Interview with Joshua Polchar, OECD

As part of last month’s article on scenario planning for The Mandarin, I interviewed Joshua Polchar, a strategic foresight analyst and facilitator at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

OECD Conference Centre Paris – Photo by Wikipedia user Nick D – CC BY-SA 3.0

Scenario planning has been part of the OECD’s futures toolkit in the 1970s, but over the last decade, the organisation has started to enhance its capacity for strategic foresight.

Joshua began the conversation by explaining why – I’ll let him take it from here:

“We recognised that even the best available forecasts had limitations, and that prediction wasn’t the only way to engage with the future.

There are more ways to look at what’s coming than just prediction. Reflecting on the recent past, on unexpected election outcomes, or confident economic forecasts which have not come to pass, we ask: “Is it enough to only focus on what’s probable?”

I sometimes compare scenarios to instructional fables like the Tortoise and the Hare. These stories aren’t true, but you can still learn something from them. We don’t construct scenarios expecting to “get the future right”, but to devise plausible futures from which we can learn.

When people speak of the signals which may represent an emerging future, we can ask: do you expect to successfully find the signal which will come to pass, or should we look at a range of signals which represent the futures which might be most surprising and significant for you strategically?

Our team’s scenario planning and strategic foresight work is part of a broader range of activities which help the OECD to rethink concepts such as economic success and economic growth. Our fellow teams look at alternative approaches to economics and interconnected challenges via the “New Approaches to Economic Challenges” programme, and other teams explore ideas of inclusive growth, green growth, and anticipatory innovation.

My colleagues and I are here to upgrade the OECD’s capabilities in strategic foresight. The OECD is a member-led organisation. We help our members to become good users as well as good practitioners of strategic foresight methods like scenario planning, learning by doing.

The OECD is working on advancing the practice of strategic foresight on three fronts:

Firstly, by ensuring that the OECD’s own analyses and reports always consider alternative futures;

Secondly, by bringing foresight to high level conversations, such as among ministers;

Thirdly, through direct work with governments, including the Government Foresight Community, which, as part of our engagement with national governments, builds connections between experienced foresight practitioners seeking to increase the impact of the work they’re doing.

Often scenario planning is led by a small team in a central institution such as a Prime Minister’s Office, and to other parts of government this team’s work can seem a bit of a mystery to those who are not practitioners.

Foresight teams can sometimes seem like “crystal ball gazers”, practising esoteric methods; and people sometimes confuse foresight with probability, prediction, and forecasting.

The GFC helps people to exchange experiences, techniques, and case studies of what has worked in helping others to consider alternative futures.

These case studies help to show strategic foresight and scenario planning’s effect and impact on policy programmes and institutions. We’ve collected some of these effective practices in our publication “Strategic Foresight for Better Policies“.

I’m especially interested at the moment in the differences between foresight for a specific organisation to help it navigate what Rafael Ramírez and Angela Wilkinson call a “TUNA” (turbulent, uncertain, novel & ambiguous) future, versus policy centred foresight: helping to navigate a set of objectives or a policy programme through TUNA conditions.

Good scenarios in the Oxford Approach always require a clearly defined user and purpose: according to this perspective, if they’re userless, they’re useless. Organisational clients tend to have clear knowledge of the lines defining their own boundaries, those of the context they operate in, and the factors which drive that wider context. In government, at the policy level, you may have additional levers to effect change, plus a voice at the international level, therefore it can be more challenging to frame a set of policy objectives as “the user”.

By giving more people experience of the scenario planning process, we seek to help them be better at creating scenarios, but also at using scenarios created for them by experienced practitioners.

There’s a debate here as to whether tailor-made scenarios are always needed. Some would argue that any amount of foresight, no matter how modest, is better than none: a few examples of alternative futures to open people’s perspective and get them thinking about the ways in which the future is uncertain.

For others, brief asides and generic scenarios in a policy report are more difficult to use effectively – especially if they are intended to be used across institutions and agencies, at all levels from the ministerial through civil servants to the grassroots. Irrespective of whether people are involved in creating scenarios themselves, a better understanding of what scenarios are and how they are made helps these diverse constituencies to employ scenarios and other strategic foresight products in their decision-making.”

You can find out more about Joshua at the OECD website – and read more about the art of scenario planning in the Mandarin article, “We Can’t Predict the Future, But Scenario Planning Can Identify What It Might Look Like”.

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