Notes on Singapore: Embedding Long-Term Thinking in Institutions

As the Center has grown and developed, so has the substance of our internal conversations.

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As the Center has grown and developed, so has the substance of our internal conversations. These days, the single most recurring topic of conversation in our office is how to build institutions from the ground up. New city development requires an additional consideration: how to build institutions which are adaptable to rapidly changing local, regional, and global conditions.

Successful new cities won’t just solve the relevant strategic/coordination/incentive problems of today, but will anticipate those of tomorrow too, and plan accordingly. Effective leaders will consider both the present and the future with equal weight, embedding long-term thinking within their institutions.

One country in particular stands above the rest as a model for how to do this well: Singapore.

Singapore’s government has a full-time agency dedicated to strategic planning for the future, the aptly named Centre for Strategic Futures (CSF). CSF is an internal consultancy for the Singaporean government which helps the government navigate anticipated strategic challenges like managing climate change, AI, and aging.

Crucially for CSF, developing a future-oriented framework doesn’t mean strenuous planning for a specific future. Rather, it means planning without taking the material or technological conditions of the present world for granted. What follows is a hopefully comprehensive, though likely not exhaustive, list of how CSF marries futurist vision with consistent execution.

Tools & Forecasts

CSF’s tools emphasize a broad suite of strategies which are “more suitable for the analysis of weak signals, and thinking about black swans and wild cards.”

Each round of analysis follows roughly the same process:

  • Environmental Scanning. Identifying challenges and opportunities on the horizon and taking stock of developing trends in Singapore and beyond.
  • Defining Focus. Assigning a level of complexity to each anticipated challenge (from simple to disorder).
  • Sense Making. A synthesis of steps one and two—contextualizing and triaging anticipated problems and opportunities (e.g the potential for artificial intelligence to alter the production of knowledge).
  • Developing Possible Futures. Constructing narratives and models of possible future scenarios, from extreme tail risks to more plausible developments, and working backwards to take the appropriate policy action(s).
  • Designing Strategies. The most interesting step, which involves playtesting the various courses of action. One early example: the game Cents and Sensibilities, which was developed to teach government officials about procurement principles.
  • Continuously evaluating the results of a given policy action, plus identifying and mitigating additional risks.

Embedding the Vision

It would be easy to assume that the CSF’s secret sauce is its tools, but this isn’t quite correct. Presumably governments around the world could, with enough tinkering, produce a similar set of strategic frameworks. The real value lies in the fact that CSF has created both an orientation and a network, using a mix of courses and events:

FutureCraft is a series of courses taught within Singapore’s Civil Service College on how to map a range of possible futures and design policy accordingly. Additionally, since 2010 each ministry has designated one Deputy Secretary their “Futures Officer,” creating the formal Strategic Futures Network.

FutureCraft and the Strategic Futures Network offer two operational benefits. They a) build a distributed base of strategic knowledge across the government and b) orient every agency toward considerations of the future.

The Centre also hosts bimonthly meetings which gather individuals across different agencies to strengthen long-term planning skills (Sandbox) and a biyearly conference which convenes futurist thinkers from around the world (Foresight Conference).

CSF’s success isn’t in its technical capacity, but rather its coordinating capacity. Since its inception 10 years ago, CSF has managed to establish a robust community of futurists from different epistemic communities which operate at all levels of the Singaporean government.

Effectively embedding long-term thinking within its institutions is (at least) a two-part process. It’s a marriage of consistently identifying and training the right people and developing robust processes. Invest too much in the first and governments will form superstar teams whose vision and execution retire with them (see NASA after 1970). Too much of the second transforms institutions into behemoths in which vision and adaptability are subordinated to bureaucratic checklists.

Learning in Public

The biennial Foresight Report is the written manifestation of the deep research the CSF does to track emerging global trends. Short of observing the government or attending a Foresight Conference, the report offers the most comprehensive window into the strategic considerations and concerns of the Singaporean government.

Among the issues explored in the 2019 edition of Foresight are:

  • Managing data flows with future digital conglomerates and cities
  • The potential for e-residency
  • The possibility of human augmentation
  • The changing sources of identity for Singaporeans
  • Imagined stories from the future
  • The potential for Singaporean charter cities(!)

Special attention is paid in this edition to the future of artificial intelligence. Foresight clearly communicates CSF’s assessment of the risks and opportunities posed by AI, exploring the issue from numerous angles: its potential effects on human agency, the establishment of international AI norms, the treatment of data, and more. Additionally, CSF convened a group of industry members, academics, and government officials for a Risk and Artificial Intelligence Workshop.

Foresight as a principle is not a futurism hack. It’s a strategically applied, continually refined method of scanning the future, near and distant, for useful signals and responding appropriately in the present. At a time in which so few states project optimism about their country’s future, Singapore stands out as a nation which takes itself and its future seriously—an example for current states and charter cities alike. It’s a model of a city-state which thrives not because of natural resources or a prime geographic location, but because of its agile, innovative, well-coordinated institutions—a governance gold standard.

About Tamara Winter

Tamara Winter is the Communications Lead of the Charter Cities Institute. Prior to joining the Institute she worked as a Program Associate with the Project for the Study of American Capitalism at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. She holds a BS in Economics and BA in Public Policy from Southern Methodist University, where she also worked as a Niemi Fellow in the O’Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom. Her byline has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times. Find her on Twitter @_TamaraWinter.