Future Design: Toward policymaking reflecting upon the interests of future generations

HARA Keishiro
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

Overcoming intergenerational conflicts of interest

To resolve such various problems as climate change, energy issues, and increases in social security expenditure and government debts, it is essential to deal with them from a long-term perspective. In essence, those problems represent intergenerational conflicts of interest, and near-sighted responses and decisions by the current generation of people could bring a considerable disadvantage to future generations. As unborn generations have neither a say nor way of negotiating with the current generation, it is no wonder that decisions made now are based only on their own interests. In order to overcome those challenges and create a sustainable society that lasts into the future, it is necessary to overcome the near sightedness that is inherent in human beings and develop mechanisms and institutions that can complement markets and other social systems that are not necessarily equipped with the function of allocating resources to future generations (Saijo, 2017).

Against the backdrop of such awareness, a study is underway on "future design" that aims to design visions of a future society through decision making representing the interests of future generations from their point of view. In addition to experts in a variety of fields including economics, engineering, psychology, and neuroscience; policymakers and practitioners, including local government officials, are partnering in this study and engaging in public participation debate to promote interdisciplinary research and concrete policymaking. On January 27-28, 2018, the first Future Design Workshop was held, bringing together experts and practitioners involved in the study on future design for sharing up-to-date information and exchanging opinions (Kobayashi, 2018).

The core concept of future design is to introduce a stakeholder group representing the interests of future generations into the decision-making forum of current generations. This group is called a "imaginary future generation." Under the future design approach, the current generation group and the imaginary generation group resolve intergenerational conflicts of interests, coordinate their interests, and design visions and make decisions in ways that explicitly reflect the interests of future generations by engaging in negotiations and consensus building with each other.

Will the imaginary future generation function properly?

How will the introduction of the imaginary future generation into the decision-making process affect the final decisions of the inter-generation group comprised of both current and imaginary future generations? In this respect, as various verification programs, including experiments and debates involving residents, are underway, the specific effects are gradually being confirmed. The results of the experiments showed that the imaginary future generation that represents the interests of future generations plays an important role in the inter-generation group's decision making. For example, in an economic experiment using a sample group of people, the inter-generation group is capable of making decisions that leave resources to future generations at the expense of the interests of the current generation (Kamijo et al, 2017).

Meanwhile, our research team examined the roles and functions of the imaginary future generation through public participation debate sponsored by local governments (Hara and Saijo, 2017; Hara et al. 2017). In this study, we held a future design debate attended by residents in the town of Yahaba in Iwate prefecture in FY2015 and FY2016. In a series of vision design debates held in FY2015, residents were divided into the current generation group and the imaginary future generation group. As the first step, these groups repeatedly held debates individually in order to map out the vision of the town in 2060 and conduct policy planning for the town development. In the final stage, the current and imaginary future generation groups together reproduced the process of negotiation and consensus building. In this debate experiment, various points were made clear, including the following:

  • The imaginary future generation tends to propose very unique and concrete visions compared with the current generation group.
  • There is a significant difference between the two groups in terms of thinking pattern and judgment criteria.
  • It is possible that the current generation group will develop awareness of the viewpoint of future generations through future design debate.
  • Many visions and policies that were not developed during vision debate within the current generation group alone were ultimately adopted through the process of consensus building between the two groups.

In other words, it is important that the introduction of a group representing future generations brings a significant change to the results of decision making reflecting their interests. Moreover, the experiment showed that the experience of simulating the future generation role changes people's mindsets. Interviews held with people who simulated the future generation role immediately after the debate indicated the possibility that they developed a broader viewpoint that looked at their situations both at present and in the future, and made decisions from that viewpoint (Nakagawa et al, 2017).

Toward social implementation of future design

The above is an example of examination of the effects and possibilities of the introduction of the imaginary future generation. In addition, researchers in various fields are examining the significance and impact of the introduction of the imaginary future generation on the final decision-making process and the significance of changes in decision making through field experiments and practical activities conducted from various interdisciplinary viewpoints. There are also moves to apply the future design approach to actual policymaking and designing of future visions. The aforementioned town of Yahaba is planning to apply the future design approach to comprehensive town planning, which it will commence in FY2018. Another municipal government has appointed a group of personnel representing future generations in preparation for the formulation of a long-term vision of urban infrastructure, including a waterworks system, and has started an experimental and embryonic initiative to present visions through consensus building between current- and future-generation administrators. Moreover, some researchers are considering the possibility of establishing new administrative organizations such as a "ministry of the future," "department of the future," and "office of the future," in order to create an administrative function that ensures a policymaking process oriented to the interests of future generations. It is possible to give such organizations a function of implementing "future assessment" that qualitatively and quantitatively assesses how various policies will affect future generations.

Naturally, there are many points that must be examined in detail in preparation for such planned social implementation of future design. Among the various points to be considered are: through what process and method should the people who simulate the imaginary future generation role be selected; what powers and responsibilities should be assigned to the imaginary future generation in actual policy planning; and what qualities administrators serving in a department of the future or an office of the future—if such organizations are to be established—should be required to possess. As was mentioned earlier, at the local government level, experimental initiatives have already been launched, so the twin engine of such pioneering real world initiatives and theoretical research will drive the evolution of future design. Collaboration between experts, policymakers, and residents is the key to promoting study on future design and social implementation, so it is indispensable to deepen practical research programs involving these various players in concrete policy fields.

March 22, 2018

May 8, 2018