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Board diary – Thinking long term

Tamsin Stirling reflects on what it means to focus on the future.

In early September, I was a panel member in a Wales Audit Office webinar[1] which focused on the long term, one of the ways of working outlined in the Well-being of Future Generations Act. A few days later I was interviewed by Louisa Petchey from the Future Generations Commissioner’s team about housing in 2050. Both got me reflecting about how much of my time as a board member I spend thinking about, and discussing, the long term.

Much of the context in which we work pushes us in the direction of the short term – annual budgets; additional monies being allocated part way through the year; what is measured/and reported (often process and output rather than outcome) and how often;  immediate pressures and crises; and responses to calls for ‘something to be done’. Such pressures tend to be exacerbated at a time when budgets are flat or decreasing and when almost daily crises seem to be the norm. Political cycles and elections can also serve to focus minds on what might be achieved in relatively short periods of time. And the uncertainty associated with Brexit doesn’t help.

When we build housing, we are building for the long term, both in the sense of the homes, but also the communities we create. One of the themes of this issue of WHQ is decarbonisation. The homes we build now are likely to be around for at least 60 years. And yet most of the homes we are building still require significant fuel to heat and light and are not always near public transport routes.

The Innovative Housing Programme has generated some useful learning on low carbon development but there is some way to go before this becomes mainstream. In addition, the cost of increasing the energy efficiency of homes already built, some of which are more than 100 years old, is going to be considerable. And there is a question as to whether such investment might be wasted if the location of properties makes them unsuitable in future decades, for example those in areas prone to flooding or with no links to public transport.

When boards are developing strategies and business plans, there is clearly a focus on the future and on longer-term thinking. But even here, in my experience, we often do not look that far into the future and can be limited in ambition.

As part of the webinar and discussion with Louisa, I have recently come across some useful techniques that have been developed to aid thinking about the long term. The questions Louisa asked me were based around the seven questions technique originally developed by Shell:

1 If you could speak someone from the future who could tell you anything about [this issue], what would you like to ask?

2 What is your vision for success/what would good look like?

3 What are the dangers of not achieving your vision?

4 What needs to change (systems, relationships, decision making processes, culture for example) if your vision is to be realised?

5 Looking back, what are the successes we can build on? The failures we can learn from?

6 What needs to be done now to ensure that your vision becomes a reality?

7 If you had absolute authority and could do anything, is there anything else you would do?

A second technique is the three horizons model used by the International Futures Forum. The first horizon is the dominant system at present (business as usual), the second where innovation has started in light of shortcomings of the first horizon system and the third (desirable future state) is the long-term successor to business as usual – radical innovation that introduces a completely new way of doing things. This model helps stimulate conversations that distinguish between innovations that serve to prolong the status quo and those that serve to bring the third horizon vision closer to reality. It aims to move away from a position where most policy making and discussion occurs in the first horizon, (focused on fixing a failing system), to second horizon policy making underpinned by third horizon aspirations.

Both models involve thinking carefully about what future we want to see, rather than incremental improvement on business as usual. Community Housing Cymru’s Housing Horizons work looked at a 20-year timescale setting out a vision of good housing being a basic right for all. We are clearly a long-way from this being a reality, but the vision can be used to aid decision-making by board members; asking does what is being proposed take us closer to this vision or not? If we are clear about our long-term vision, we may make different decisions – working backwards from the vision to create an action plan, rather than making incremental improvements from where we are now.

 More information

Two reports which will be of interest to those looking to learn more about techniques that help when considering the future are:

Tamsin Stirling can be contacted at [email protected] and is on Twitter @TamsinStirling1  

[1] The webinar is available online at https://www.audit.wales/good-practice

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