Raising our game through strategic foresight

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European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

With the adoption of its first-ever Strategic Foresight Report, the European Commission is making a giant leap forward, by bringing robust long-term challenges and vision into short-term political focus and action, writes Maroš Šefčovič.

Maroš Šefčovič is the European Commission Vice-President for Interinstitutional relations and Foresight.

We cannot expect the future to become less disruptive. New trends and shocks – like the coronavirus pandemic – will inevitably emerge and affect our lives. Trying to guess what lies ahead, especially in today’s world of rapid, complex changes, is therefore of limited value. Crystal balls do not work in real life.

What does make sense, however, is to keep an eye on the horizon – to identify and understand emerging challenges, to map possible paths to a preferred future, and to better steer our action as a result. This is what strategic foresight is about: anticipating, exploring, acting.

The European Commission, led by President von der Leyen, is set to exploit this strategic value of foresight. By using it to prepare major initiatives across all policy areas, we will bring the long-term into short-term political focus and ultimately, we will achieve a step change in future-proofing EU laws.

This is a true game-changer. Until now, foresight had been at arm’s length from the political level, which tends to be trapped in short-termism, prone to seeking quick fixes and quick gains. On the other hand, strategic foresight forces us to acknowledge hard truths, to challenge the status quo and focus our minds on the next generation rather than the next election.

We have no time to spare. The coronavirus crisis has thrown a sharp light on our vulnerabilities. But it has also presented opportunities that the EU cannot afford to miss. More than ever, our policies must be evidence-based, future-proof and centred around resilience.

Resilience: a new policy compass

That is why resilience takes centre stage in the Commission’s 2020 Strategic Foresight Report, the first in a yearly series. This pandemic has made it clear that resilience is necessary in all policy areas if we want to bounce forward – that is not only recover but emerge stronger by accelerating the green and digital transitions in a fair way.

The report shows what COVID-19 has taught us about Europe’s green, digital, socio-economic and geopolitical resilience: where we are vulnerable and what strengths we have. In turn, EU policies informed by strategic foresight can better mitigate these vulnerabilities and boost our capacities – to turn them into opportunities that will lastingly make Europe more resilient. This honest assessment must be constantly refined and refreshed.

Take our first example, the Commission’s recent Action plan on critical raw materials. Strategic foresight complements the criticality assessment by providing the 2030 and 2050 outlook – both demand and supply risks – for strategic technologies and sectors. This latest knowledge feeds directly into our strategy to boost Europe’s open strategic autonomy – key to building our geopolitical, economic, digital and even green resilience.

We will now address other cross-cutting topics where strategic foresight can help us understand the dynamics at play across policy tracks. Apart from open strategic autonomy, we are set to zoom in on the future jobs and skills linked to a green economy. An in-depth view of the labour market shifts driven by the green transition is still missing. We will also explore how to make the green and digital transitions work together in harmony. Take energy consumption: transferring and storing one gigabyte of data through the internet uses up to 7 kWh – compared to 0.000005 kWh if done locally.

Foresight: a call to action

To walk the talk on resilience, we also need to monitor it. We are proposing to move towards resilience dashboards. Once fully developed in cooperation with the Member States and other key stakeholders, they should help us assess how vulnerabilities and capacities evolve over time at both, EU and national level. Ultimately, we need to answer one core question: are we, through our policies and recovery strategy, effectively making the EU more resilient?

Altogether, it is no easy feat. To make full use of strategic foresight entails a cultural shift. But the unprecedented severity of the current crisis will help us break down many past barriers and inertia. I am proud that the Commission is the first public administration of this size to bring strategic foresight so clearly into the political limelight.

Now we are set to launch an EU-wide foresight network that draws on Member States’ public foresight capabilities, think tanks, academia and civil society. Here I believe my second hat – as Vice-President for interinstitutional relations – will help. Our ambition should be nothing less than to collectively establish world-class anticipatory governance at EU level. This is an opportunity for transformation and we will tap into it fully.

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