Applying futures thinking in realising Science, Technology and Innovation potential
By Dr Njeri Mwagiru
Science is foundational to our knowledge base, and continuing advances in science and emerging technologies are accelerating the rate of change in our world, with potential to have significant impacts on our economies and societies, transforming the ways we live and work.
Especially, with the impacts generated by responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, innovations have been fast-tracked, particularly in medical science in the development of vaccines, and in the application of digital technologies for health, work, learning, connecting as well as production and consumption.
Importantly, rapid advancements in science, technology and innovation capabilities expand possibilities for potential solutions to the critical issues we face, including poverty and a mass lack of financial access, unequal distribution of opportunities, food and basic resources security, climate change, amongst other challenges.
Towards shaping better futures and building peaceful and prosperous societies, resolving these issues is imperative for addressing root causes of instability and conflict. This is recognised by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) that call for no poverty, zero hunger, reduced inequalities, good health and wellbeing, climate action and peace. Similarly the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063 aspirations envision peaceful and secure futures based on unity, human rights, democracy, and inclusive sustainable development that is ethical and people-driven.
At the same time, it is important to note the role of the mismanagement and mal-application of science and technology – from the weapons industry to digital media and online social networking – in contributing to unstable contexts and even stoking unrest and violence.
To benefit from the positive potential presented by science and technology innovations, policy-makers and responsible leaders face the challenge of making astute decisions that allocate the necessary resources and timely prioritisation to science and technology applications that can yield highest benefits for the long-term. However, selecting the most promising routes and applications for emerging technologies and innovative science, is often contentious.
The current space debates are a good example, as different parties promote different priority areas of focus. Is the most urgent application of our science and technology capabilities best directed towards space travel and exploration, or towards resolving issues such as world hunger and poverty? What about climate change and degradation of environments – is the search for extra-terrestrial resources a crucial approach to solutions, or is the critical need carbon and pollution reduction science and technology innovations here? Where may focus and investments be best directed, given the collective and pressing crises we face?
In contemplating and debating these options, it is valuable to consider the role of foresight and futures thinking. Foresight processes can assist in identifying which issues and solutions can be most strategically beneficial for immediate engagement, as well as for the long-term, boosting preparedness to adapt to emerging changes instigated by innovation and other disruptive factors.
In addition to identifying drivers of change, futures thinking assists to anticipate the pace and trajectories of change and resultant impacts. It allows for consideration of multiple potentialities and possible futures, and therefore is valuable for guiding decision and policy making options and actions for preferred outcomes in the long-term.
Futures thinking approaches are also systematic, and encourage participation, inclusion, and consultation to gather collective intelligence and systematically analyse available data, information and insights. Benefits include early detection of signals of change, which can heighten responsiveness and pro-action/prosilience. Blindspots in current planning and activities may also be revealed, as well as a range of choice options presented based on a wide, deep and long scope of possibilities as well as interests.
Futures thinking can help to harness and operationalise the full potential of science and technology innovations to resolve intractable and wicked problems defined by complexity, by highlighting various options and action intervention points. Global instability is demanding more concerted and sustained efforts to address issues of sustainable development, and science and technology can be key inputs in solutions to intractable problems that underpin instability and stoke conflict.
While advancing science and technology innovations offer substantive promise however, a main imperative to realise potential presented, is appropriate application towards the best possible ends, leaving none behind and ensuring futures for next generations. Participatory futures thinking can be a valuable catalyst and an important component for decision-making by responsible leadership.
Recognising shifts created by advances in green science and technologies, including changing consumer markets and policy demands, one area of our research work is the potential for South Africa to grow the hydrogen economy. Our focus is on impacts for primary resource supply and demand, production and beneficiation, such as in the case of platinum group metals (PGMs). We also anticipate impacts for sectors such as infrastructure and transport with growing attention to clean, renewable energy and electric vehicles. At the same time, in imagining a wide range of possible futures, our work has also generated a range of African governance futures scenarios that includes imagining possibilities of advances in space travel for African countries.
We recognise futures are unknown and uncertain, we also know we have requisite tools and capacities available to us to engage productively, ethically and sustainably with the possibilities available. Science and technology innovations have potential to resolve complex problems, but we require systematic, systemic and inclusive futures thinking, to inform decision-making and actions, that can beneficially yield for the long-term.