S2-Episode 9: Back to the Future: Using strategic foresight in the new digital age

Dec 08 2022

Strategic foresight is a discipline used by a growing body of experts and organizations. It is a structured and systematic way of gathering information about future operating environments to better prepare for change and make smarter decisions. In this episode, Commissioner Kosseim speaks with the IPC’s Eric Ward, Assistant Commissioner of Strategic Initiatives and External Relations, about how strategic foresight can be used to anticipate and address emerging data issues in Ontario.

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Patricia Kosseim:
Hello, I’m Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, and you’re listening to Info Matters, a podcast about people, privacy, and access to information. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life and hear real stories about the access and privacy issues that matter most to them.
Hello listeners, and thanks for tuning in. When Back to The Future came out in the late 1980s, its creators looked ahead to 2015. Marty McFly and Doc Brown found themselves in a future-focused cinematic universe with flying cars, floating skateboards, and self-tying shoes.
Well, here we are decades later, and cars are not quite flying, but they’re certainly capable of driving themselves. And Nike did eventually come out with a shoe that ties itself. In picturing the future, the movie’s creators stretched their imaginations to make predictions, some of which they got wrong, but for the most part turned out to be quite accurate.
Facial recognition, biometric sensors, virtual reality, and predictive analytics, once the stuff of sci-fi movies, have now become a reality for us in 2022. We’re living in a time of rapid technological change. And while we can’t predict the future, we can certainly imagine potential futures and work to anticipate and better prepare ourselves for what lies ahead.
Now, conventional wisdom holds that good judgment is based on past experience. But what do we do when we’re faced with a situation we’ve never experienced before and the future bears absolutely no resemblance to the past, let alone the present? That’s where strategic foresight comes in.
It’s a discipline used by a growing body of experts and organizations working to gather information about their future operating environments, and projecting themselves forward through a process of informed imagination to better prepare and make smarter decisions. It’s about anticipating several plausible futures by identifying trends, risks, and emerging issues to gain useful insights and better orient ourselves towards the most desirable scenario through strategic planning and policymaking.
In this episode, we’ll be talking about this future-oriented approach, particularly as it relates to data protection, laws, and policies. How can strategic foresight help us anticipate seismic changes in information technologies and how they’re likely to impact our privacy and transform our lives and our society as we currently know it?
My guest today is Eric Ward. He’s the Assistant Commissioner of Strategic Initiatives and External Relations at my office. Prior to joining the IPC, Eric was the Senior Director at Policy Horizons Canada, the federal government’s center of expertise for strategic foresight. Policy Horizons uses strategic foresight to help departments and agencies build stronger, better informed, and more sustainable policies and programs in the face of an uncertain future, including in areas of emerging technologies. Eric’s vast knowledge, experience, and skills in this area are a huge asset to our team here at the IPC. Eric, welcome to the show.
Eric Ward:
Thank you very much, Patricia. It’s a real pleasure to be on this with you.
So you joined the IPC as Assistant Commissioner in August 2021. Can you tell us what interested you about the IPC, and what led you to this work?
Well, coming to the IPC was a bit of my own back to the future. It’s an area in which I’d worked before, in privacy and access to information law in the federal government. And it’s, I would say, a professional passion.
When I was working for Department of Justice Canada, I really developed a taste for the fantastic combination of regulatory law policy, but also outreach and challenging new thinking that you find in this area of privacy and access when you really dig into it. I guess you could say I became a little bit addicted to it. I find it hard to stay away from, and I’ve done other things in my career, but I always find myself coming back to these same core questions.
But underneath those, what really I find exciting is that they raise the central questions for 21st century democratic governance. It’s sort of what happens in that information world is in part going to be the feel of life in our society. It’s kind of the way that we experience our freedom to experiment, whether we can flourish and have a say in that informational world. And it’s a field that’s always changing and I like change. So I guess that’s why I came back to it.
Why the IPC, though? I think I’m very happy and privileged to be here, and it’s all about the people. You want to work with people that you like, who are really committed, who can teach you things, who care about their colleagues, or who are always pushing forward on the mission. And the IPC has all of those things.
I think I’ve met my match in terms of someone who feels as passionate about these issues as I do, so that’s great.
Prior to joining the IPC, you were Senior Director at Policy Horizons Canada. Can you tell us more about what your work there involved?
So its mission is essentially to use foresight to help build stronger policies and programs amid uncertainty about the future. And who can doubt the existence of uncertainty, the existence of disruption after more than two years of pandemic changes, surprises, and the struggle that we’ve had, all had to be resilient, to adapt to change. I think the case for foresight has been made manifest over the last few years.
There’s some work there that we did on economic foresight. That culminated in a really powerful analysis of the future of economic value. Some really groundbreaking work on social foresight, on the future of sense-making and social connection in Canadian society, which is really I find valuable for transparency and privacy work. And a world-leading project on biodigital convergence. What happens is biology and digitization collide. It may sound kind of out there, but there’s real everyday ways that policymakers can use the insights we were developing to make their policies more resilient and robust in the face of change and disruption.
So if we were to explain strategic foresight in layperson’s terms, to your neighbor, my neighbor, the person in the street, how would you do that?
Great question, because foresight can sound kind of out there, and sometimes it is. But really, it’s solving a very practical, real unavoidable problem. Foresight or futuring is something that everybody does every day. And in fact, we receive stories about the future every day in news stories, in job ads, in management books, in fictions, even in our conversations with one another.
So we are always thinking about the future, although we’re doing so in different ways and often with different levels of mindfulness. And some everyday futuring or foresight work, it can be really practical and useful. For example, insurance companies, they want very much to understand the range of potential climate futures to be able to assess the risks and adaptation requirements of some infrastructure project or housing that they might be insuring. That’s a kind of modeling future, but it makes sense, right?
And so what is strategic foresight? I like a definition that was given by Kristel Van der Elst, who I worked with at Horizons and who comes from the World Economic Forum, did work there on foresight, and she said, “Look, it’s very simple.” For her, it’s what could happen and what might we need to do to deal with that in the future?
So the focus is really on what kind of world could we be living in, and what might we do together to deal with it, and what could we do now in view of that uncertainty?
And how would you explain its importance for organizations and policymakers?
So that’s a very practical, down to earth, kind of responsible question for anybody in an organization, especially a public institution that’s entrusted with a mission that it needs to carry forward into the future.
So suppose we want to be a modern and effective regulator in how we pursue those goals and mandates that are set out for us. We’re going to care about outcomes in the real world, right? If you’re a transportation safety regulator, you don’t just care about everybody following the rules you set. You actually want fewer planes to crash, right?
Well, I think we’re looking at that same kind of dynamic. For a data protection agency like us, we’re going to want to work with regulated sectors, ministries and hospitals, police services, municipalities, so that there are actually fewer breaches in the real world of people’s privacy, that people’s personal information is secure and their privacy is respected, that people can get the information that they need to understand what government’s doing and to engage democratically.
So if we want to do that, we have to make choices. We don’t have infinite resources. We don’t have infinite attention. How are we going to do that? What are we going to focus on? Where should we issue guidance? Where should we sound alarm bells? Where is it okay and we can sit back? Where do we build our own internal expertise to understand what’s going on in the context of a complaint or something broader?
So these are all the kinds of questions that we and other organizations ask themselves about our day-to-day strategy and our plans across years. And they’re kind of the who and the what and the why questions. But a lot of this depends on the other big W, which is the when question. And that really takes us into the need or the value for foresight in thinking about what kind of strategy’s going to work, where we should put our attention.
So it’s interesting because I once participated in a one-day foresight exercise in examining the future of smart cities. And I remember starting out that morning with absolutely no idea how we could possibly imagine what a smart city would look like five years out say. But somehow, through a guided process led by an expert facilitator, we ended the day, in fact, with a much better conceptual idea of what a plausible future could look like and how we would and could better prepare for it.
I want you to explain for us that process. How did the facilitator lead us through that reflection? What steps are involved in a strategic foresight exercise like this that made us better able to imagine a plausible future scenario?
There’s lots of ways of tackling this, and I admire many of the different methods. I think for the IPC, a good one would be to take a systematic approach. That often starts with listening. Listening sensitively is at the core. So there’s interviews that you can do and specific kind of interview questions that you can ask that pull out from people the insights of the future that they are holding onto. And it’s amazing how people do have intuitions about the future, their desired future, the futures that they’re worried about, what they see emerging. And there’s ways of asking that question and listening and then dealing with that information.
One of the things you want to do early on is to set as many assumptions as you can down in writing. And they can be very, very basic assumptions about what the whole thing is about or how it works. And they can be specific assumptions about what the day-to-day business is like. After the assumptions phase, then you try to identify sources and signals of change. That involves kind of scanning far and wide, and it’s often done well in groups or distributed across partners to try to find these kind of weak signals of the change that might be small now but could become larger, louder in the future and really impact how your strategy works or what the world will be like across the timeframe that you care about.
A really interesting thing to do, particularly if you’re working with partners on foresight, which I really advise, is to also do a bit of domain mapping or system mapping. All that really does is to try to bring together our mental models, people who are going to be working together and trying to explore and understand the future together and maybe bring them together a little bit so that we’re not just talking across purposes about change.
And then the core of foresight, this method I would say, is in trying to understand possible change. And there you’re putting together a few key change drivers that you have extracted from your scanning, things that you think are going to be important drivers of change during the time period that you care about.
The fun thing to do in groups is to then take a really powerful change driver, often technological but not always technological, and then you start to cascade the consequence. Say, okay, if that happens, suppose that there’s massive advancements in the ability to read brain activity in a noninvasive way, what might happen next, and what happens after that, and what happens after that?
And you can just go through simple, logical consequences or a cascade of consequences. And you find if once you start getting three or four out, you’re into space that you haven’t explored before, but you have a logic of why it’s relevant. And when you trace back down through that line, you can go back three or four times and say, “Yet, I never thought I’d have to care about that. But it turns out, wow, that could be a plausible consequence of that change driver.”
The really deep fun of foresight comes where people who want to get into this and develop some expertise will focus is on cross-impacting change. Okay, so we have this thing happening in digitization of video. Okay. And now you have this kind of thing happening in some other area, maybe in smart cities or maybe in emotional affect recognition or maybe in genetic understanding of phenotypes of how we end up looking, how our bodies work. And then you crash them together. That’s called cross-impacting, because we don’t live in a world where one change happens, and then another change happens after that one’s run through.
The reason our world is complex and difficult to predict is that these changes interact at the same time. Foresight needs to be a bit of a discipline and you have to care about process if you want to keep track of that kind of complexity and still come out with something that is logical and strong and policy relevant. That’s where the tools and practice comes into play so that you can capture this stuff.
After you’ve explored change, well, before or after, there’s some visioning techniques that I think should be worked into it where people can step back and say, “Whoa, before we get ourselves locked into a kind of future that’s coming at us, are we checking in about the future that we want? Are we checking in about the future that might be possible? Can we articulate for ourselves what a good future might be in this area?” That’s a useful thing to be thinking about as you head into scenario building.
Scenario building, there’s a lot of different ways to do it. But all of them are essentially to give you a kind of picture, like a movie in your mind of what a few different worlds of the future might look like. And they all have to be plausible, but they should be sufficiently different that you can see how the same kind of policy might be effective or ineffective or how it might land in different ones.
And so now it’s time to harvest the results. That comes with looking at what works, what the world is like in different scenarios, and going back and checking your assumptions. What kind of planning assumptions are invalidated in some of these worlds? Which ones of our strategies become vulnerable? Are there any really smart things we can do now that are good ideas in all of those worlds? Are there other places where we need to spread our risk? Are there places that we should place our attention so that if something happens, we start to get an understanding of that so that if that starts coming at us from the future, we don’t freak out, we already have some ways of thinking about it?
Those are some ways that you can start to harvest the results. You get challenges and opportunities, and you have a chance to work with your stakeholders and your groups to sort of build out coordinated, telegraphed strategy and practical next steps. Even if you don’t all end up sharing the same vision of the future, our partners and organizations will understand better what we’re doing because of what plausible futures we’re seeing.
So in a strategic foresight exercise, how many years do you actually look ahead when you’re planning for the future?
It depends on the context and the relevant time for your project, your policy, or your law. So let’s take an example. There are people, really interesting people who I admire, who are thinking about the problem of how do we communicate the danger of radioactive waste to future generations. So that’s their project, their policy, their law. How do they do that? They have no choice but to try to think thousands of years ahead. That’s their relevant timeframe. There’s just no other reasonable way of attacking that problem. So this creates very difficult and interesting problems.
Now, luckily, for my workflow at the IPC, and nobody’s asked me to predict how privacy’s going to work a thousand years from now, but it is an area that is changing across time where, as you said, some of the things that we do might still be having ripple effects 25 years from now.
And in addition to things like the law, Ontario is in this really interesting position where there’s great ambition to become a leading digital jurisdiction. And so that means there’s big projects, what I’d call digital infrastructure projects in terms of the way that government is going to offer services, whether and how it’s going to offer different kinds of identification options for Ontarians when they interact with government or that sort of thing.
These are foundational. They’re like building the foundation of a house. If you want everything that you build on top of it to last decades, then that means that probably our timeframe needs to be in the shortest 10 and probably into the 20, 25-year timeframe for some of the big-ticket foresight items that a data protection authority needs to worry about.
We’ve all heard and seen those old sci-fi movies that in hindsight seem particularly prescient, think here Minority Report. If data protection regulators went through a strategic foresight exercise in the 1980s, like what you just described, do you think they’d be able to predict the technological advances that we’re seeing today?
Predict, I’m not sure, but anticipate some of the important themes, absolutely. If you look at the 2002 movie Minority Report, well, that’s 20 years ago, 21 years ago. There’s some really interesting sensitivity in that movie to the problems that might arise with predictive systems or predictive law enforcement. Does everything look the same 20 years later? No. But the way that they explored the themes and thinking about that 20 years ago, I think was prescient. But what’s really prescient is that that movie was based on a 1956 story by Philip K. Dick.
So I do think that science fiction and foresight and sort of future’s literature is a really rich source for preparation, almost for inoculation against the shocks of the future. And that’s why I really love some of the social science fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, or The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. She anticipated a more fluid take on sex and gender. Ann Leckie more recently. Books like Ancillary Justice, really re-imagining our personal relationships with artificial intelligence. I’m not going to spoil it, but that’s a fantastic book.
At the IPC, we’ll be initiating a strategic foresight exercise to examine what the future of law enforcement might look like and help us anticipate and develop solutions to never- before-seen access and privacy challenges. And as you know, it’s all tied to our strategic priority related to next-generation law enforcement.
So Eric, as a central player and leader of that initiative, what stakeholders do you envisage participating in this foresight series?
At a minimum, we would want to have law enforcement organizations interacting with us and being partners. You might have interviews or participation by police organizations, but also regulatory law enforcement. We’d really want to engage with some of the ministries who have policy responsibilities for how that’s done, who have a view on the procedures of our justice system as well as of law enforcement.
No foresight work in this area can be done without really meaningful and proper and respectful engagement with indigenous partners working in this space, as well as keepers of traditional knowledge. You’ll want to be working with communities who are differentially affected by law enforcement. So racialized Ontarians, Black Ontarians, diverse gender communities, people marginalized by poverty who interact in different and specific ways with law enforcement, advocates for people receiving or requiring mental health services. Also, victims rights organizations.
Foresight is best when it really captures and engages as many different views on the system that we all interact with each other in. And of course, the IPC is building a youth advisory table, and we’ll be wanting to interact with those youth participants and also our law enforcement advisory table.
So we already have built in a lot of potential for engaged foresight at the IPC. I’ve been reaching out and having conversations with other data protection agencies, some commissioners in Canada but also outside Canada, that are developing an interest in foresight. They would be great partners in workshops and interviews because a lot of that future for law enforcement is not restricted to Ontario, it’s not restricted to Canada.
And finally, I’d really welcome interactions with students and professors in Ontario. Ontario has some just fantastic programs and amazing pools of talent. There are people who are teaching and studying and working in this area who I think have a lot to contribute. And bringing in some of that scholarship and work I think is one of the services that the IPC can play in this conversation.
Our goal ultimately in this strategic priority area of next-generation law enforcement is to essentially build public trust in law enforcement and develop the necessary guardrails for the adoption of new programs and new technologies. Do you think that this foresight series will help us get there, will help us achieve our ultimate goal?
I do think so. And while you have to go big and open up your mind in order to try to explore what the future’s like, we find a really practical way through this that generates results that are appropriate for a regulator’s role.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been a coach of a soccer team of five-year-olds or six-year-olds, or you’ve attended a soccer game of five-year-old or six-year-olds, but there’s a certain stage of human development where all you can do is chase the ball. And everybody clusters around and they all chase the ball and the ball’s gone somewhere else by the time they get there. And it’s just this uncoordinated crowd. So this for me is a kind of metaphor for how we don’t want to act as a system, as institutions, constantly chasing the ball, arriving there late. It’s moved somewhere else. We’re bonking into each other. There’s no coordination. We don’t understand what we’re doing.
Instead, we want to all play our roles, regulator, regulated stakeholders, scholars, in a conversation with each other about where the ball’s going, how we play those roles properly in view of the uncertainty about how that’s going to evolve. That allows us to just spread out, cover the field, and interact each other in a way that I think is going to be a lot more productive.
One of the interesting things when you do foresight is you discover how easy it is to go dystopian. And there’s a place for that because thinking up dangers and then avoiding them, that’s a really important use of our capacity to imagine the future. But equally important is opening up new possibilities for positive things that perhaps were never possible before but that might become possible.
So for example, can you get some of the benefits of, let’s see, protection of individuals or environmental protection through cheap and distributed sensors, like in some versions of smart cities, but without the kind of indiscriminate surveillance? Can you get some of those benefits of digitally enabled environments in a way that is democratically legitimate, that’s been built up through the right kind of engagement that empowers people to interact with their environment as opposed to sort finding themselves in a world that they don’t understand and that’s in the control of others?
So these kinds of projects I think are the real gold that you can find in a foresight study. And anybody can have those ideas. It’s not always going to be the experts. It’s not always going to be the person whose job it is to have that idea. And that’s one of the fun things about foresight.
Well, I was never the coach of a soccer team, but I was a mom on the sidelines. And I know exactly what you mean. I can picture those five and six-year-old kids chasing after the ball. I really like that metaphor. Thank you, Eric. And thank you for joining me on the show today. It’s been great taking the time out of our day to day to talk about our exciting journey along this new uncharted path. You’ve provided great insights about how organizations can use strategic foresight to prepare for and anticipate the future so we could begin to develop and put in motion laws and policies that stand a better chance of protecting privacy and access rights in various plausible scenarios.
For listeners who want to learn more about our office’s work in the area of next-generation law enforcement and our plans to launch this exciting new strategic foresight series, I encourage you to visit our website at ipc.on.ca. You may also be interested in our webcast on law enforcement and surveillance technologies of last year. It’s still available on the IPC’s YouTube channel. Our website is also a great source for general information about privacy and access rights under Ontario’s laws, and you could always call or email our office anytime for assistance. Thank you all for joining us for this episode of Info Matters. And until next time.
I’m Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, and this has been Info Matters. If you enjoy the podcast, leave us a rating or review. If there’s an access or privacy topic you’d like us to explore on a future episode, we’d love to hear from you. Send us a tweet @IPCinfoprivacy, or email us at [email protected]. Thanks for listening, and please join us again for more conversations about people, privacy, and access to information. If it matters to you, it matters to me.

Eric Ward is the Assistant Commissioner of Strategic Initiatives and External Relations at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC). Prior to joining the IPC, he was the Senior Director at Policy Horizons Canada, the federal government’s centre for strategic foresight.

  • The road to the IPC and strategic foresight work [3:34]
  • Using strategic foresight to build stronger policies and programs [5:28]
  • What strategic foresight is in simple terms [6:35]
  • The importance of strategic foresight for organizations and policymakers [8:09]
  • Steps in the strategic foresight process [10:05]
  • Looking ahead a few years or thousands of years [17:12]
  • Science fiction and anticipating technological advances [19:06]
  • IPC strategic foresight series on next generation law enforcement [20:40]
  • Generating results to support a coordinated regulatory response [23:43]


Info Matters is a podcast about people, privacy, and access to information hosted by Patricia Kosseim, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life and hear stories about the access and privacy issues that matter most to them.

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