Next Generation Project
Foresight, Government Office for Science
Louisa Gilmore, Michael Hilton, Nick Russell, Ros Whiteley
THIS PAPER IS INTENDED AS A DISCUSSION DOCUMENT, AS SUCH THE VIEWS EXPRESSED DO NOT
NECESSARILY REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE GOVERNMENT OFFICE FOR SCIENCE, NOR THE POLICY OF THE
The Next Generation Project aimed to capture exciting, innovative and
unusual ideas about how our lives will change over the next 50 years by
engaging a different demographic to those who are usually involved in
horizon scanning exercises
The Civil Service Fast Stream was chosen as a network from which we
could obtain enthusiastic participants from a younger demographic.
• To find out whether a new demographic would think differently about the future.
• To capture fresh perspectives on some of the commonly used drivers of change for the
future, and also to see if the group would come up with any new drivers of change.
• To build awareness of horizon scanning, futures techniques and the Foresight
programme across Whitehall, and with a network of people many of whom might become more senior civil servants in years to come.
• To act as a pilot, so that if successful the idea could be expanded in the future to capture
perspectives from a broader range of people.
The Project began in March 2010 and its inception was overseen by senior colleagues in Foresight. Michael Reilly and Alun Rhydderch offered guidance on how to best engage the group with futures techniques.
The Project was undertaken in two stages; a questionnaire followed by a one-day workshop in July 2010. These stages are covered in more detail later in this Report.
A questionnaire was used to survey a broad audience and to select twenty
individuals to attend the workshop - the questions were asked via a free
online survey website. Fast Streamers in all departments were invited to
respond: 165 fast streamers submitted the survey from 20 different
departments, of which 80 answered all of questions.
A selection of the most innovative and thought-provoking responses for each of the questions is given below.
Q1 - Looking back over your lifetime, what changes would you identify as the hardest to
predict (excluding the internet and fall of the USSR, please!)?
“Concorde being taken out of service and therefore a regression in the speed of air travel”
“Rise of mass emotional outbursts linked to events such as the death of Princess Diana”
“So much of human communication is now limited to 140 characters”
“Failure of copyright to adapt to new technology”
“Relinquishment of privacy by younger generations”
“Rise in religious fundamentalism, both Islam and Christian”
Q2 - And looking forward to 2050, what do you think will surprise us the most?
“Hospitals will probably be a bit more like car repair shops, as malfunctioning bits of the body are just replaced by spares”
“Rise in 'walled off' communities will be socially corrosive and lead to a divergence in the lives of different segments of society”
“Economically worthless future generations”
“Population controls in advanced countries”
“Extinction of many of Rudyard Kipling's jungle book characters”
“The English language will be unrecognisable”
“The concept of a 'workplace' may no longer exist for many.”
“Massively enhanced use of the sea, for agriculture, industry and as a place to live”
“Commercialisation of politics, with political units (whether they be parties or something else) representing the interests of business and industry competing with those that represent people and welfare”
Q3 - Still in 2050 - what do you picture life being like?
“A minority/female PM will still be a rarity”
“Technology will put stress on human relationships”
“Schools teach imagination instead of maths or spelling”
“Everything is available, 24 hours a day”
“Progression towards a common global language”
Q4 - And if you could speak to an oracle about life at this time, what would you ask them?
“Who holds the power - country, company, individual, social movement, nature or other?”
“Who are the great minds of our time?”
“What do you miss from 50 years ago?”
Insights from the questionnaire
Surprised by things that didn’t happen
When asked to consider which changes in the past three decades were most surprising, many of the responses focused on things that didn’t
happen, as much as those that did. The failure of copyright and the scrapping of Concord and the Space Shuttle received particular attention.
“Big Society” of the future
There was perceptible undercurrent of volunteerism in the responses, as well as feeling that society would take on more responsibility where government had failed. The fact that the questionnaire was circulated shortly after the election would seem to suggest that this is not a coincidence.
Sweeping changes not geo-political events
There was little mention of geo-political changes shaping the future in the responses. The emphasis instead was on changes in beliefs, whether environmental, religious or ethical. The decision to ban references to the USSR and the internet in question 1 was taken on the basis of the responses usually given by an older demographic. Most participants were under 10 years old when the USSR collapsed and it would have been interesting to leave the question entirely open to see if the lack of emphasis on geo-political events was a generational difference or simply a product of the limitations that we placed on the questions
Sustainable silver surfers
The assumption was the aging population would be at the heart of the next generation’s thoughts about the future. Whilst it was discussed in the questionnaires, it was seen, predominantly, as leading to people working longer rather than as a burden on the younger members of society.
Substantial interest in futures from fast streamers
There is a significant interest in Foresight and futures thinking from Fast Streamers across Whitehall. Despite the soft-sell approach to the invitation - it was included in one Fast Stream newsletter and then circulated by grade managers – we received over 150 responses.
The key themes from all the questions were distilled into clusters, which were used as the starting point for the discussion of drivers of change at the workshop. These clusters are listed below:
Climate Change; Communication; Conflict; Consumerism; Demography; Economic Growth and Stability; Energy; Environment; Equality; Geopolitics; Globalisation; Land use; Public Attitudes; Science and Technology; Transport; Values and Attitudes
This section will review the outputs and lessons which can be taken from
the workshop element of the NGP. It will offer an assessment of the impact
of each of the day’s sessions, before examining some of the conclusions
from each of these sessions.
19 participants attended the workshop, selected on the basis of their responses to the questionnaire. A wide range of departments were represented, there were participants from; BIS, Defra, FCO, UKTI, HMRC, MOJ, HO, DH, DfT, IPO, DfE and Cabinet Office.
The workshop began with an introduction to futures thinking by Alun Rhydderch from the Horizon Scanning Centre. This was followed by five sessions of group work in sets of 4/5. The participants remained in their groups throughout the day. A brief outline of each session is below:
Back to the Future: Key Drivers (1hr)
Each table was provided with a set of 15 drivers and was asked to analyse them, removing 3 they felt were of least importance and adding another 3 which they felt had been missed. Groups were asked to consider the possible extremes of the most important drivers.
The Odyssey: Driver Relationships (1hr)
Participants were asked to draw links between 3 drivers – identifying those that have greatest resonance. They were then asked to consider potential interactions using random sets of 3 drivers.
Brave New World: Scenario development (1hr)
Tables formed scenarios from the drivers – these built on patterns identified in the morning session.
Vantage Points: Scenario Refinement (1hr)
Concentrating on one scenario – each table considered it from a number of different scales and viewpoints (e.g. world – nation – group – individual). Towards the end of this session, tables were asked to come up with a creative way of presenting their findings to rest of the workshop participants.
The X Factor: Group Feedback (3/4hr)
Each table presented their scenario to the group in plenary.
Alongside the outputs from these sessions, lessons can also be learned from the processes employed and how participants responded to them.
The use of a ‘reverse time capsule’ in this session proved a successful way of enabling participants to think beyond their present day horizons. When challenged to send back an object to when participants were born, which would offer the greatest insight into the future, a wide range of suggestions was put forward; ranging from the social to the technological. The exercise worked well both as an icebreaker and a way of getting participants to think beyond usual horizons.
Items put into the reverse time capsule included a civil
partnership invite, a kitty-cam, a ready meal for one and
a USB stick with a recording of The Archers.
Through thinking about which drivers of change will be most important to 2050, and the links between these drivers, the day’s most tangible outputs were produced. A logical story was formed through firstly identifying the importance of the drivers, then looking at the polarities and finally forming links or short stories around sets of three drivers. This helped participants to understand the context and causalities of different drivers.
In particular, asking participants to form links between the different drivers proved to be a valuable way of increasing understanding of how drivers operate, their context and wider importance. The enthusiasm created by the initial driver exercises was encouraging and demonstrated them as useful mechanisms for engaging participants unfamiliar to futures techniques.
The scenario exercises were designed to build upon discussions held during the driver exercises in the morning. This methodology created interesting results, with some drivers which were highly ranked in the morning failing to register as highly in the afternoon scenario sessions. Conversely, factors deemed of lower importance in the morning often took a more central role in the scenario development stage.
Insights from the workshop
The driver exercises produced the most easily quantifiable results. With the small sample size used for the workshop, it is not possible to rank all of the drivers in a clear order of importance. However, some common themes could be identified:
Values and attitudes
and science and technology
were seen in all groups as the drivers
which were most important
(that is, having high impact and high uncertainty).
Conflict, energy, transport
were all ranked low
. Whilst their
importance was widely acknowledged, the lack of uncertainty around these drivers perhaps
accounted for their low ranking.
Economic growth and stability
was an issue on which there was no real consensus, but it
was generally ranked reasonably low
On several high profile drivers there was no consensus as to their importance
included demography, climate change, geopolitics
. These issues
provoked divergent viewpoints
between the tables.
The Odyssey – an example response
was added by
to the list of
Energy, religion and demography
drivers, but there was no
as to how important it
“The discovery of dark matter provides both an
unlimited energy source and answers all
theological questions – disproving the world’s
A black swan event
major religions. There is a strong backlash
against this discovery by the older section of the
groups, but subsequently ranked
population, who still hold religion close. Their
of low importance
. Other drivers
frustration manifests itself in attacks against the
added by groups include space
new energy infrastructure, and in protest they
revert to traditional sources, such as coal and
gas. Amongst the younger demographic, who
have rejected religion, there is a fall in the birth
rate and a large rise in the take-up of voluntary
euthanasia. However, within this section of
society, the loss of faith does lead to a rise in
Whilst values and attitudes
suicide and depression in many. Mass population
shifts occur, as people with similar attitudes
exercise, they did not feature
move closer together.”
in the scenario
The role of commercialisation
and position of industry
in society, which were not identified as
prominent drivers in the morning, featured heavily
in several of the scenarios developed in the
It is arguable that less tangible drivers, such as values and attitudes, were a victim of process in the afternoon. It could be that the methodology did not adequately accommodate highly uncertain or social drivers.
Participants were asked to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the day. Out of the 18 questionnaires returned, all rated the day as good or excellent. Sixteen respondents said that the workshop made it more likely that they would use futures thinking in their work; out of the two that didn’t, one was already using futures techniques in their work, whilst the other felt that a further step was needed to transfer the workshop into something that could be used practically.
Participants also outlined areas where the workshop could have been improved. Suggestions included; a longer workshop, a more diverse group of participants, fewer than 15 drivers to focus discussion more, more direction in the final session and greater clarity about how Foresight will use the outputs from the day.
When surveyed about which part of the day they found most useful, The Odyssey sessions on driver relationships was most frequently chosen, whilst the scenario development and presentation part of the day was seen as most enjoyable.
Within the confines of what was possible given the limited time and number of participants, the workshop was successful in promoting futures techniques across Whitehall and also served as a starting point in identifying drivers of change amongst a different demographic group.
Due to the small size of the group, drawing overarching conclusions from the exercise about the views of a whole subsection of society would be premature. However, the focus on values and attitudes and science and technology is potentially interesting and could be explored further, as with the relatively low status given to issues such as economic growth and communication.
The process was largely successful and allowed most participants to quickly grasp the basics of futures techniques. In particular, asking attendees to draw relationships between drivers proved useful in getting participants to think more widely about the impact of individual drivers. However, the process did also expose some weak links between driver identification and scenario building, with trends from the driver sessions not always present in the scenario process.
Chinese ‘medicine’ – an example scenario
China invents DuoVita, a treatment which slows ageing. Initially, this is given to inner
party members/officials in China but is then sold worldwide to rich countries whose
residents could afford it (approx. top 10% of population). In order to purchase the
rights to this treatment, countries must align with China to form a pseudo Chinese
This treatment is opposed by religious groups and other groups who feel the
scientists are “playing god”. A number of states oppose the drug and ban it.
Tension occurs between the nations that accept the drug and those that oppose it.
Divisions also occur within countries due to ethical objections.
The “takers” experience a change in attitudes due to their increased lifespan. They
become more risk averse as there is now more to lose and they become much more
aware of environmental issues – climate change could now affect them directly. Life
has more of a value to the “takers” and there is a significant increase in over-the-top
health and safety.
The focus of family life changes as people live for longer and so family units are
larger. Outside help is employed to help families deal with their older relatives.
More investment is made in space as space travel and accommodation becomes
more viable to people who live longer.
Complementary industries begin to emerge which the developed nations are quick to
grasp hold of and take advantage of.
Stricter birth controls become more normal as nations strive to take control of their
Most successful business/public service leaders are “takers” and therefore are able
to work for longer, leading to stagnation of the work force and de-motivation of
younger people due to lack of opportunities. This divides society further into rich and
poor (“takers” and “non-takers”), decreasing the life expectancy of the poor further
as NHS funds are diverted to supporting the “takers” in old age.
Many “takers” require assistance in manual tasks as they become older and live for
Values and attitudes – a disappearing trick
In both the responses to the questionnaire and the discussion of drivers at the workshop, values and attitudes were seen as being important. This is notable for two reasons. Firstly, it raises the question of whether such social drivers are seen as less important as people get older – such drivers are not so prevalent with alternative demographics. Second, the workshop participants struggled to incorporate values and attitudes into the scenario process despite believing in their importance during other sessions – is there a bias in the process that prevents social drivers being represented appropriately?
Latent interest across Whitehall can be harnessed more effectively
The project attracted significant interest from fast streamers across Whitehall with minimal funds and little publicity. This demonstrates that there is significant interest in futures and the work of Foresight that can be better engaged with. Seminars on particular projects in relevant departments, or informal futures sessions (whether with the fast stream or not) would be an effective way of better harnessing this interest.
The Odyssey – a worthwhile journey
The session exploring driver relationships at the workshop proved a useful exercise which engaged participants. Asking attendees to form links between what were seemingly unrelated drivers helped expose the wider consequences of each of these areas. It also served as a useful bridge between discussing drivers and scenarios. Foresight could replay this exercise in future workshops when the aim is to encourage wider thinking around an issue.
Building on the foundations laid by the project
This project was always intended as a pilot which could then be developed further in the future – there are three ways that this could be done. The project could be re-run with different fast streamers to see how the results compare to this year’s sample. The project could be re-run but broaden its participants beyond the confines of the fast stream. The project could be re-run in due course with the same participants, to judge how aging and increased civil service experience has affected their thoughts on the future.
Further analysis needed to isolate what is unique to the demographic
This report hints at a number of ideas that appear to reflect the particular demographic of the participants – the importance of things that fail to happen as much as those that do, the relative unimportance of geo-politics, the interest in values and attitudes and science and technology. However, as the project was run by new fast streamers, further consultation with experienced Foresight colleagues is needed in order to identify what is particularly novel about the project’s findings. External futurologists could also be consulted, such as Alastair Keith from Outsights who has run a similar project with a selection of 30-year-olds.
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URN 10/1176 - Foresight next generation project: project report
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