You heard that right. Your U.S. government is thinking big, bold, and beyond 2050. Across culture, science, tech, business, labor and education, the intelligence, national security, and civilian communities are coming together in focused forums to tee up key questions about the future: How do we deal with security in a networked society? How do we build the cognitive capacity to deal with technological complexity? How can government use gamification for self-directed training? What does it mean that technologies such as 3D printing and additive manufacturing are empowering the individual over organizations? How do we address these issues as they will impact the workforce longer term?
In the first-ever U.S.-based Future Work/Tech 2050 Workshop, government, think tanks, and industry dispensed with the present to focus on the future. In the course of a day, they explored new ideas – from repurposing libraries, national parks, and museums to serve as digital citizen connection points to bridging pockets of innovation that would lash together sparks of government brilliance and put it to work, to better understanding what it will take to lead in the development of international norms and standards around technology. These ideas teased out some semblance of the shape government could take in the next several decades. But perhaps even more important was the next step – digging into the seams to understand what decisions and choices the government needs to make now to better prepare for its new contour and geometry.
What is this niche, forward-thinking group? The Federal Foresight Community of Interest (FFCOI) is a forum based on the discipline and application of foresight, which provides an opportunity for feds, think tanks, and industry to network, learn, analyze, develop, and communicate foresight methods and best practices to decision-makers and strategic planners. It fosters the work of foresight programs across the federal government, including work led by Veterans Affairs (VA), the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), and many others.
The FFCOI, currently co-chaired by Eric Popiel, USCG, and Joe Moore, VA, recently partnered with The Millennium Project, an independent nonprofit global participatory futures research think tank that operates across 63 nodes around the world to conduct foresight studies, workshops, symposiums, and advanced training to identify long-range challenges and strategies. FFCOI joined in The Millennium Project’s Future Work/Tech 2050 Scenarios and Strategies initiative to conduct a workshop this spring to demonstrate the value of foresight in the federal government, to promote cross-agency connectivity and leadership engagement, and to foster cross-agency research and collaboration. For review prior to the workshop, the 60 participants were provided three global work/tech scenarios of different ways the world could unfold by 2050. What resulted? Two significant things: forward-thinking solutions addressing long-range issues that will be added to a list of suggestions generated from similar workshops in 18 other countries conducted by The Millennium Project, and recommendations from the workshop that will be reflected in the policies, strategies, culture, and operations of the U.S. government.
Given the reality of our world today, many of the recommendations were considered through the lens of how to increase the security and resilience of our increasingly networked nation. The group debated how technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, and robotic process automation – while creating new opportunities and efficiencies – could also create new risks to critical infrastructure. Acknowledgment of these risks spurred the group to tee up a number of recommendations to help shape future science and technology investment, from re-establishing an Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), to creating a version of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in each agency, to promoting public technology engagement and awareness opportunities through storytelling, gamification, and hackathons. But to do any of this, building a culture of innovation would be a critical factor. And that would require operating from a future-think mindset.
To be expected, the visions of the future discussed across the day were not all rose-colored. Asking organizations to innovate can be like asking them to work against the system, because their natural tendency can be self-preservation, risk aversion, and incrementalism. Often when playing “what-if’s” we choose to stick to the guardrails, feeling that we can’t possibly understand or plan around all of the complexities and variations in the years ahead, and therefore the safest route in planning is to think along a linear path (i.e., more of the same) to 2050.
But at the end of the day what rose to the surface were key trends in how we as a society are connecting, learning, and creating that could significantly shape our future. People are looking to connect in new ways that will require multiple layers of trust and security. Government will need to prioritize these new methods of “connection” as critical infrastructure and understand and remove any friction points across the new systems and ecologies that result. With rapid advancement in technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, people will move from the idea of working to creating, and new work roles and new disciplines will emerge. These roles will be distributed and more flexible in time and space, as it will be easier to tap specialized sources of services and products around the world through the gig economy and start-up cultures.
Driven by new business models, these service communities will converge and synchronize multiple technologies to produce exponential results. At the same time, these emergent technologies will challenge our traditional cognitive ability to synthesize information and could require new data sourcing, knowledge transfer, and learning methods provided by next-gen versions of virtual reality, augmented reality, and gamification. Despite the goodness of this invention and innovation, challenges to trust will continue and checks on the entry of new actors into networks will require multiple layers of provenance and authenticity. More than at any point in history, we will look hard at our values and prioritize ethical design and codes of conduct, potentially rewriting the rules of the game across policy, regulation, and controls.
Given the countless predictions about our complex and uncertain future, it is clear that the consequences of not thinking about the future would cripple our progress. Ultimately, the government will need to understand and manage the speed of change, despite ever-changing and evolving influences and distribution of power, knowledge, and capability. To be successful, it will require that all of government think harder, dig deeper, and focus as #OneGov. Ultimately, our government will succeed when it thinks #FutureForward.