Using Future Literacy in Norwegian Research and Innovation Policy

Thinking & Analysis

The reorientation of research and innovation policy towards societal challenges has led to a need for futures literacy in policy making. The Research Council of Norway, The University of Stavanger, The Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education and the company Fremtenkt are experimenting with new types of anticipation practices and leadership. 

A reorientation towards societal challenges

There has been a significant reorientation of research and innovation policy development worldwide. Politicians and policy makers are increasingly making decisions on the basis of what is needed “out there”, instead of thinking of science and industrial innovation as engines of growth that will deliver wealth and prosperity by themselves, as long as there is sufficient funding.

The strong attention towards environmental and societal challenges – exemplified by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – has contributed to this reorientation.
Stuck in the past

However, policy makers worldwide, including in Norway, are struggling with finding ways to meet this reorientation with appropriate measures and instruments. The problem is not that they are unfamiliar with targeted and strategically oriented funding of research and innovation. Norwegian policy makers have long traditions for supporting such programs and instruments, but measures have often been based on a linear understanding of innovation processes: public money is put into the relevant research and innovation institutions and one hopes innovations will materialize!

Many of the major decisions regarding such funding are left to the scientists or the industrialists. Many of them are, after all, active members of the relevant expert committees, boards and decision-making institutions.

The overall ideological framework has been that the market knows best, or that scientists will produce the best results if left to their own devices/decide by themselves.

The fundamental problem with this “fund and forget” regime is that it does not create the conditions for open deliberation about the potential for negative effects resulting from innovation. As the science and innovation system is understood as something that exists outside the economy, delivering ideas, products and innovation into society, it becomes easy to think of ethics, responsibility and sustainability as factors that should only be considered after the product, process or service has been delivered. By that time, however, it may be too late.

Several kinds of lock-in

Furthermore, the ministries and agencies have established practices based on New Public Management approaches. Management by objectives is not detrimental to challenge oriented policy making in and for itself. The goal is, after all, to give institutions more freedom to make strategic decisions when needed. Still, there is a tendency for governance to target existing indicators, statistics that were established to measure the effectiveness of a system set up a long time ago. They were set up to solve the problems of the past.

All these factors lead to several kinds of lock-in. The systems for funding science and innovation reward those who have already built the capacity for “scientific excellence” or “world leading innovation”. They are often very good at solving problems within and for the existing system, but do not necessarily deliver new solutions to new problems. Nor do they give input to the kind of systemic change that is needed when you face unsustainable systems of production, consumption and trade or oppressive beliefs causing social marginalization and inequality.

Furthermore, the understandable focus on predictability and responsibility found among civil servants does not necessarily lead to creativity and innovation. Their need to deliver within their own area of responsibility – their silo –makes it hard to ensure the necessary interaction between various policy areas and institutions. We see a similar tendency in science, where the gospel of publish or perish weakens transdisciplinary research.

We need creative leaders

This fragmentation of the decision processes also makes it hard to develop creative, innovative and future oriented leaders within academia, industry and in policy institutions. There must be a balance between predictability and creativity, for sure, but these machine-like models of learning and production tips the balance in favor of predictability. There is too little room for play, experimentation and thinking outside the box.

This makes it much harder for all of them to handle the unexpected, being those concrete challenges – like Covid-19 – or big systemic shifts, like climate change and the polarization of politics.

Insight into the system as a whole

Policies, science and innovation are systems which are set up to prepare for the future. After all, science and innovation are about producing new “things” and policy makers are supposedly to work towards making the world a better place for all, in the future.

Still, scientists and industrialists rarely reflect on the wider effects their inventions may have on society as a whole. Policy makers have a tendency of seeing the future as a better version of the past. Prognoses and forecasting are useful tools, but they are not good at predicting the unpredictable.

The coronavirus pandemic has made 2020 a challenging year for all of us, but one good thing may come out of it: an increasing awareness about the need for new ways of addressing the future. The Covid-19 crisis could have been predicted. Indeed, it was predicted. But the lack of preparedness for the scale of impact that the pandemic has inflicted, may legitimize the development of futures literacy in policy development. This kind of creative learning may be key when facing unpredictable crises and challenges.

On this web site you will find examples of how we are using anticipatory thinking and practices to help policy makers and leaders to use the future in learning, innovation and social transformation.

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