What Does Foresight Work Look Like in a Pandemic?

By Liana Tang

In December 2019, news of a deadly virus was trickling out of Wuhan, China. The world took some time to process the reality and severity of the virus as it spread rapidly: our global interconnectedness spurred exponential spread across the globe, sparing few countries. In March 2020 alone, Singapore saw weekly average cases rise from under 10 to over 50 per day. Globally, we saw the first thousands of deaths from COVID-19. That month, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Singapore’s public health response had been ramping up in the early days of the pandemic, riding on contingency plans and infrastructure developed as part of lessons learnt from the SARS outbreak in 2004, caused also by a coronavirus. Yet we would eventually learn that COVID-19 was a more infectious variant, and bore characteristics that Singapore was not as prepared for — mask-wearing for instance was key due to the high rate of asymptomatic transmission, and mask production centres around the world saw record demand, making maintenance of Singapore’s own stock of masks difficult. A more complex and fast-paced public health response was necessary, especially as hitherto unthinkable measures, such as border closures, had to be implemented. Complicated repatriation plans and sudden supply chain disruptions added to the strain on society, public services and businesses alike.

In the months following March 2020, the Public Service came under significant strain to keep up with effective policy and public health responses in a chaotic environment. Every day, the situation evolved quickly — the number of cases in neighbouring countries, the labour shortage in critical points of our supply chains, border closures that other countries implemented with short notice, panic buying and the struggle that local logistics networks experienced in restocking essential goods quickly. The Public Service, like many elsewhere, had to “forward plan” on a very short time horizon, feeling its way in the dark.

CSF’S COVID-19 WORK

In March 2020, CSF set out to adapt our foresight workplan to cater to the COVID-19 situation. We wanted to help our colleagues navigate the chaotic COVID-19 environment. We set out on producing research and facilitating policy discussions that would help the system anticipate new shocks, consider signals of change and opportunities, and avoid the unintended consequences of quick policy moves. We approached the COVID-19 work in several ways.

Using foresight tools to have policy discussions

CSF designed and facilitated policy discussions using tools such as the Futures Wheel, where plausible future events arising from COVID-19 were used to brainstorm higher order implications. Surprising higher order events and multiplier nodes were identified for policy planning.

Providing a systematic way of looking at change — identifying “shifts”

To help policy makers observe the evolving environment in a more systematic way, CSF introduced a frame for distilling signals of change. We organised information into “shifts”, which described how several driving forces were changing in pace, texture and uncertainty. This was presented to the policy community to facilitate discussions on stress testing current responses and identifying gaps. The shifts discussions were also adapted to several policy platforms, as we partnered with agencies that were keen to pursue more in-depth discussions to inform planning for the coming year and beyond. Other policy arms used the shifts as a reference frame to formulate their own policy agendas. (An abridged version of the shifts, How COVID-19 is Reshaping the World, is in Foresight 2021, CSF’s biennial publication, pp. 42–28)

Deep diving SPOTLIGHTs: Identifying smaller shifts in quick and dirty deep dives

In a rapidly evolving environment, signals of change around the world served as useful reference points for Singapore — from innovations in service delivery and safe management, to cautionary tales in a range of domains such as cybersecurity, data privacy, and new vulnerable groups. CSF conducted deep dives into specific strained domain areas, bringing in external perspectives, and contextualising them to Singapore, to spark conversations about these domains. We called these deep dives COVID-19 SPOTLIGHTs. We produced these fortnightly and disseminated them to the Public Service leadership and the broader policy community. By November, as the COVID-19 situation stablised, CSF ceased producing SPOTLIGHTs. (Seven such SPOTLIGHT issues have been adapted and published in Foresight 2021, pp. 53–72)

APPROACHING OUR COVID-19 FORESIGHT WORK

Embarking on pandemic foresight work was challenging. While the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March 2020, the world was still in sense-making mode, producing so much information that it was difficult to cut through speculation and uncertainty in order to unearth useful signals and analyses. We approached this challenge in several ways:

Look back to look forward

In the practice of foresight, a good understanding of history is helpful. We set aside time to look into the impact of past crises, including past pandemics, and identified major changes arising from them. History teaches us broad lessons that can help us frame today’s problems. In addition, a scan of our past work in driving forces research across decades of scenario planning also provided a useful reference for where big shifts were fairly enduring, even if textures of change evolved over time. (Our look back to past crises, Four Lessons from History, is in Foresight 2021, pp. 39–41)

Scan and interrogate

We encountered some major info-overload during this time — even credible news sources were inundating us with signals and analyses every other day, and it was challenging to tell hype from reality, noise from valuable insight. We narrowed our sources to several reliable news sources and periodicals, and used our preliminary “shifts” frame as a way to organise our resources. Our in-house information management capability came in helpful here. We then set aside time for the team to make sense of the research we were reading, and to interrogate each others’ analyses. These exercises also served to stress-test our organisational frame. With this discipline in place, major shifts and signals were distilled with some rigour, before being polished for publication in a matter of weeks.

Community of practice was mutually reinforcing

To ensure we did not have too many blind spots, it was important that we workshopped our work with a community of practice and with thought leaders. Several platforms were important for this, such as our Public Service futures community, which we convene in regular Sandbox events.

International counterparts were also another key resource for exchanging notes on each others’ analyses of the COVID-19 situation, as well as our approach to foresight during the pandemic. This mutually reinforced our foresight work — several Sandbox community members also workshopped their COVID-19 work, and the insights from these discussions added value to other members’ work.

Many Public Service agencies embarked on their own COVID-19 foresight work. Here are some of their stories.

Economic Development Board

Soon after the global outbreak started, we had to take a step back to separate signal from noise and try to make sense of the external world. We rapidly landed on three questions of interest to guide our foresight efforts:

· What assumptions underpinning the success of EDB’s work may no longer hold in a post-COVID world?

· What threats and opportunities should EDB respond to, and what should we do differently?

· When should we act?

Having defined what we were interested in, we undertook the following to translate our sensing and foresight work into concrete action:

· We developed hypotheses addressing the questions above.

· We leveraged on the existing sensing and scanning platforms, channels, and processes across the organisation, undertaking directed sensing to test our hypotheses, and to constantly update and challenge our view of the world.

· We socialised our thinking within the organisation, and incorporated our recommendations into our internal planning processes, including the setting of corporate priorities and workplans.

The true test of our work is the extent to which it influences behaviour and drives change in the organisation. Some of the outcomes we contributed to include the commissioning of new strategy workstreams that are still ongoing (for example, reviewing our hub strategy in light of COVID), as well as the setting of organisational priorities around seizing specific opportunities (for example, investments arising from supply chain diversification).

Singapore Tourism Board

In March 2020, WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. One of the task forces set up to deal with the impact of COVID-19 was the Economics Opportunities Task Force Tourism Sub-Group. It was formed to transcend the immediate firefighting and proactively reimagine travel and tourism to futureproof our industries.

In the midst of the crisis, we conducted in-depth interviews with 34 key business leaders across many sub-sectors, ranging from tourism industries like the hotels and cruise industries to non-tourism players like insurance and big tech firms. The conversations were inspiring and hopeful, and we identified economic opportunities based on key consumer and business shifts. These were distilled into recommendations that were verified and validated with our interviewees and industry partners. Many of these recommendations have since been implemented. They include a concerted effort to stimulate Singapore’s domestic demand to sustain tourism businesses as global travel restrictions continued, and a calibrated approach towards reopening such as piloting cruise and MICE events. Mid- to longer-term opportunities were also proposed in the areas of digitalisation and regionalisation to capture growth and thrive.

SPORTSG

When COVID-19 hit Singapore, sports facilities and activities came to a halt. For an agency advocating sport to achieve personal, social, and national outcomes, the impact of COVID-19 was deep and far-reaching. By June 2020, we concluded that COVID-19 was not going away quickly. There was an urgency to understand the plausible ways our operating environment might shift, review existing strategies, and determine potential implications for SportSG and thesporting ecosystem.

After identifying emerging shifts from an environment scan using the PESTLE (political, economic, social, technological, legal, environmental) framework with insights from CSF’s COVID-19 SPOTLIGHT pieces, as well as primary and secondary research, we determined critical uncertainties associated with each shift observed. These uncertainties were validated with CSF before we developed and prioritised scenarios to design our strategies for the next two years.

This exercise and the inputs from CSF were invaluable in generating new lines of inquiry that led to updated corporate priorities, strategies and innovations to bring sport back safely.

APPROACHING ENDEMIC COVID-19

By early 2021, there was reason to be optimistic about vaccine distribution. It became increasingly clear that the public health approach to COVID-19 had to move to a phase where the virus was endemic and accepted as such. This had several implications, especially so for a small country with many unique constraints. The transition to endemic COVID-19 was not without challenge, such as taking a measured approach to reopening of borders and travel, managing the need for continued safe management measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing, and anticipating the persistence of some pandemic practices like online events or working from home. It was also important to consider how to communicate these expectations to a war-weary public. CSF reviewed the research done in 2020, considered the main policy challenges of a transition towards endemic COVID-19, and in April 2021, convened policy roundtables around what we termed Long COVID. These discussions contributed to the identification of major policy challenges in managing the transition into endemic COVID-19.

REFLECTIONS

There were several challenges and learning points from doing foresight in a pandemic.

Being nimble was key

CSF had to quickly sense-make, reprioritize work, and get up to speed with the policy concerns of the day. We also had our own resource constraints as some members of the team pitched in to assist in COVID-related operations during this time. As our audience was in crisis mode, they had to read work that used current policy vocabulary and which had direct relevance to their concerns. CSF’s location in the centre of government and within in the Strategy Group was instrumental in this.

Code-switching time horizons was necessary

CSF traditionally operates in the mid- to long-term, scanning for emerging issues and extrapolating into the 10 to 15 year time horizon. We had to switch to producing work that spoke to the very near term, looking ahead no further than six months to a year. As we worked on Long COVID, our time horizon was stretched only slightly to two to three years.

Managing “noise” to pick out useful insights was challenging

We found that traditional human capacities were important to navigate information overload. Digital tools were easily overwhelmed and the novelty of the subject meant there was little knowledge of how to filter information more meaningfully. We relied on our professional librarian and the diversity and discipline of the CSF team to cut through the noise and make sense of the COVID-19 environment.

Foresight networks helped bring further rigour to the work

Our relentless capability building efforts over the years, both internal and external to government, paid off. It was important that as we sense-made in an uncertain and chaotic environment, we had reliable networks to consult. The internal Sandbox community convened several times in 2020 to build off each others’ work, and to share insights. We also consulted local think tanks and futures units in institutions like the National University of Singapore. International counterparts such the OECD’s Strategic Foresight team and the UK’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre were also extremely helpful.

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Liana Tang was Deputy Director (Special Projects) at the Centre for Strategic Futures.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.

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