe what's happening around us.
  • Getting buy-in from stakeholders for large, transformational projects is hard. Start from an issue that everyone can agree on as a problem area and build from that. For instance, UNDP's work on plastics has grown into work on the much broader topic of circular economy.
  • Combine conversations with data to anticipate. Singapore uses data on investments and patents to understand what trends are coming to shore.
  • Learn about history to understand future (recommendations here)


Background on career - how did you get to where you are?

  • Soon Joo: Skillsfuture works on how to anticipate skills needs in the market/economy and cascade this info to stakeholder, like education institutions, employers.
    • SkillsFuture CEO wanted to invest resources in understanding the future of jobs, work, skills. Set up a small office and decided to explore research, POCs, scenario planning. Initially visited various foresight offices.
    • In 2019, Soon Joo was asked to take over a skills development unit to look at what kinds of jobs and skills are needed for a competitive future economy for Singapore; what kinds of capabilities need to be built.
    • Her team is looking at AI and algorithms to build models; working on economic modelling. to understand how certain shifts will impact Singapore to anticipate skills ahead of time
  • Prateeksha: Among other things, explores new methods in systems thinking and foresight. Translates emergent trends into UNDP, builds new structures.
    • UNDP has offices across the region from Iran to Fiji - a diverse region. How can UNDP talk about it from a systemic lens? How can it work more systemically? Covid pushed them to do better on this
    • She left a forensic auditing job - one way power dynamics didn't resonate with her. Took a year off to learn: would show up at events that she was curious about and had nothing to do with her corporate job; landed her first job in social enterprise; got on the board of an org connecting gardening and education
    • Wanted to look at foresight within communities that are often underrepresented.
  • Lizan: Involved in capacity building for civil servants, and new to futures. Got here through personal advocacy.
    • Started as a volunteer, organised Philippines Futures Thinking Society.
    • Saw gaps in public policy as a public administrator.
    • Trying to embed futures thinking in the Philippines as a tool for policy makers and educators.

What does a day in your life look like

  • Lizan: spend a lot of time on zoom talking to peopl: advocating, getting support from academic societies, govt agencies
    • Starting to create centres for futures thinking from the ground up and hope this will go up to national level (unlike SG, Philippines doesn't have a central futures unit in govt). Hopeful also to embed futures thinking in curriculum
    • Promoting futures thinking by sharing basics 101. For instance, this week going to talk with the Philippine Navy.
  • Prateeksha: more focused on doing certain things consistently in a week.
    • Conscious about what you are reading, how wide are your conversations. How do you keep conversations going? These can't replace desk research.
    • Tries to have at least one conversation a week with a practitioner who can push her thinking. Planning futures festival in October.
    • Spends time looking at nature - draws a lot of inspiration for work from observing environment/systems around us.
    • Think deeply about what the legacy of her work should be.
  • Soon Joo: Spends most of the time engaging others, including a lot of LinkedIn.
    • Helps enhance her knowledge of what's happening. Nothing beats having a conversation with practitioners, scientists. Important to know what is happening on the ground.
    • Spends time volunteering as a career coach to ground her thinking. Spends time coaching tech startups in career tech or HR tech
    • Reads very widely and use 30 minutes after lunch to think and reflect time.

How do institutions determine what trends to invest in?

  • Prateeksha: UNDP driven by a bit of demand and bit of supply. Have to be constantly scanning and go to govts saying 'these are the things on the horizon'.
    • In past couple of years, tacked on to things that they saw as key issues across the region (like plastics) and built from that to something broader like circular economy. That's difficult to get to: advice is to start somewhere that everyone can agree as a problem area and build on that. Build coalitions between partners and funders.
    • More immediate example is transforming tourism sector in Thailand. Break in travel from Covid is opportunity to reimagine what that sector looks like when Thailand can re-engage tourists again. Work with Thailand govt to build capabilities to think about innovative policymaking practices, including foresight and other type of systems work. How to develop policy options to pivot.
  • Lizan: driven by 'hiraya', an ancient Filipino word that represents hopes, dreams, aspiration.
    • Need to deepen understanding and knowledge of how to use foresight.
    • Creating indigenisation for futures thinking to what they call 'hiraya foresight'
  • Soon Joo: Singapore government launched a green plan in March on how to cut CO2 emissions, use alternative energy. A very major annoncement cutting across industries.
    • Soon Joo's team follows investment data and patent filing data: gives early indicators of whether trends are coming to Shore.
    • Looks at global cities and the kind of companies/manpower talent they have.
    • Currently putting together possible jobs and skills we will need in a green economy. They do a first cut analysis, validate with commercial entities (like those working on recyclable products, alternative energy, circular economy). End product will be to publish something to help citizens understand what green economy means to them for future jobs and skills

Challenges in the field and what keeps you going

  • Lizan: making futures thinking simpler for everyone. What helped: starting with 101 and indigenisation. But some felt this isn't a priority.
    • Webinars helped them slowly appreciate the concepts and how to apply in daily activities.
    • Important to create a community of futurists in the country to sustain, systematise, institutionalise
  • Soon Joo: Mental model of colleagues - hard for some to understand that this is temporary and have to keep asking our selves how to do it differently.
    • "You mean this is not the end? This is not final? There is more to come?"
    • There is no equilibrium, steady state. Anticipate that there will be chaos and have to adapt.
  • Prateeksha: Engaging in futures is a loaded conversation - people have mental models and mindsets for who they are and the roles they want to play. Becomes a buy-in issue
    • One of the ways around it has been to be stubborn about "conversation on futures cannot happen without conversation on systems"
    • Look at who is in the system, where is it fragile, the power dynamics in it.
    • Be speculative in a way that pushes imagination but rooted in concrete details, to detangle personal loadedness from systems. There is not a singular way a system has to go.
    • Futures isn't about prediction - it is about anticipation. Allergic to 'future-proof'. It's a marketing term. If you use it, "I question your validity". There's no such thing.
    • Pandemic has shown the importance of all this in the region. In the past, buy-in was much harder for something that hasn't yet happened. Now have realised that policy systems don't work overnight and multiple wheels will need to churn at the same time.

Top 3 books to recommend

  • Soon Joo:
    • Reads about history of technology (sorry, I didn't quick catch the name of the book she mentioned!): covers how Ming dynasty was peak of China's technology advancement; Persia; India. Leant about how society drives or impedes tech development; civilisations are not tech deterministic; humans have power over how to deploy tech
    • Nikolai Kondratieff's work on 50-year tech waves. When you look at tech over a longer term horizon, things are moving very slowly, but intensity of change has intensified over last 50 years. Tech has become so easy to use now.
    • Thank you for being late by Thomas Friedman (Soon Joo disputes a graph in the book on Google X)
  • Prateeksha: Reads a lot on soil/natural systems
    • Dirt: Erosion of civilisations; Hidden life of trees
    • How to thrive in the next economy (John Thackara)
  • Lizan:
    • Practising strategic foresight in government (Tuomo Kuosa) - contains cases.
    • Case study on how Taiwan incorporated foreign in evaluating the civil service system
  • Cheryl:
    • Podcast - Secret History of the Future (looks back at the history of tech)
    • A field guide to getting lost by Rebecca Solnit
    • Automating inequality (a book on unintended consequences of digitalisation)