The world we live in today—with the pandemic, climate change, growing inequality, and additional challenges—”is the result of decisions that were made decades ago,” says Marina Gorbis, executive director of the nonprofit Institute for the Future. But policymakers often aren’t thinking that far ahead. How can we better prepare for 2032 or 2052, and plan for a future that we collectively want?
In California, the nonprofit has been working with California 100, a statewide initiative incubated at the University of California and Stanford University, to research how the state may change, and help guide both political leaders and regular Californians through a process they hope will lead to making decisions based on a new long-term vision instead of simply taking reactive actions.
Researchers created detailed scenarios for 13 different issues, from housing to health and the environment. While it’s obviously impossible to forecast exactly what will happen, each scenario is based on extensive research about the past, present, and signals of trends that are currently on the margins—but that could become significant in the future.
“What we have in each of these scenarios are worlds that are quite plausible in terms of where California could find itself,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, executive director of California 100 and a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside. “That was important because so much of our decision making, even when we’ve gone through significant challenges, is responding to the here and now.”
The group’s newest report includes a set of “mega” scenarios that envision what the state might look like a decade, 30 years, and a century from now. In a decade, for example, one scenario describes what might happen if the state were more like Texas, with less regulation; another considers what would happen if it doubled down on stronger government action. One midcentury scenario paints a bleak picture of multiple crises and the inability of global leaders to cooperate:
“Our collective inability to rise to this challenge in the late 2020s and early 2030s was something of an inflection point. We were, as a planet, shocked that the consequences we’d been warned about for so long, by so many, were hitting us so hard. We had to cooperate. But by the time we’d started working together, hundreds of millions of people around the world had died . . . “
“Scenarios are basically stories about the future that are very tangible and real,” says Gorbis. “It kind of engages people in the future possibility, and then from there, you can work back: Okay, well, you don’t like this scenario, what are the key forces that are driving toward this scenario? What can I do to prevent that from happening? Or what is the lever that I have to change to move it into a different scenario? Or if you like that scenario, it’s like, well, what can I do to make that reality?”
Some governments, like Singapore and Finland, have institutionalized planning for the future. Wales has a “future generations” commissioner, focused on protecting the interests of people who aren’t yet born. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has an Office of Strategic Foresight. And interest is growing in other places. “This is something that is getting built in, more and more, in the world of public policy,” says Ramakrishnan. “This kind of work was there certainly before and still exists when it comes to national and international security. But what you’re seeing now is it’s spreading beyond that to other realms. I think climate change has a lot to do with it, but you see other major macro trends that are taking place that are motivating this kind of interest.”
In California, the partners recently held a workshop where Californian citizens and leaders discussed the scenarios and how they might affect their own work, and more listening sessions will follow before a final vision and strategy report. They also want to help give people more practice in long-term thinking. “There’s a lot that is changing underneath their feet,” he says. “And these scenarios give people the kind of tools and training to be able to think more creatively and to act more nimbly.”