Opening statement

Foresighting is going to be central to the South African government’s effective public policy development and robust mid- to long-term planning; if the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to be achieved by 2030; including Good Health and Well-Being (3), Quality Education (4), Decent Work and Economic Growth (8), and Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure (9).

The iPhone story

If someone told you in 2007 – the year when the first iphone was released – that a smartphone was going to become a key feature in the lives of every 2 in 5 South Africans today – the last thing and the first thing seen between a night’s sleep; their prefered music device; their wallet; one of their most valuable possessions; one of their most trusted companions that is increasingly least used for calls and more for other things including doing business, tracking a heart rate and ordering takeaways; would you believe this?

We suspect that Apple, the manufacturer of a first modern smartphone called the iPhone, did not really know this at the time either! But we suspect that they had a big, hairy, audacious goal – to build a device that will become the ultimate computer – in your palm. A device that may cannibalise some of their own IP products. As we know today, the iPod gave way to the iPhone. In the (near) future, the iPad may soon follow.

What is the moral of the smartphone story? We will explore this further in this blog. But first…

What is foresighting?

Foresighting is defined by the UNDP’s Global Centre for Public Service Excellence as a planning model that is based on anticipation of opportunities and threats. It encourages formulation of “forward-looking, adaptive and resilient policies [that] allow public administrations to engage with and shape [mid- to long-term] events to the best advantage of their citizens.”In today’s complex and rapidly changing world, events and trends in various spheres interact with one another in unpredictable ways. Governments increasingly realise that few contemporary challenges can be confined to one policy area and that a single-issue focus is in many instances insufficient. – UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence

Why foresighting as a planning tool?

Modern technology’s highly disruptive and rapid change is touching every sphere of our lives, across the world. The speed of change has resulted in the future being unpredictable. Thus, we cannot use past and present trends as the benchmark for future planning.

Here are two examples to make the point.

1. Changes in the economy

Analysis of US’s top 10 companies in the years 1917 (mainly the era of manufacturing, lead by the steel industry), 1967 (early days of dominance by the ICT industry) and 2017 (technology industry era) clearly indicates that change is constant.

Click on image to enlarge

See how dominant the technology industry has become in the 2017’s top 10 list? Are the companies going to be around in 2067, let alone be in the top 10?

Some of the companies from the 1917 and 1967 top 10 lists are still around in some shape or form, such as AT&T (in the 1917 & 1967 top 10 lists) and GM (1967); and others have gone under. Specifically, the demise of Polaroid and Kodak (both 1967) was directly due to the introduction of digital camera and smartphone camera technologies. Sears (1967), once one of America’s retail giants, is facing possible liquidation; and the once-mighty GE (1967) that was the largest company in the world in 2010 with over 300,000 employees around the world, is also facing turbulent times due to being overgeared.

The tale of Kodak’s near-extinction is most relevant for the subject of this blog. This company once lead with blue sky thinking and groundbreaking innovations during its hay days, disrupting its business model at least twice – from dry-plates to film and from black and white film to colour.

Why did Kodak fail?

Kodak blew its chance to lead the digital photography revolution. They got things half-right. Kodak engineer Steve Sasson actually invented the digital camera in the company’s R&D labs in the 1970s. His leap forward was a product of Kodak’s willingness to invest in blue skies research. But having the space and capital for innovation is not enough. A business’s leadership – and the culture they create – must then be willing and agile enough to embrace innovations. – WEF,

Kodak didn’t ignore digital cameras, but they didn’t give them a full attention either. The company underestimated just how big the digital would get, and it was apparently a big mistake. – Dunja Djudjic,

In short, Kodak did not anticipate the coming wave of the digital camera. Thus, the company got left behind despite having invented the technology way back in 1975.

How has the South African economy changed over the last 100 years? What role has the government’s policy played in fostering a conducive environment for the economy to thrive in these increasingly uncertain times?

2. Future of work

A lot has been written about jobs of the future across the world, as many countries grapple with how they will achieve their SDGs.

Dell Technologies’ 2017 report, based on a survey of 3,800 business leaders across the world that was conducted by Institute for the Future (IFTF), estimated that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not been invented yet.

The pace of change will be so rapid that people will learn ‘in the moment’ using new technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality. The ability to gain new knowledge will be more valuable than the knowledge itself. – Dell Technologies

This finding has direct implications for the type of education and grooming of the future workforce. In the case of South Africa where schooling nows takes 13 years, it will be 2031 by the time this year’s Grade R’s complete their Matric. How should the South African education that forms the basis of skill development prepare the future workforce for these currently unknown jobs?

The way we educate future generations no longer prepares them adequately for the skills and jobs of today. The idea that you study math and science and art in your youth as separate disciplines, and then work to solve real world problems in today’s economy, does not add up. Preparing students for tomorrow’s jobs requires breaking down the silos within education. – Stephane Kasriel, CEO of freelancing website Upwork and Co-Chair of WEF’s Council on the Future of Work, Gender and Education

Lessons for South African government

Achieving the SDGs’ aims by 2030 means planning for the unpredictable future. We cannot rely on what was and what is. Thankfully, there has been a lot of knowledge development in the foresighting space under the UN, and other community of practice here and across the world.

As the local office of the UN embarks upon a process of integrating existing and further development of foresight knowledge base through the Foresight South Africa portal, public policy makers and planners will not battle with availability of tools for scenario planning.

Back to the smartphone story

As with everything else, the good and the bad are two sides of a coin. Increasingly, a smartphone has become an addiction. Resulting in initiatives such as digital detoxing, etc. Apple has even introduced a feature called Screen Time, to assist mere mortals to monitor time spent on their iPhone, and activities they mostly use the device for.

What’s worse, kids, teenagers and adults spend more time on their smartphones than they do playing outside to develop motor skills, hanging out with friends to improve social skills or go on walks to maintain physical health. In the case of kids and teenager, this has lead to a debate whether this technology is destroying a generation? Read more about it here.