Our responsibility to the future

Peter Davies was invited by the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University to contribute to their conference on “How can institutional mechanisms safeguard tomorrow, today?”

The conference marked the 12 months anniversary of the influential report from Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, “Now for Long Term”, and brought together a range of speakers and delegates to review progress. The report was influential in providing evidence and recommendations that helped to shape our Well-being of Future Generations Bill, so it was a good opportunity to update on progress.

The report of the Oxford Martin Commission has been showcased in 34 events in 14 countries and endorsed by a range of world leaders with over 1 million downloads. The Commission is pursuing a number of recommendations, notably from the perspective of the Well-being of Future Generations Bill, an Index on the Long Term in partnership with OECD.

The seminar reiterated key themes in the report – the nature of short term accountability through democratic system  and the need for a long term framework if we are going to deal with the major intergenerational challenges . It was reassuring  that many of the solutions reflect the mechanisms that are incorporated in the Well-being of Future Generations  Bill and encouraging that delegates were so positive about the legislative proposals we are taking forward.

Simon Caney, Co-Director of the Oxford Martin School, set out the diversity of drivers for short termism and the diversity of responses that can improve long term planning, setting out three specific proposals designed to address the issue that the long term is “out of sight and out of mind”: 

  1.  A mandatory State of the UK report, incorporating public engagement and a focus on
  2. future– short term is out of sight out of mind – so need to build in systems to tackle.
  3. A  Select Committee for Future to put the future at heart of present, drawing on the example of Finland.
  4. Audit systems that incentivise a concern for the long term, such as through “Commitment Accounting” which would measure “committed emissions” as long term impact of investment, or longer term benefits from commitments  in preventative action, critically extending the timescale for auditing for impact over 5 , 10 , 15 years etc.

Joerg Tremmel, Foundation for Rights of Future Generations, highlighted the presentism of democracies, as both voters and the elected pursue short term interests. “If a politician wants to act beyond the scope of the next election they are at a disadvantage in competition with short term focus colleagues”, while the costs of these choices are passed on to the future. 

Constitutional rights for future generations are built into the constitutions of several countries, but the evidence suggests minimal impact on key issues such as climate change. Representative bodies for Future Generations have a key role, particularly if they are embedded in the legislative process, but it is important to draw the lessons from two of the most ambitious of such bodies – Israel and Hungary which have been respectively disbanded or disempowered their futures institutions, largely as a result of powers being used to try to stop democratically passed laws or to use powers to enforce judgements which were at odds with democratic institutions. It is important that such institutions are constructive and proactive in engaging the public, reinforcing the democratic process, rather than using powers as a negative force that tries to override the will of elected bodies.

Oras Tynkkynen, Member of the Finnish Parliament and Chair of the Parliament’s Committee for the Future, set out the role of the Committee which was established in 1993, became a permanent parliamentary committee in 2000, and is made up of 17 MPs from 8 parties. The Committee acts as parliamentary think tank; stimulating futures dialogues; assessing future technology potentials, and producing futures studies and foresight reports. 

Its strengths have been a capacity to challenge conventional wisdom, operate with a high degree of autonomy, provide a locus between science and policy, and serve as living laboratory, recognising that a parliamentary body changes and learns very slowly. www.parliament.fi/futurecommittee

The excellent Catherine Pearce, World Futures Council, who has been a consistent supporter and contributor to Well-being of Future Generations Bill, provided an update for the proposal to establish a High Commissioner for Future Generations within the UN and the process  of establishing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs represent an opportunity for a “now or never paradigm shift” as a coherent holistic programme of interconnected goals and targets that can drive transformative change and reject business as usual, but which require the necessary vision and leadership to begin connecting dots and addressing systemic challenges. She left us with a quote which sums up what we are trying to achieve: 

“We are made wise not by our recollection of the past but by our responsibility to the future?” George Bernard Shaw


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