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Why development should be based on a future re-imagined

Feb 09, 2011

Reimagining future is vital for any development strategy. World is changing rapidly, resources are getting exhausted, technological progress makes it imperative for development strategies to be designed keeping in mind the future, argues Lawrence Haddad, Director, Institute of Development Studies.

I am a touch obsessed with the future. And others are too. For a real "report from the future" you should read The Great Transition Today by Paul Raskin, dateline Mandela City, 2084. The stimulating report is a think piece looking back on how the world moved from consumerism, individualism and domination of nature, to quality of life, human solidarity and ecological sensibility.

In this future, globalism is as natural as nationalism once was. There is a world constitution of 2032 enshrining three guiding principles: irreducibility (a core set of decisions have to be taken at the global level), subsidiarity (global level decisions are kept to a minimum), and heterogeneity (different regions are encouraged to define and find their own way forwards). Of course the paper does not say how any of this could or should take place – that is not the point. Rather these kinds of exercises are designed to expand the space for imagination.

This capacity to reimagine is vital to any endeavour, so why is it important for those interested in international development to focus on it? Partly because things are changing so rapidly, partly because we are not very good at reimagining, and partly because there are things emerging that may be able to help us. Are things changing more rapidly than ever? The internet and mobile technology are shaping political, social and economic change in ways we cannot begin to comprehend; "emerging" sounds like a staid descriptor for the turbocharged economic performance and gathering political strength of many countries outside of Europe and North America; and our current patterns of natural resource use are rapidly constructing scarcity.

We are clearly not very good at predicting fundamental change in international development. The commentator David Rieff, writing in the New Republic, reflects on how ancient last week's USAid Egypt website looks right now. Brian Eno, writing in Prospect, notes the human tendency to "expect that the next big thing will be a bigger version of the last big thing", while "what is most likely is that the next big thing won't look important to us at all".

This is one of the factors that makes vaccines attractive – they help future-proof immune systems (see Bill Gates's annual letter, which came out recently) in a very practical and dependable way. My very positive experience with the UK government's Foresight programme on the future of food and farming made me realise how difficult it is to think systematically about the future. Perhaps that is the problem, perhaps systematic thinking is not helpful when considering "what's next"?

Based on his recent trip to Davos, Rolf Heuer, the director general of Cern, writing on his blog noted how all the high-powered CEOs were busy using their "quantum mechanical relativistic machines" – machines also known as mobile phones. His point was that it is impossible to separate basic and applied research, and we should resist the temptation of using economic austerity as a reason to do so.

Does the explosion of data fostered by the internet help us to think out of the present-day box? Will the legitimate concern with value for money in public investments stifle or liberate our ability to peer into the future? Liberation will certainly be facilitated by investments in knowledge and thought that allow more lateral thinking. The epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani notes that the existence of big data sets generated for other purposes has led to an increased interest in research that uses big data to generate hypotheses that other researchers test. This is a vital part of the impact generation process but one that is easily overlooked.

So, do all of us in international development invest enough in thinking about the possible competing contours of the future? Probably not. If international development is to transition smoothly to, say, a focus on quality of life, ecological sustainability and human solidarity, we need to begin taking more risks in the present by funding explorations that will either have a very high payoff in the future or will sink without a trace, by funding structured fishing expeditions in new seas of data, by undertaking comparative studies that do not easily match funding streams, and by taking a risk on the blue skies.

Do I want to see monthly hunger maps that mobilise civil society to move hunger reduction up the development agenda to reduce global hunger? Yes. Do I know if they can be constructed credibly? Whether they will mobilise civil society? Whether this will lead to more responsive policy-making? Whether this policy will reduce hunger? And can I demonstrate these effects? The answers to these questions are all open, but you can see how easy it is to talk yourself (and potential investors) out of doing it. Perhaps we need more public venture funds in international development. Unless we are able to take more calculated risks in the present, I fear we will only be storing up uncalculated ones for the future.

The name of my blog, Development Horizons, reflects my preoccupation with the future. Readers of the blog also seem seduced by promises of glimpses into the near future – my "predictions" for 2011 was by far the most visited entry in January.

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