Written by Eamonn Noonan,
The future is very present in discussions around and about the European Union. This spring, the European Parliament concluded its series of debates with Member State Heads of State or Government on the Future of Europe. A major European Union (EU) strategic foresight report, Global Trends to 2030: Challenges and Choices for Europe, was published not long after. A new legislative period began after the European Parliament elections, and the 2014-19 Commission has made way for a new executive, led by Ursula von der Leyen.
This edition of the Global Trendometer also looks to the future. Like its predecessors in 2016, 2017 and 2018, it identifies, tracks and analyses a selection of trends ranging across social, economic, and political subjects. It focuses on the medium- to long-term, and seeks to uncover implications for the EU. The purpose is to support the deliberations of EU decision- and lawmakers.
The opening essays in this edition cover the future of democracy and of social policy. We then provide a set of short scenarios, sketching possible – fictional – futures for several North African countries. Shorter pieces look at trends, uncertainties and disruptions on six further topics: the auditing of algorithms, China’s social credit scheme, space, life expectancy, political slogans, and collective nostalgia.
The Trendometer is part of a systematic effort to develop a strategic foresight culture within the EU. This effort has proceeded not least through the framework of the interinstitutional ESPAS initiative. The allocation of responsibility for foresight to a Vice-President of the incoming European Commission is another step towards anticipatory governance in Europe.
As the saying goes, predictions are difficult, especially about the future. Human affairs are complex, and are buffeted by chance and indeed irrationality. This makes it impossible to predict outcomes with certainty. However, this does not mean it is futile to study the future. On the contrary, it is all the more reason to take a systematic approach to forward analysis.
Asking questions to which one does not know the answers is a good place to start. When examining a less than ideal situation, for example, it is worth addressing questions such as:
- Are misconceptions, oversimplifications and preconceived notions in play?
- What are the negative trends? Are they structural, accidental or attitudinal?
- How serious are the consequences of negative trends?
- What are the barriers to correcting negative trends?
Creating ‘safe spaces’ for open discussion is another critical step. A foresight process should allow the expression and consideration of professionally argued contrarian views. This improves the chances of a balanced portrait of challenges and options, and in turn paves the way for better informed decisions at critical junctures in the future. Good choices depend on having a number of carefully prepared options to choose between.
The European Union has been compared to a supertanker. The emphasis on dialogue and consensus in EU decision-making means it is not easy to change course quickly. This adds to the case for enhanced strategic foresight capacity. A shared analysis of key risks and opportunities, and a common understanding of fundamental values, interests and goals, are European public goods. As we have seen in the past decades, trying to debate from first principles once a crisis hits only complicates the search for solutions. It is time to embrace an anticipatory approach, and to routinely develop options for responding to different eventualities. To borrow a phrase from Diderot, “examining everything, without exception and without ceremony”, is a step towards identifying the correct course, even in a storm.
Read the complete study ‘Global Trendometer 2019‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.