Action 2030 Blog

Better than a crystal ball: In Egypt, co-creating futures through strategic foresight

A variety of cartoon people interconnected via idea bubbles in the shape of a brain all arising from an Ipad.
Photo: UN Egypt

One piece of technology almost any economic planner would have wished for in 2020 is a crystal ball. That’s because traditional tools like previous years’ projections, trends and models have been left in the gutter in the wake of a brutal pandemic that has paralyzed the global economy.  

Egypt’s economy has been no exception, but the country does have a crystal ball of sorts. It’s a way of exploring the future by looking within. It’s a planning exercise called “strategic foresight,” and it brings together stakeholders in a given field to map out possible futures.  

In Egypt, COVID-19 posed uncertainties on the future of manufacturing sector, both in terms of new challenges and opportunities. In search of ways to point the sector in a good direction, the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development teamed up with the United Nations in Egypt (led by UN RCO, UNIDO and ITC), and other partners to organize a strategic foresight exercise on ‘COVID-19 and the future of manufacturing in Egypt’ in June-July 2020. 

At a time when most forecasts are gloomy or uncertain, strategic foresight helps users understand the future as a map, or series of maps, we create. There is never a single, probable destination but always multiple possibilities to shape the future. Together with a strategic foresight thought leader (Prof. Sohail Inayatullah), diverse pool of industry leaders (led by the Federation of Egyptian Industries) and the development community, the government sat down to use this reflective moment to look backward and forward.  

The results 

First the group looked at past assumptions of the future—or “used futures” in the lingo of the exercise—that were no longer relevant for industrial development. Such “used futures” included clinging to traditional product manufacturing like garments and food, looking at informality as a burden, low-skilled-labour-intensive manufacturing techniques, working in offices instead of remotely, red tape and other regulatory procedures for business registration, government-as-producer models, and too many one-stop-shop solutions.  

Then, with the support of UN experts, the stakeholders did some “horizon-scanning,” considering emerging trends in manufacturing and trade, identifying drivers and opportunities to diversify away from the old manufacturing mentalities. Working with UN experts and real data they developed four divergent scenarios for growth in manufacturing and tapping the unexplored export potential of the country.  

But this was no wishful-thinking exercise, as it also involved a technique called “back-casting,” in which participants worked backwards from the possible futures to determine which actions or policies would enable each of them to emerge. With this the group was able to come up with a “preferred future” scenario along with recommendations in key areas to harness the opportunities of the 4th industrial revolution and circular economy in the manufacturing sector.  

These recommendations have made it way to the highest levels of Government and are currently being reviewed for action. The initial success of the manufacturing-sector exercise has now prompted the UN and the government to do a series of foresight exercises to inform  the next Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework 2023-2027. 

Strategic foresight has been practiced for decades, especially in certain risk-heavy sectors of industry or government such as the military or disaster response. The method enables planning with lots of contingencies in mind and a greater consciousness of internal assumptions, as well as a keen attention to emerging signs of change in the environment.  

As the Egypt example shows, strategic foresight is neither a one-off exercise nor a silver bullet. The exercise does not identify a single solution but rather generate innovative ideas by bringing together diverse and non-traditional stakeholders. Supported by data, strategic foresight looks at the future as a system we can interact with, only without the silos or blinds that limit our creativity and innovation. It’s better than a crystal ball because it always focuses on possibilities and the potential for change rather than one predetermined way forward.  

And it’s no secret anymore. We look forward to seeing how our Egyptian government counterparts can build on this work as an anticipatory form of policy- and decision-making for 21st-century challenges. We also look forward to hearing from other UN country teams interested in taking up this practice in strategic planning and analysis.