“You are swimming with the whole ocean”: Interview with Aída Ponce Del Castillo, European Trade Union Institute

Last month, Aída Ponce Del Castillo of the European Trade Union Insitute’s Foresight Unit joined me to talk about her journey from world-class swimmer to foresight professional, doing strategy and scenarios research for the labour movement.

We discussed different foresight methodologies, the particular challenges and opportunities in working on futures with trade unions, and, inevitably, COVID-19, but our conversation began with Aída’s sporting career, and the lessons it taught her about coping with turbulence and uncertainty.

What was your journey to becoming a foresight practitioner? You were a lawyer, and a competitive open-water swimmer – how did that lead you to work on foresight, and how did it prepare you for the role?

In many ways I saw myself as a swimmer first and everything else second! I studied and practiced law, completed a doctorate. As an open water swimmer I competed at international level, also racing in Open Water World Cups.

To arrive to that level requires you to practice for several years, to adopt a long term perspective, knowing that – especially in an open water event – anything can happen, even to the super prepared athlete, on the day of competition. I have trained, but will I win, lose, or can I even be sure of participating?

In one race, I arrived at the venue and the organisers had prepared everything for the competitors. I wasn’t able to control what I was eating, as I usually would. Something I ate that day at breakfast upset my stomach and I threw up during the race. I had to cope with that and keep on swimming!

Irrespective of your talent and your training, there are so many uncertain or hard to control factors in an open water event; not just what you eat beforehand and the condition of your health but the currents, the direction of the wind, the presence of jellyfish and boats. You are swimming with the whole ocean. This requires patience and the ability to see alternative futures ahead.

Alongside swimming, I completed a PhD in law, focusing on the legal aspects of human germline modification. My master’s degree was already about human cloning. This was the early 90s, the era of Dolly the Sheep, and issues of stem cell research, DNA, the ethical and long-term future questions, had the kind of excitement, anxiety and interest we associate today with artificial intelligence.

I had always been interested in science, and as a teenager had dreamed of being a hard scientist. I had to balance my choice of university and the subjects I studied with the possibility of training to compete as a pool swimmer. I saw I could qualify for the Olympics in 1992, but it would take everything I had, with no guarantee of a great performance at the Games.

I chose to study law because I thought it was best for my long term practice, but managed to go back to swimming after the first year of university. My swimming coach thought I would be good for open water long distance races. At first, five kilometres seemed too much – later, I would build up to distances of twenty or forty kilometres!

I progressed to the highest levels of competitive open water swimming, meanwhile qualifying as a lawyer. My work had taken me into the financial sector, practising civil litigation in Mexico and Argentina, but science was always in the back of my mind.

Open water swimmer

I didn’t really take seriously the idea that I would become a scientist. I enjoyed being in the world, the practical aspects of being an attorney, but I found the issues around cloning and new biotechnology so stimulating. If we could change human beings at that fundamental level, what would it mean? How would we manage that power responsibly? That was a subject worth doing a doctorate in.

During my doctoral study, I took science classes: medicine, genetics, human biology. I started to see how technologies were built and found my niche at the intersection of law and technology, acting as a translator between specialists, experts, policymakers, and the interested general public.

When I joined ETUI, I had a focus within the institute on technology and particularly the impact of nanotechnology on the world of work. A colleague invited me to join a project building scenarios for worker participation in 2030. I was curious about the process, as I could see unions were keen to start thinking more in terms of the future. My interest continued alongside my work on technology and law, until the ETUI Director invited me to join our small Foresight Unit in 2016.

How did ETUI come to establish that dedicated foresight element?

In 2016, the ETUI General Director asked some of us to become part of a Foresight Unit. It had become clear that we needed to think about the future, to detach from our concerns and activities in the present day, to see where the world might be heading while we focused on today’s problems.

The priorities were climate change and the emergence of new technologies. These two issues are influencing our world so much, that we really have to pause and look at them seriously.

In terms of the Unit’s work, we started practicing foresight for ETUI itself, and also building the capacity to talk and think in these terms across the wider European trade union sector. Two of us work on the Foresight Unit full time, alongside the Director-General – who, by the nature of their role, maintains a strategic perspective broader than any one of our more specialised colleagues.

When talking with Josh Polchar at the OECD, he discussed how the more predictive work of the forecasting team there is balanced and complemented by the foresight practice which he and his colleagues work on. Does ETUI balance foresight and forecasting work?

Now that COVID-19 is changing everything, we can really look at this question of building a forecasting component at ETUI. We are a small institute – certainly not as large as the OECD! – which means we have to focus our resources, but the changing times may mean that forecasting becomes a desirable add-on to our existing futures work. Both methods are complementary; forecasting would draw more on analytical and economic data.

You mentioned that first scenarios experience, looking at worker participation in 2030. What was that like for you and what did you learn?

It stretched my mind! We are so used to thinking in a linear way, and doing scenarios was like suddenly seeing in 3D.  It fascinated me, to realise that we could really enter a workshop with one mindset and leave that session with a completely different one.

It happened to me, but I also saw it happen to other participants during the scenario process. Some were more open to thinking imaginatively about the future, and others found it more challenging. It required lots of flexibility and patience, and the ability to observe others’ reactions and thought processes. You could see people facing simple questions like “What will you look like when you’re sixty, how will you spend your days?” For some, they didn’t think in these terms even a week ahead; they didn’t even think about what they would be wearing tomorrow.

What I saw in the scenarios workshop was a process that worked, bringing together people with very different perspectives and ways of thinking about the world to construct futures which had a logic to them, which were not just fantasies. Something serious and useful emerged from the process. We respected one another’s insights and opinions, but we weren’t creating fantastic stories “just because”: every contribution was challenged and questioned, as we sought evidence for our assumptions and pushed back on each other’s comments.

How did this relate particularly to the trade union sector?

The scenario process was an opportunity, we saw, for trade unions to open windows on an undiscovered land. Unions are very well organised, with a long and well established historical mission. Unions will act on issues such as the nature and conditions of work, wages, the break-up of companies, and often this means responding to circumstances: running behind the machinery rather than ahead of it.

Presenting unions with ways to think ahead and preparing the terrain for today’s battle, or tomorrow’s, was immensely appealing to them. Foresight helps us to build better strategies and to think beyond the four-year cycle which can develop around the election of new political leaders within the union movement. We need to be looking ahead twenty or forty years as well as paying attention to the four years of a given leader’s mandate.

Foresight work also allows the union movement to prepare the young generation who will become future leaders. Union members tend to achieve seniority later in life; the people in charge are usually mature, and still usually male. Foresight work helps unions to see that young people, and a more diverse group, with more women, will need space among union leadership as they prepare to take charge in the coming world. Talking about the future also takes us outside of the hierarchical structures which exist in each union, each country. These structures are complex and interesting, and have evolved to deliver unions’ mission, but they also present their own challenges. Talking about the future lets us put hierarchy aside.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg in discussion with the European Parliament’s environment committee in March 2020. Image from European Parliament’s Flickr feed, CC BY 2.0

One of the issues which has become very clear to us is the union movement’s relationship to other similar movements – groups and organisations, activists and NGOs with socially similar or overlapping demands around moving to a better and more just world. Where other movements also want to see resources allocated and distributed differently, want to consider different economic and political possibilities, new conversations about migration or the climate, unions can understand the common ground as well as any tensions, exploring opportunities for alliance. These discussions about the future can enlarge our networks, and create new ones.

Ten years ago, we started to reflect on environmental impacts and issues – without thinking that the unions would themselves transform into environmental NGOs, or compete on the ground of such organisations. Unions then focused on the transition to a low carbon economy, and considering how to keep jobs through the transition, or create new ones ensuring that it is both just and sustainable. “The just transition” became a pillar of trade union demands.

We all know that the climate is changing, even if some of us don’t want to see it. -unions got into this conversation, influencing climate policy . How do we make the planet work for everyone, including future generations? This sense of a legacy for those who come after us is a vital link between the idea of a “just transition” and the ongoing goal of a better planet for everyone.

Are there particular foresight methods or approaches you favour?

We’re doing two separate but related jobs in the Foresight Unit at ETUI. One of them is to consider the future of our own organisation: how can the institute still be relevant in the long term, and how will trade unions’ own fortunes affect the relevance and remit of ETUI?

The other is sharing foresight methodology with unions themselves, as our mission is to support them. That means research and training delivered for unions is our part of our remit.

Given that ETUI is itself a mission-based nonprofit, that helps us to find methodologies that suit our internal and external stakeholders, rather than necessarily use what is favoured in the corporate sector.

Screen Shot 2020-05-29 at 14.05.19Our “blue banana book” – Anticipating Change, Staying Relevant: Why Trade Unions Should Do Foresight – introduces trade unions to the theory and practice of foresight, including scenario building, backcasting, and techniques for examining megatrends or weak signals of emerging change. We modify tried and tested foresight techniques for unions, as not everything is implementable. We find the approaches which unions will find comfortable employing, and which aren’t so costly.

A lot of scenario tools emerge from a for-profit mindset. Shell are famed scenario practitioners, and have done a great job exporting their tools for use in other sectors, but ultimately their work was based on planning for profit from a non-renewable resource. Unions have different questions to answer.

If you’re not selling a product, if you’re not capitalising on a business idea, why are you in the world? What is your mission? For unions, it’s solidarity and the creation of a better society. We’re not looking at a profit projection or a sales projection, we’re trying to stretch people’s thinking from a mission to a vision of what that better future looks like. Where do we want to be in thirty years? What will we face as we try to get there?

The approach we set out in Anticipating Change, Staying Relevant is appealing because it digs very deep, looking at an organisation’s structure, history, and current bottlenecks, but also attends to external factors and scans their horizons. The future of the union movement also depends on the future of the entities with whom unions are negotiating, and the ecosystem within which all of those entities are operating. We ask: who is beyond your bubble? Who are your possible stakeholders in a future context? Can you take them into account?

1960s Volkswagen assembly line, by Flickr user Roger W – CC BY-SA 2.0

When unions negotiate, it’s at a local level, with local companies and authorities and municipalities. But it may also involve negotiating with huge multinationals, and other trade unions in the world.  If you’re talking to car manufacturers, you need a perspective which can handle both deeply local issues and multinational agreements So we look at the megatrends which may be pulling our societies in a certain direction over the long term.

Sometimes the people we work with question this – “I’m so busy dealing with a negotiation, which I should I be looking at global megatrends?” – but we show them that such huge forces trickle down to our individual reality, our local setting. They have impacts across companies, political entities, jurisdictions, and if we can develop some understanding of them, we will negotiate better and deliver better outcomes. When this is understood, unions see that this work is a goldmine. It will help leaders not just in their present-day work, but as a stepping stone to subsequent generations, to the future union leaders who will replace them and continue their work.

Ensuring that scenarios work is actually used by decisionmakers is, of course, key. At ETUI we benefit from the Director-general’s mandate. Such support from leaders is what ensures your scenarios will have a home, and we emphasise in our training sessions the importance of having senior leaders as the sponsors of a scenarios project. There’s no point generating a very nice document with visions of the far future if there’s no strategic outcome, so convincing leaders is the first step.

What are the current issues you’re most focused on? Has the pandemic shaped your work this year?

COVID-19 is certainly an accelerator of technology adoption. We can do things now which we couldn’t previously imagine, especially with artificial intelligence. As testing accelerates, we’ll see technologies coming into the world faster – some of the previous assessment and regulation requirements may not be in place after COVID-19.

That will give us new tools to fight the pandemic, but also raise new issues around the use of algorithms, some of which can enhance practices like surveillance. Workers may be wearing bracelets to monitor proximity and virus transmission; cameras in the metro may be watching to see if you are wearing a mask. Privacy issues of workers are certainly at stake. This is particularly of concern to Europe’s trade unions, who look for the implementation of GDPR to protect workers.

Paris Metro CCTV
CCTV in Saint-Michel Station, Paris Métro, by Wikipedia user Rama – CC BY-SA 2.0 FR

There are also emerging issues around telework. What happens when you don’t need to commute to the office anymore? Does that free you or does work expand to fill that time? There are occupational health issues around working from home too, such as the risk of musculoskeletal disorders from inadequate home office set-ups.

If we do a good job of foresight for the labour movement, we empower workers to be more critical and more informed about such issues. They can approach their work with a strategic mindset, looking at opportunities for both the individual and the collective, and thinking ahead to consider consequences and implications for the long term.

A pandemic was of course predicted by experts for a long time, but now we are living through the crisis, it is also a chance for us to think strategically.  We need to look ahead, as a workforce, to think about the other crises which may lie ahead beyond this one. What if there is a subsequent pandemic in 2030? What other issues will disrupt our way of living and working in coming decades?

See more about the work of Aída and her colleagues at the ETUI website, or check out previous foresight interviews with Joshua Polchar, Stefan Hajkowicz, and Trudi Lang.

One thought on ““You are swimming with the whole ocean”: Interview with Aída Ponce Del Castillo, European Trade Union Institute

  • Muy interesante Aida. Te saludo por esta entrevista. Sigue adelante. Además, porque gañamos todos mucho con eso.

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