Policy Update 113

Application of Future Design to Policies: Insights from the practices adopting "Imaginary Future Generations"

HARA Keishiro
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

Significance of emerging practices adopting “Imaginary Future Generations” (Ministry of the Future)

Modern society faces long-term policy issues that transcend generations, such as climate change, resource and energy issues, fiscal problems, and infrastructure maintenance. These challenges represent sustainability issues in which the current generation’s decisions and actions exert an influence on future generations. Behind these issues is the fundamental problem that future generations that do not yet exist are unable to participate in today's decision-making. On the other hand, the present social system is not designed to reflect future generations’ interests or overcome intergenerational conflicts of interest when making decisions. In order to deal with the sustainability issues above and intergenerational conflicts of interest, new institutions and social systems are required to realize sustainable decision-making that takes the interests of future generations into account.

Future Design research has begun based on the recognition of these needs. Future Design refers to the praxis of creating futurability through designing social systems in order to overcome intergenerational conflicts (Saijo, 2020) . One such promising social system that has been proven to be effective is "Imaginary future generations (IFGs)." IFGs are stakeholders who are tasked with representing future generations while participating in decision-making and negotiation with other participants who represent the current generation. Therefore, IFGs are essentially a “Ministry of the Future.”. Various studies have been conducted to date, finding that considering present decisions from the perspective of future generations can control for myopic judgment and activate “futurability” (Saijo, 2020). Economic experiments (Kamijo et al., 2017) and large-scale questionnaire surveys have also clarified the effects and significance of the introduction of IFGs. Furthermore, real decision-making and vision design which adopts IFGs, as discussed later, have produced sustainable decisions that consider the preferences of future generations. In this article, I discuss the significance of adopting IFGs and consider the potential application of Future Design to policymaking, based on these past studies and practices.

Expansion of Future Design practices

Yahaba Town in Iwate Prefecture has become the first municipality to adopt IFGs in policy decision-making and consensus building processes. Originally, Yahaba Town implemented a futuristic initiative which introduced citizen participation in the development of a long-term water supply vision. In 2015, the town signed a joint research agreement with the center at Osaka University to proceed with Future Design. Over the course of a six-month practice discussion in FY2015, citizens were divided into current generation and IFGs groups (two current generation groups and two IFGs groups). These groups considered their respective plans for the revitalization of the town and finally introduced a process for building intergenerational consensus to work out the regional revitalization plan. The practice found that decision-making criteria were different between the current generation and IFGs groups and that the IFGs groups had a stronger incentive to transform society for the future (Hara et al., 2019). The IFGs groups considered the future of the town from the perspective of enhancing the sustainability of the town and made various proposals to effectively use local resources and strengths for new innovation. Furthermore, the groups tended to propose essential and original measures, rather than simply extensions of present measures, based on the goal of securing the interests of future generations. Interestingly, the current generation groups indicated their agreement with the ideas raised by the IFGs groups in a consensus-building session. The final consensus-building proposal included more than half of the measures originally proposed by the IFGs groups. Since beginning this practice, the town has continued the further promotion of the application of Future Design. In 2019, in order to incorporate Future Design into administrative actions and policymaking, the Yahaba Town Hall established a "Future Strategy Office" (upgraded to "Future Strategy Division" in 2023), applying Future Design to the formulation of the town's comprehensive development plan.

Since the practices began in Yahaba Town, various other municipalities have conducted Future Design practices. IFGs have been put into practice for a wide range of policy areas, such as urban planning, environmental planning, business improvement, work style reform, carbon neutrality policies, renewable energy introduction issues, and water environment issues. (In 2021, the Osaka University Graduate School of Engineering established the "Hara Research Base for Future Design”, under the Center of Excellence in Advanced Research, TechnoArena, a research system that bridges major fields of study, to promote Future Design research and practices through industry-academia-government collaboration. Industry-academia-government Future Design practice cases are introduced on its website. These practices also suggest that the consideration of the present situation from the perspective of future generations enables decisions to reflect the interests of both the current and future generations, rather than resulting in myopic judgments or decisions. It has also been suggested that the process of implementing IFGs will increase the perception of future risks and the shared awareness of future social goals among discussion participants (Hara et al., 2023a). As a result, various policy options that are more robust as seen from the long-term viewpoint are more likely to be envisioned and selected as appropriate policy approaches.

Future Design is being applied not only to these public policy fields, but also to the consideration of business and R&D strategies in industry. Organo Corporation, a comprehensive water engineering company, has become the first firm to incorporate Future Design into industrial R&D strategies. Several months of practicing the implementation of Future Design in R&D and business planning by the employees suggested that the adoption of IFGs in the deliberation of R&D and business planning could result in new directions for industrial technology innovation (Hara et al., 2023b). A questionnaire survey administrated to the participants in the practice session showed that by adopting IFGs, the participants placed less emphasis on costs, differentiation from other companies, and business models in determining directions for R&D and consideration of R&D projects than when the current generation’s perspective was used exclusively. Those criteria are typically assumed to be important for business strategies; however, when R&D projects are considered from the perspective of IFGs the importance of those criteria decreases, while still producing new technology and highly original innovation seeds. This is an interesting finding. By considering R&D projects from the perspective of future generations, Organo employees are believed to have used unprecedented criteria for innovation and delved deeper into the form that new technology innovation should take. This suggests that the consideration of R&D projects from the perspective of future generations through a Future Design practice may allow for new directions of industrial technology innovation. Future Design practices at other companies have produced similar outcomes.

Application of Future Design to assessment of administrative planning ― A new initiative in Yahaba Town

Yahaba Town has been working on a new initiative to apply Future Design to policies since 2023. The initiative attempts to apply Future Design to the assessment of administrative plans. Although the assessment and improvement of administrative plans is important for administrative organizations, there is very little evidence that effective assessment of such plans from the perspective of long-term sustainability is a common practice. Conventional assessment from the present perspective may fail to adequately assess the impact of existing plans and policies on society over the long term. As long as the present perspective is merely extended into the future, it may not be easy to identify essential issues or propose improvements in a manner that forces a reversal of policy. However, the introduction of new mechanisms, such as the adoption of IFGs, is expected to make it possible to identify potential issues and risks, future sources of value and needs from a longer-term perspective and to propose measures for improving the assessment and subsequent sustainability of policies. This is a hypothesis suggested by previous Future Design studies and practice sessions.

Against this background, Yahaba Town conducted a Future Design practice session with the participation of municipal officials from August to November 2023 to assess the master plan for urban planning and propose measures for the revision of the master plan. A total of 20 officials from nine divisions of the municipal government participated in the practice session, holding a total of four meetings. Specifically, the officials were divided into four groups: two current generation groups and two IFGs groups. For the first three meetings, each of the four groups separately assessed the master plan and proposed measures for improving the plan. There were two fourth and final intergenerational negotiation sessions in which one current generation group and one IFGs group paired up and presented assessment results and policy proposals to each other. Then, they built consensus until they were able to propose five major measures for revising the master plan for urban planning. In particular, they focused on trade-off issues, such as urban development and gaps between urban and rural areas, which are viewed as difficult to resolve solely from the perspective of the current generation. From the perspectives of both current and future generations, they comprehensively assessed the master plan and proposed measures to improve the plan.

The results of the Future Design practice indicate differences between current and future generation groups related to various items, such as urban planning issues, assessment criteria, and proposed measures. For example, the IFGs groups depicted the future society of Yahaba Town in 2050 in more detail, clarified the issues of the current plan by looking directly at rural labor shortages and other potential and essential issues for Yahaba Town, and proposed specific measures for assessing and improving the master plan. Due to its success, the first attempt to apply Future Design to the assessment of an administrative plan can become the basis for the development of a new methodology for introducing the viewpoint of future generations to assess administrative plans from the perspective of sustainability.

In the face of various challenges involving intergenerational issues, it may be important for local and national governments to assess administrative plans from the perspective of sustainability or long-term trends. The application of Future Design to the assessment of administrative plans allows administrative organizations to determine and assess essential issues and introduce new policy directions from the perspective of future generations while building on existing administrative plans. In this sense, the assessment of administrative plans may be a domain where the application of Future Design to policies is relatively easy. This practice, in which officials from multiple divisions of an administrative organization participated in cross-division discussions, will become a leading case for expanding the potential of Future Design in its application to policies and administrative plans in the future.

Photo: Yahaba Town officials practicing the application of Future Design to the assessment of a master plan for urban planning (a consensus-building session between the current generation groups and the IFGs groups (those wearing yellow happi coats))

Toward application of future design to policies

Amid important issues that will affect future generations, such as climate change and fiscal issues, it is important and urgent for policy planning to introduce mechanisms to realize decision-making and administrative plans that secure sustainability. The process of incorporating IFGs, which has been studied and applied in various ways, is being clarified as an effective social device for guiding long-term decision-making. In order to formulate policies that secure sustainability, national and local governments should stimulate discussions on how the process can be used in the future toward public implementation. In order to promote such discussions, it will be important for industry, academia, and government sectors to be connected with each other based on ongoing Future Design practices and research, to build a platform for sharing methods to implement Future Design, their effects, future research agendas, etc., and to learn from each other.

Website for introducing industry-academia-government future design practices

November 17, 2023
>> Original text in Japanese

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January 23, 2024