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Financial Times: Vision of life in the middle of the century

 

EXTRACT: Some private sector organisations such as Royal Dutch Shell, the oil company, are known for their work on the future but they tend to specialise in developing detailed scenarios rather than in horizon scanning across the board, Sir David says. (*Wonder if Shell’s crystal ball gazers foresaw that the Sakhalin II $26 billion white elephant project in Russia would end up being derailed by a $2 a week website which has provided the prime evidence for the $30 billion lawsuit being launched by Oleg Mitvol against Sakhalin Energy)

THE ARTICLE

By Clive Cookson, Science Editor

Published: December 20 2006 02:00 | Last updated: December 20 2006 02:00

Chinese astronauts walk on the moon, the world has splintered into currency blocs after an international exchange rate shock, and even robots have the vote.

It sounds like the exaggerated vision – utopian or distopian according to taste – of a parlour futurologist. But these scenarios of what life might be like around the middle of the century have emerged from 270 rigorously researched papers commissioned by the government that together purport to be the world’s most extensive look into the future.

The Horizon Scan covers a vast range of science and technology, politics, economics and society – from internet crime to robotics, banking to the computer-brain interface, stem cell research to “grey power” in an ageing population.

And it is intended to do far more than feed a human curiosity about what life may be like for our children or grandchildren. Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist, argues horizon scanning will have a powerful influence on policy-making – and not only in Whitehall. “Although it was designed as a tool for government, I believe it will also have a broader use across the private sector,” he adds. Horizon scanning has grown out of the 12-year-old Foresight programme in the government’s Office of Science and Innovation, which produces in-depth studies of future developments in specific areas such as infectious disease diagnosis and defences against flooding.

Horizon scanning papers are individually quite brief but together they cover the entire public policy spectrum. The exercise comes in two parts. The Delta Scan, commissioned from the Institute for the Future in California, covers science and technology.

The broader Sigma Scan also looks at social, political, economic and environmental issues; it was carried out by a UK partnership of Outsights, the management consultancy, and Ipsos Mori, the opinion research organisation. Richard O’Brien of Outsights says: “In developing the scans, we have started by referencing leading authoritative sources of evidence on existing trends, but have also drawn on a range of alternative material [including blogs, journals and interviews with leading thinkers] that is also useful in identifying the trends and issues that may emerge over the coming years.”

Sir David says: “The two scans look at what trends are developing, what new issues may arise, and what events may surprise us – and the possible implications for us individually and collectively. They are not ‘predicting’ the future, rather setting out a broad range of different possibilities and challenging assumptions.”

Although the future is not predictable, “government can’t just sit back and wait for it to happen”, he says. “Government has to identify opportunities and risks at least five to 10 years ahead when making policy. It can then make decisions that might move us from an unfavourable to a favourable scenario.”

While still in the development stage, the horizon scans have already started to influence policy-making. They have, for example, aided the Health and Safety Executive in planning for the future of workplace health and safety, and the Treasury in writing its report, “Opportunities and Challenges for the UK:analysis for the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Re-view”, published last month.

Some private sector organisations such as Royal Dutch Shell, the oil company, are known for their work on the future but they tend to specialise in developing detailed scenarios rather than in horizon scanning across the board, Sir David says.

The Horizon Scanning Centre in the Office of Science and Technology will continue to refine the Sigma and Delta scans, incorporating feedback from inside and outside government.

It has given a further development contract to the new partnership of Outsights and Ipsos Mori with Imperial College London and Demos.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

*added by ShellNews.net

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