In December 2020 we spoke with Aarathi Krishnan, when she was months into a new foresight role at the UN Development Program (UNDP). At the time, it was a brand new role for the organization. We talked about her approach to futures, including using design fiction, experiential futures, scenarios, the importance of translating methodologies and tools for your audience, what a decolonial mindset means in the field of foresight, and why we need a plurality of approaches when working in different contexts.
We caught up with her this summer to hear how that role has grown, her work developing UNDP’s Strategic Foresight network, a foresight playbook, using collective intelligence for signal scanning and sensemaking, and more. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
IL: Great to see you, Aarathi! So much has happened since we last spoke. Tell me a bit about how things have been going for you, and how your role has grown and changed.
AK: It's amazing to see what's happened in the last two years - we've seen foresight get a lot of traction! There are a lot of different teams at UNDP that are popping up and focusing on it. What I'm really proud of is the fact that we have been able to create and implement a really structured systems approach to applied foresight. We’ve focused on looking at how our internal processes and systems work, to see where we can incorporate foresight practices and make it easier for people to transition foresight into existing processes.
We also set up the first UNDP Strategic Foresight network, which now has just under 500 members from across UNDP, from all our different countries. And we just released our first foresight playbook (UNDP Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific Foresight Playbook), which was rye intentional work of multiple people.
IL: When we last talked, you had just started in your role, which was a new one at UNDP. How have you socialized the concept of foresight internally?
AK: UNDP has always done - or dabbled in - futures work, but it was interesting to come in and take an analytical lens to it to understand where it can best be plugged in and what kind of network and system we have to have in place.
If you want your foresight work to apply to your internal teams and culture, your teams need to understand how it fits into their existing process.
We're doing a lot of work right now around anticipatory risk and anticipatory crises. What I'm really excited about and proud of is the work that we're doing to design an anticipatory institution and anticipatory systems. Foresight is almost secondary to that!
IL: What has worked for you in terms of integrating foresight and futures thinking into your existing processes?
AK: One of the best ways to successfully integrate foresight into your strategy, planning, and organization is to spend a lot of time understanding how the “internal pipes” of your system work. If you don't spend time understanding how the pipes work, then you're not going to know where foresight best fits. In designing this process, I worked very closely with strategic planning colleagues, theory of change colleagues to look at the pipes of our system to see where foresight fits best. For us, it fits under the umbrella of what we're calling anticipatory planning and also anticipatory crisis preparedness - to get ahead of emerging risks. We have integrated foresight into our planning and strategy cycles, and we have this whole process now around anticipatory planning.
Where I think it doesn't work well is when we assume that a foresight process is the silver bullet for anything - you can’t just “do foresight” and get a forward looking strategy. We can talk about an entire foresight process from when you do your trends analysis to when you're doing your scenarios and back-casting and all of that, but what you need to understand is actually how strategy development works. The final objective is not foresight for foresight’s sake; the final objective is to design an anticipatory institution so that we can serve our partners better.
IL: You work across the globe - have you had to adapt this process for the different countries and contexts where you’re working?
AK: When we're working with country strategies, we don't always use the whole foresight cycle. We use a component of it, so that it fits into an existing structure that makes the most sense. What we don't want is to take a cookie cutter approach and just implement it.
The playbook I mentioned has an appendix that speaks to different tools. But teaching tools was less important to us. What we found is that we didn't necessarily need to do a Foresight 101 - our staff and our people could do a foresight training course online if they wanted to.
What our people really wanted to understand is how to fit foresight into their existing work. And so we spent a lot of time looking at our existing processes, and adapting approaches based on that. I'm a big believer in not coming in and trying to teach people a whole new technical language, because people lose themselves in that. What we did was translate foresight and different approaches to existing language and hooks that they understand.
We've tried really hard to give the architecture and the pillars, but not be so regimented to say this is absolutely the way it has been - or has to be - done. We want to give people the ability to “mix and match” for the types of entry points that you want and what you want to achieve.
IL: Are there any examples that you can share?
AK: We just finished a project in the Pacific where we looked at what foresight and anticipatory governance looks like through a Pacific lens. And what does that mean? What does that look like in the Bhutanese context? What does it look like in the Cambodian context?
Vanuatu is developing their first national strategy using anticipatory and foresight approaches. It's going to be somewhat forward-looking, which is very, very different for an entire national plan for Vanuatu. At the same time, the plan has been grounded in cultural principles and in a context that made sense from a policy perspective. Our team there looked at what historically and traditionally have been Vanuatuan principles and found that this idea of thinking ahead into the future, being prepared is actually quite inherent in Vanuatu culture.
We did some work in the Maldives working with parliament members to think about different types of leadership styles needed for the 21st century. In Cambodia, we're working on accountability reporting done with the country strategy, embedding foresight as part of that process as well. North Macedonia has done really incredible work around national dialogues rooted in ideas about the future for North Macedonia. These are just some of the different examples of how foresight is being translated into different contexts.
To change the culture of the UNDP and decentralize expertise, Aarathi worked to include many people in the foresight process. For this aim, she helped lead the effort to gather the collective intelligence of signal scanners from all the different country offices. (Image by Marjan Blan | @marjanblan on Unsplash)
IL: What other processes or changes have you implemented that have worked well?
AK: We bring different teams into the work so that we don't centralize expertise, we decentralize expertise. At UNDP, horizon (signal) scanning is one of the things that people often know already, or are familiar with. It was usually done by innovation teams. We would get a really fantastic report, but it’d kind of just be a really interesting report and wouldn’t lead us towards the overall objective about designing an anticipatory institution.
It is really important that our foresight work results in different types of decision-making and feeds into an anticipatory planning system. So, what we decided to do was implement a structured, rigorous approach to horizon scanning, which is being rolled out in phases. We use collective intelligence, we blend quantitative and qualitative data, and we use different methods to look for risks and uncertainties.
We wanted to use collective intelligence because it was a way of decentralizing the expertise. The old way of working with a centralized team that has the expertise, that produced the intelligence - that privileges expertise. If we want to really change the culture of our organization, then many people need to be part of this. And also, we didn't want a team in New York or in Bangkok speaking on behalf of what was happening in other countries.
IL: So how does your collective intelligence process work?
AK: Collective intelligence comes from signal scanners from all the different country offices and teams around different regions. We started with 17 scanners last year. This year we scaled it and had 110 people participate across 18 countries. Our team provides technical guidance, and we trained the scanners. For the most part, the challenge isn't scanning - the challenge is the analysis of the signals. We put a process in with standardized templates, timelines, etc. We also asked that each country office nominate a few people to work as a team. We learned last year that when you just had one person in the office doing horizon scanning, they don't have anybody else to bounce it off of. Having the internal discussions amongst their peers was actually really great. Each team goes through a process of scanning, validation and prioritization, and sensemaking.
So for scanning, we have different categories people have to scan, and before they upload their signals to our online platform, they discuss it as a team first. Second, we have a survey process to support prioritization and validation. Third, for sensemaking, we try to put a probability and impact ranking for the signals. For this, we’ve been using an online AI platform, and we opened this sensemaking step up to a wider group of people rather than just signal scanners.
The hardest part of this process, or the most weight-lifting comes from the analysis, which is the most important thing because that's how you generate insights. We look at signals of things changing, but more importantly, what is this pointing to in terms of cascading risks for development trajectories?
We put all this through an expert group to validate the results of this process (scanning, validation, prioritization, sensemaking). I don't actually have traditional futurists in my team. So, we have an expert advisory group made up of technical advisors across UNDP, and we work very closely with data and risk analysts. We didn't want to just produce qualitative signals. We overlay the qualitative signals with quantitative datasets so that we can have qualitative signals of change along with your evidence-based quant that substantiates it.
IL: Such a comprehensive process, that I’m sure will give our readers a lot of ideas! So what’s next for you in this role? What are you looking forward to?
AK: We're about to publish a range of foresight briefs, and some imagination work that looks at how we reimagine development. So, be on the lookout for a toolkit called Inclusive Imaginaries. For that, we worked with imagination consultants from the Global South to design a toolkit for us around how we engage with constituency groups that are impacted by some of these policy decisions, but don't often get a chance to give input.
We tried to overlay what constituency groups, civil society groups, youth groups —what their ideas about the future were in relation to those issues and policies—and then try to link it back to what the academics were saying. I think that's a really interesting way of doing participatory futures. It does require time and resources, but it's a way of also triple checking your own perspectives, and it becomes a way to ensure that processes and policies are actually wanted and needed.