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OECD Secretary-General

Megatrends to 2050: What better policies for better lives?

 

Opening remarks by Angel Gurria,

Secretary General, OECD

Paris, 27 January 2016

(As prepared for delivery)

 

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

I am delighted to welcome you to the OECD to contemplate ‘The World in 2050’.

 

The five volume opus prepared by our guests is a towering contribution to thinking about the future, and includes a broad range of emerging economy perspectives. I am confident that it will provide abundant food for thought.

 

The book may look to the future, but it begins with the words “the world is in the midst of a historic transformation”. We are indeed confronting a catalogue of challenges and threats, some new, some not so new.

 

The global economy remains stuck in a low-growth trap, with poor growth expectations further depressing trade, investment, productivity and wages. A rise in populism, and a backlash against globalisation are threatening the foundations of our global economic system. Trust is rock bottom as inequality continues to rise. The threat of climate change remains catastrophic unless urgent action is implemented now.

 

Given these very pressing and very present challenges, it may seem paradoxical that we would gather today to discuss the world in 2050. But it is precisely because of the challenges that we face today that we need to be thinking ahead, so we are not caught by surprise, so we are not left behind, so we are not overwhelmed by successive crises we don’t fully understand.

 

Strategic foresight means better policies

 

Effective policy-making demands that we think about the future. There is more than one way to do that. Usually we think about the future in terms of forecasts or predictions based on current evidence and trends. Forecasts – economic, environmental, and many others – are one of the great strengths of the OECD, and help us to plan months and even years ahead.

 

But leading edge policy-making must also move beyond forecasting. We must also explore the unexpected. This is where strategic foresight comes in. Strategic foresight is the discipline that helps us to explore a range of plausible alternative futures and their implications. This includes scenarios that may seem unlikely or even far-fetched from our current perspective.

 

But who could have predicted the seismic shifts we saw in 2016? And if someone had predicted them, who would have believed them? What worked in the past doesn’t seem to be working any more. Prediction is getting much harder and letting us down more often. Time and time again we miss the signs of a crisis until it’s too late.

 

This is why we need strategic foresight! Foresight isn’t about getting the future right. Instead, it’s about questioning what we expect, and testing whether our hopes are realistic. By forcing us to test and contest our assumptions, foresight can help us to make better policy decisions today, and thereby build a better future.

 

OECD has made progress on foresight

 

At the OECD we are upgrading our strategic foresight capacities, with the strong support of our Member countries. Our Government Foresight Community is an epicentre for strategic foresight experts in national administrations. We are pooling our collective futures knowledge to enhance our work while also delivering insights for new inter-disciplinary and cross-sectoral projects. The insights generated have been used to inform new types of high-level conversations with Ministers.

 

We are complementing our traditional approaches and quantitative projections with foresight tools and hybrid methods.  For example, we have a set of archetype scenarios of the future global economy which we use in discussions. In particular, we explore megatrends through the categories of ‘people’, ‘planet’, ‘productivity’, and ‘polity’, highlighting many of the same issues raised in ‘The World in 2050’.

 

There are several foresight-based projects underway at the OECD including a discussion of long-term alternative scenarios in our ‘Trends Shaping Education’ report; horizon scanning for the indicators of the future in our ‘Entrepreneurship at a Glance’; and a discussion of the social factors driving the Next Production Revolution. Foresight will also be a central feature of our work on digitalisation and other key horizontal initiatives.

 

But we need to scale up strategic foresight even further

 

We need to keep building this capacity. None of us know what 2050 will bring, but one thing we know for sure is that it won’t be what we expect! So there is always more we can do to better prepare ourselves and our Members.

 

The OECD’s “21 for '21: A Proposal for Consolidation and Further Transformation of the OECD”, is a forward-looking agenda that addresses the challenges of today, while looking to the future. A future in which the OECD is even more impactful, inclusive and relevant. The New Approaches to Economic Challenges - OLD (NAEC) initiative has delivered results in upgrading our analytical frameworks, and is helping us redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the centre of governments’ efforts.

 

By strengthening our work in strategic foresight, we hope to make the OECD the go-to institution for identifying, anticipating and dealing with megatrends for the next half century. But in order to do this we need discussion and dialogue with YOU, the world’s leading foresight experts. This is why I am so enthusiastic about our conversation today. Our aim in this session, which I hope will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship with the Emerging Markets Forum is to engage with the insights in your book and push the discussion today even further. 

 

We particularly welcome the focus on emerging and developing economies because at the OECD we are keenly aware that emerging economies will be the drivers of a number of mega-trends – economic, demographic and environmental.

 

In the years leading up to 2050 we will likely see a major shift of economic balance towards emerging economies, particularly those in Asia, with the share in world GDP of non-OECD countries rising well beyond that of the current OECD. We are looking at a multi-polar world in which economic coordination is more complex, the number of key stakeholders more numerous, and the competing policy perspectives more diverse.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, thinking about the future requires courage. It means breaking through the “tragedy of horizons”, as Mark Carney has called our endemic short-termism.  It means stepping out of our comfort zones. It means questioning the unquestionable, thinking the unthinkable, and engaging with the unknown.

 

By engaging with multiple plausible futures, we are preparing ourselves for tomorrow. We are doing better than predicting the future: we are creating it. Thank you.

 

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