Trade unionists need little reminder of the rapid pace of change in the world around them – public sector workforces across the globe are at the forefront of their countries’ struggles to adapt to the rigours of a globalised world. The wave of economic neo-liberalism that swept the globe in the 1980s and 1990s led many governments to dismantle their traditional welfare states, but the changes associated with privatisation and the new public management did not offer a coherent answer to the problems that many governments were facing.
In the 2000s, the challenge faced by governments across the globe is to prove once again that they can be relevant to solving the problems faced by their populations.
Thinking about the future is tough – it’s all too easy to take a fatalistic approach and assume there’s nothing we can do to shape impersonal global forces, or to cling to ‘official’ versions of the future set out in government visions and policy documents. But neither approach is likely to yield useful insights to trade unions that are determined to shape their future, but also understand that they cannot force their vision on an increasingly complex and interconnected world.
But this means very different things in different countries. For the developed world, the challenge is to redesign the state to deal with a post-industrial economy – meeting the demands and collective needs of increasingly individualized knowledge workers who want high standards of service. In the developed world, the challenge is either to provide the basics of a good life and the drivers of economic growth, or to manage high levels of growth in an inclusive and socially just fashion.
We may not be able to predict the future, but we can understand it better by using scenario planning techniques, which can help union leaders to understand how their goals could play out in a variety of possible futures.
Scenario planning is not an exercise in prediction. Instead, it is a highly participative process of examining the full range of possible futures and preparing for all likely eventualities. It is a technique that has been used powerfully by organizations like Shell, which used scenarios to predict the oil shocks of the mid-1970s. As the technologist Stewart Brand argues: “Scenario planning ensures that you are not always right about the future, but - better - that you are almost never wrong.”You can download the futures paper in five different languages: