The Dearth of Foresight Analysis in Sri Lanka By Ruwanthi Jayasekara Research Assistant- INSSSL, Secretary- Millennium Project (Sri Lanka)


Foresight analysis dates back to World War II when the US military first developed analytics to anticipate possible futures. The initial emphasis was on possible scenarios that could influence/affect the military domain.

The field of foresight has received increasing prominence by the developed and advanced economies since the 2000s as the states face off a set of new and old, and traditional and non-traditional threats.   As a result, states have mobilized tools for foresight analysis. It is identified as an emerging academic field with the development of science and technology that have impacted in complex relations of every state.

Foresight analysis is not about what the future will be. It's rather a strategic tool in planning possible alternatives for the future and visualizing their outcomes.[1] According to Nyiri, foresight analysis is "an effective policymaking tool aimed at developing a collective learning platform with permanent communication among business, academic, governmental and other social actors".[2]

It is through foresight that we look at 10 years, 20 years from now. It helps us to detect extremist threats to our country, the impact of climate change, sustaining democracy for another 10 years, waste management and all the domestic and international issues we are to face. By visualizing the outcomes, we are aware of possible alternatives to the future and thereby implement the solutions in order to minimize the possible future chaos. All these issues, if ignored, are possible national security threats. Extremism proved to us the gravity of it and therefore it is time to implement foresight and address the issues of climate change, illegal drugs and waste management before they reach the climax and become national security threats.

Unfortunately, the government has not been implementing strategic foresight analysis. Even though foresight analysis has already been introduced to Sri Lanka, it is little known. The reason behind this is, it is utilized only by the private sector. By framing the domain, scanning the current trends, envisioning the future, the private sector has implemented their action plans. Unfortunately, however, there has not been a recognizable implementation of strategic foresight by the state. Collaboration and knowledge have not been transferred to the public sector. Foresight cannot be limited to simple 5-year plans. It is more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.[3] It underlies the idea that foresight is expertise which will need to face unprecedented events, contradict existing values if needed, validate hypotheses, rely on public-private partnership and vision alternatives for future etc. Therefore, strategic foresight depends on individuals, policymakers, organizations, industry and government. However, at least one of these actors should be engaging in it in a way that Sri Lanka will accelerate towards better goals in foresight. Successful foresight in government can empower the citizens.

Taking a case study from Singapore, successful foresight analysis has been implemented by the state. This could be one reason for Singapore emerging as an economic giant. Singapore has been engaging in foresight analysis since the1980s within the Ministry of Defence by "generating narratives of the future to imagine how the world may evolve and what problems, challenges and opportunities could occur".[4] Later it was transferred to the Prime Minister's Office, where foresight was reformed. Since then, Public Service for the 21st Century (PS21) Movement and the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) programme were established and especially centres, units for foresight analysis were opened up within government departments. Centre for Strategic Futures; a strategy group in Prime Minister's office conducts foresight conferences, round table discussion on possible futures in different domains such as political, economic, social and cultural, facilitates meeting from scholars from other countries, nurture public servants in the field of foresight, publish research papers and many more. This implies the fact that Singapore is financially stable and therefore has the potential to investing foresight. At the same time, they have utilized the potential to maximize their benefits. These actions of the government have been a stepping stone in implementing the plans for possible future, developing in domains of politics, economy, culture and society and ultimately empowering citizens. These have further made Singapore strengthen its stance as a hub.

In the case of Sri Lanka, all this time we have been blind to foresight analysis, with or without purpose. As Fuerth says, we belong to the government that has been unaware of "the longer-term implications of its decisions, slow to detect the onset of major defects in policy and inattentive to its best options until they have been allowed to slide by".[5] In a comparative analysis, two main issues are visible in the context of Sri Lanka. First and foremost availability of resources lies a key variable for the successful implementation of foresight. Secondly, the capacity of the government either to gear up projects or cooperate with the private sector to bridge the gap. For example, in order to execute a precise waste management system, refraining from collecting polythene would not be a solution. Eco-friendly industry should be incentivized and the state should partner up with the private sector to innovate supportive technology to achieve the ultimate goal of finding a solid answer to the question of waste management. Foresight tools could be utilized to analyze the current trends of polythene usage, available alternatives, affordable technology to go eco-friendly, the process of partnership with the private sector, action plan from domestic level to state level in order to go 100% polythene free in 10 years.

In this sense, out of different categories of foresight, participatory foresight suits Sri Lanka the best. Because it is "based upon the originally ideological (100% polythene free and no extremism etc) but progressively practical argument that whoever has a stake and a role in the realization of a particular future".[6]

 It is suggested for Sri Lanka to have a de-centralized foresight model, maximizing the benefits with the cooperation with potential institutions. It's never too late, even if Sri Lanka initialize participatory foresight today, to reduce the existing and upcoming threats. It's never too late to take examples from Singapore and learn the strategic importance of foresight which could prevail in many upcoming national security threats. It'll forever be late if foresight analysis is ignored today.

The writer is a Research Assistant of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL), National Security Think Tank under the Ministry of Defence. The opinion expressed in this article are her own and not necessarily reflective of the INSSSL.

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