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Unlocking Latin America’s future: participation and foresight

June 28, 2017

Quito, Ecuador ©A Bobak

As Latin America looks to compete on the global stage, it is increasingly taking a long-term perspective.

Historically the region has thought and planned only in short time frames; this is due to a complex set of reasons such as government instability, cultural factors, and policy foundations. But it is now in a situation where the public and private sectors are falling behind other regions, such as Asia, in education, technology and productivity. To keep up, and even jump ahead, a long-term outlook will be essential. Acknowledging this need is a good start, but the challenge will be to actually embed long-term thinking into all processes, working collaboratively with citizens to scale and improve the quality and effectiveness of strategic foresight.

Why Latin America needs foresight.

One important driver of the growing use of strategic foresight in Latin America is increasing uncertainty and complexity. We are in the midst of a volatility cycle unseen since 1970. This can be seen in factors such as the prices of gas and food, increasing uncertainty of economic growth, and unpredictable technological developments. This is not a phase; nations in the region are facing threats without precedent including extreme drought due to climate change, water shortages affecting hydropower energy sources, and increased job loss due to technology.

Despite the challenges ahead, continued research around trends, drivers of change and alternative futures moving forward as far as 2050 can also uncover areas of resilience and opportunity for Latin America. For instance, almost all nations in the region have or will soon have a demographic dividend, associated with a high number working-age citizens, versus a smaller number of children and elderly citizens. In many cases, this population bubble of 15-35 year-olds in the region is better educated than the generations before them. This group is equip to advance nations economically if they are employed and increasing productivity of the region; but if they are unemployed could also end up being a huge drag on the region.

Government and the private sector need foresight to understand the future so they can prepare today. In this specific case they could use strategic planning to ensure they are prepared for different demographic phases, such as creating jobs for the demographic dividend. This is a significant task, but also a significant opportunity, and one that the continued use of strategic future planning can help realize.

Current methods of planning throughout the region are being overwhelmed by larger and non-linear challenges. Strategic foresight can help. Latin America will benefit from recognizing and integrating foresight, not as a separate activity for futurists, but as a regular part of the decision-making process.

First steps:

Based upon our experience and what we have seen work in the area, a key first step for these nations is to use participatory and collaborative conversations with citizens to construct a shared vision of the future. These conversations can help so that the long term needs, desires and concerns of citizens are understood by the all actors. This also gives citizens of the region more control, power, and buy-in and enhances the effectiveness of strategic foresight as a development tool.

This quote from Sergio Bitar, former Chilean Minister and Latin American foresight advocate encapsulates this ideal: “Foresight without participation will have less impact because it is disconnected from the wide support it needs among citizens, and even if it is connected to decision-making, it will not have the power needed to act effectively” (read more in openDemocracy).

Governments will benefit from a systematic commitment to long term strategic planning using foresight as a basic part of their planning for activities and services. Including a citizen and community participation component to this planning will ensure actions that are supported and effective. Similarly, for the private sector, foresight should be integrated into strategy and planning processes, and a commitment should be made to collaborate among sectors and industries to create a shared future.

Building a mandate for the future

At SOIF, we understand that this is not an easy challenge. Our work globally and in the region with organizations from the UN, to the US-Peruvian Chamber of Commerce has demonstrated that success often requires quite fundamental shifts in people and culture, as well as an investment in skills and programming. That being said, if Latin America wants to keep advancing, strategic foresight needs to be a part of their strategy. They are realizing this, the task now is to create a foundation for strategic foresight work, so that it is well executed.

Written by Allie Bobak, Coordinator, School of International Futures (SOIF)
School of International Futures is a non-profit foresight organization that exists to help policy-makers and business leaders make strategic choices, manage risk and create future-ready organizations

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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