Adapting to Shocking Change [Insight]

Author: Sanjay Khanna, Resident Futurist, Massey College, University of Toronto

Sanjay Khanna was among the futurists who explored the challenges that could affect Canadians and governments in the next 10-15 years at the March 27, 2014 "Fifteen Years Out… Foresight, the Future and the Policy Agenda" armchair discussion. The following is a summary of his presentation.

Today a new Canadian narrative is being born just as the postwar narrative of a prosperous and growing middle class slowly recedes. The emergent narrative in Canada is about working harder to stand still rather than to advance economically, and about Canadians' birth circumstances defining their destinies to a degree previously thought unimaginable.

At present, Canadians are caught between nostalgia for a prosperous recent past and apprehension about an increasingly plausible future characterized by socioeconomic and environmental shocks. The ambiguity inherent in such a transition heightens the risk that citizens and policy makers alike will be caught flat-footed as the future rushes towards us.

Since change will gather speed and momentum between now and 2029, individuals and organizations may find it harder to adapt as Canadians' life and work circumstances—and institutional operating environments—become increasingly challenging. Recently I was among 21 experts from around the world interviewed for KPMG International's report: Future State 2030: The global megatrends shaping governments. To promote agility and flexibility, I championed the idea that governments should engage with experts who are skilled in analytical and creative thinking across disciplines—and who understand the qualitative implications of ultra-rapid, or accelerating, change.

The futurist's role is to help individuals and organizations recognize emerging circumstances, so they can be proactive. It's not about predicting events; it's about imagining a plausible canvas of circumstance. For example, three key interrelated forces shaping the 21st century's canvas are known. The first is rapid global economic change. The second is socioeconomic, psychosocial, and sociocultural change. The third is environmental and climatic change.

While risk experts, such as The Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, recommend designing organizations to withstand for "black swans" — low-probability, high-impact events — more time should be devoted to planning for high-likelihood, high-impact scenarios. According to the World Economic Forum's Global Risks 2014 survey, more than 700 expert respondents perceive that fiscal crises, climate change, water crises, unemployment and underemployment, extreme weather, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are high-impact risks with a high likelihood of occurring within the next decade.

As socioeconomic and environmental metrics, such as sovereign debt, consumer debt, and atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations, move beyond historical variability, the convergence of major risks makes shocking collisions increasingly likely. It also threatens to close the window for proactive response faster than we think. Living amidst heightened risk and vulnerability because of a more fragile global economy, fast-rising environmental risks—and growing geopolitical fissures—makes it increasingly important to model interactions between key domains so that the magnitude, timing, and order of societal shocks can be conceived.

Let's look at three scenarios that could by New Year's Day 2029 become full-fledged realities, potentially darkening Canadians' moods and sorely testing their resilience.

One 2029 scenario is falling agricultural yields in Canada's Prairies. Climate change is likely to affect farmers' ability to maintain current production levels, and there could be increasing demand for genetically modified seeds adapted to more extreme temperatures, increased precipitation variability, and less predictable soil conditions. Developing more adaptable seeds represents humanity's most pressing race against time.

A second 2029 scenario Canadians involves rising cognitive stressors. With multi-faceted change occurring at an ever-accelerating rate, an increasing number of Canadians may experience diminished control over their life circumstances, spurring an increase in mental health burdens at a population scale. Some in the top income tiers will be able to procure tools and technologies, from mobile apps to drugs, to mitigate the impact of this burden. Many others, however, will not.

A third 2029 scenario is nourishment insecurity. Unstable employment and a "luxury-food" status for meat would mean that a typical young person might struggle to obtain the level of nourishment she or he had experienced as a child.

What might these potential scenarios portend for Canadians? How would changes in political and social allegiances affect urban and rural communities? How might social cohesion be affected?

Starting now, we need to methodically investigate such scenarios and to ignite policy innovations that help Canada and Canadians to navigate this challenging century. Three key areas that should be addressed in order to demonstrate bold next-generation policy leadership are resilience, innovation, and cognitive performance. Resilience is about bouncing back from shocks and finding a new equilibrium; innovation entails developing novel solutions to pressing problems; and cognitive performance emphasizes learning to make sound decisions under pressure.

In terms of resilience, the federal public service should provide training on the shocking changes that future public servants may have to address. Least bad outcomes should be defined. Groundwork should be laid for trust-based community service that helps Canadians build resilience and social cohesion, and mitigate mental health burdens. Trust is critical because the public now sees major brands as worthy of a higher degree of trust than governments. The federal government thus needs to build greater trust with fresh approaches to stakeholder relations, public engagement, intergovernmental and international relations, and public-private partnerships.

There is intriguing potential for innovative policy to be shaped by Flexible and Forward-looking Decision Making (FFDM) methods  that could help the public service become more adaptable. Ensuring that women and Canadians under 30 are more widely represented in risk analysis would expand institutional risk perception. Harnessing Big Data, supercomputing, and data visualization would provide decision makers with sophisticated cross-departmental insight.

Finally, policy leaders need to be trained in mental fitness techniques to improve their cognitive performance. Special forces in Canada and elsewhere are taught such techniques to help them make decisions under stress. When policy leaders face more pressure than they do today, addressing cognitive performance and mental health challenges will prove essential for organizational effectiveness.

Between now and 2029, Canadians must become more innovative and build even stronger social bonds to adapt to a world that's changing faster than calculated. As policy leaders—and emerging leaders—our responsibility is to establish a common purpose to which Canadians can aspire, and to encourage resilience across sectors and communities from coast to coast.