Preparing for the future(s): Open space for citizens’ engagement

 
OpEd by John Sweeney, a futurist and Deputy Director of the Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies Originally published on UNDG’s Silo Fighters
Buckminster Fuller was a polymath and one of the most well regarded futurists of the 20th century. Bucky, as he liked to be called, astutely encapsulated the aim of foresight in a single phrase: “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”

In doing its utmost to engage citizens, especially youth, UN Montenegro is not only seeking to harvest insights—it is looking to find and support architects of the country’s future. Given that youth unemployment remains a challenge, UN Montenegro thought it was critical to meet this demographic on their own terms and where they share what they think—online. As Marija and Ana noted in an earlier blog, our peak is the next UN’s five-year plan of cooperation with Montenegro, so we are climbing the proverbial Everest of the UN, so to speak, and in June 2015 we setup base camp and began planning our ascent.

According to survey conducted by Montenegro Statistical Office, 90 percent of 16-34 year olds in Montenegro access the Internet everyday or almost every day, and 76 percent of the population participated in social networking. It is one thing to know that citizens are active online, and it is another thing entirely to engage them there. When we began discussing a strategy on how we might, we decided that the enhanced survey tool, which has received high marks from citizens, might be a good model. After all, it was designed to replace traditional survey instruments, and if there is one aspect of development that screams for innovation—it is the good ‘old fashioned stakeholder survey.

Open Spaces for Citizen Insight…

Our challenge was an interesting one: design an engagement that maintained the dynamism of the enhanced survey tool, but create a meaningful single-user experience that would generate the insights we were looking to harvest. One thing we knew we wanted to do was to continue the conversation with citizens that UN Montenegro has facilitated since 2012. To do this, we used outputs from the post-2015 national consultations and twoworkshops organized in June 2015.

To say that we used outputs from our face-to-face workshops is a bit of an understatement—we turned them into a robot…an algorithm to be exact. We synthesized the key outputs and developed a “player” to be part of the user experience. Additionally, we developed a UN Montenegro “player” whose choices were driven by results from an internal consultation and theSustainable Development Goals.

In crafting this engagement, we did not want to ask citizens simple questions and receive packaged answers. So, we left things open. We only provided a few prompts for users, which we made into a brief video introduction video introduction, Since we knew that Facebook was the preferred social media network in Montenegro, we asked users to share their results online and encourage others to play.

Continuing the Conversation…

Within a few days, a couple hundred people played, and the online platform generated some unique results. They differed markedly from our workshops in Podgorica—Montenegro’s largest city and capital. One thing that became apparent was that we were reaching a new audience, and almost half of our total respondents were from outside Podgorica. Furthermore, we saw some major differences in people’s priorities, or preferences, especially when asked about opportunities and values for Montenegro’s preferred future.

We are still compiling all of the data and will be sure to share the final report on the online platform as soon as it is available. All findings of citizen engagement are feeding into the new five-year plan of the UN Montenegro. We did, however, pull some preliminary results to generate scenarios for abackcasting exercise that took place at the strategic planning meeting with the Government in October 2015.

Whereas our face-to-face workshop resulted in Sustainability and Hard Work as the top two key values for Montenegro’s preferred future, the online platform yielded Culture and Family. We also saw a difference in opportunities—Youth and the European Union (face-to-face) versus Social Innovation and Startups (online). The face-to-face engagements were limited to citizens primarily from the central region, but the online platform reached both the southern and northern regions.

While most planning methods start in the here and now and move toward the future, backcasting works the opposite way and challenges participants to think about cause and effect relationships from alternative futures back to the present. Multiple development pathways are the name of the game in backcasting, and we will soon share the results along with some lessons learned in another post!

Stay tuned and let us know if you used the foresight and backcasting in engaging ordinary people in strategic planning!

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