Global Systems Science needs a deliberate and reflexive element of actionable supranational or ‘global’ foresight that recognises the contingent nature of an unpredictable future as a motivator for change in the present. Today’s big policy challenges benefit not just from looking back to see established patterns, but in looking forward and imagining different possibilities. They are also increasingly associated with new approaches to change, not just developments in systems thinking and complexity science. For example, the momentum in collaborative futures, transition management, resilience management, sustainable inclusive and green growth initiatives, etc. each, in their own way, recognises the limits of established economic theory (neoclassical economics) and indicate a search for new approaches to appreciating, addressing and ‘managing’ change in the context of irreducible uncertainty and complex systems dynamics.
Connectivity has become the key driver of vulnerability and value creation, and created a ‘perfect storm’ of complex systems, higher decision stakes and inherent social/values conflicts. The future as probable, possible and preferable are as pertinent today as they were 20 years ago, but the methods to engage the role of the future in the present continue to evolve.
Big Data and (better and/or new types of) model-based analysis and simulation might seduce some towards renewed predictive confidence of new economic theory. Yet there is no ‘God given’ perspective of complex socio-technical-ecological systems. Forging shared and more systemic understanding of international/global system is one thing, enabling and sustaining the collective, cross-scale action involved in changing established systems dynamics is another. Navigating between narratives, forging new common ground, and attending to the evolution of strategic vocabulary – open questions of systems boundaries and framing contests. Then there is the question of ethics – the contingent future as a design challenge and who is designing what and for whom?
It requires attention to the quality of judgement not just the availability of data – a sensitivity to narratives, to framing contests, to making space for conflict and to managing disagreement as an asset within science and within policy making processes. It requires rethinking the science-policy interface – GSS to support a better quality of strategic conversation and experimentation not just a better quality of analysis and predict and decide approaches.
Developing ‘global’ foresight relevant to new global polycentric policy context is core to the effectiveness of GSS and requires a multi-method modern futures toolkit in which rigorous analysis and intuition, numbers and narratives, hard and soft systems thinking have a role to play but not at the exclusion of the other.
And given the future is not neutral but the playing field of power, what is the policy arena for GSS ‘foresight’ – EU Commission, national governments, EU speaking to other OECD national governments, multilateral institutions? How can GSS contribute to enabling ‘whole system’ governance and help with institutional innovation that is currently locked out by rigidities of established policy domains, ministerial structures and lack of interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary science. What sort of science do new practice communities organising around global and systemic risk, sustainability, resiliency and transition management need/are they able to use? How can policymaking reorganise to attend to cross-scale dynamics (not top down vs. bottom up) and connected challenges (rather than issue-by-issue basis)? How does policymaking enable new value creation not just risk control?
Example – which Narrative or Narratives: Global Financial Crisis
Is the global financial crisis really over as far as the EU is concerned and has it really been contained because of the heroic efforts of central bankers? Or is this global systemic risk still cascading into other spheres of life – the real economy, society, politics?
If we fix the financial system and growth is put back on track, what are the implications for a global environmental crisis? How do we know when we have avoided the choice between more ‘global’ economy vs. better global environment?
Who decides what a ‘good’ dynamic of stability looks like and can it be achieved without attention to structural inequality, as well as global to local environmental changes?