Kerrie Glennie, Ingrid Ahlgren and Sue Regan drawing up the 'systems map'.

Mapping the future

14 January 2013

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Christopher Vas is the Policy Research Program Leader of the HC Coombs Policy Forum.  Chris has extensive experience in public policy development, research, analysis, and its implementation.

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How do you take the complexity of an entire country’s policy landscape and turn it into a single ‘systems map’? CHRISTOPHER VAS offers some insights.

If you have you ever attempted to create a ‘systems map’ – even for something reasonably simple - you’ll know that it can quickly become a complex diagram of interlinking boxes and circles. So imagine what that systems map might look like if it mirrors a country’s policy landscape? We did, and we identified not 30 or 50 but over 90 influencing variables that are likely to shape Australia’s landscape.

The HC Coombs Policy ForumPolicy Futures’ Policy Research Program is conducting a pilot experimental project called ‘Enriching Australian Policy and Strategy Capability in an Uncertain and Complex World’.

The project - staying true to the mandate of the HC Coombs Policy Forum - brought together a diverse group comprising representatives from the Australian Government, academia, a resource sector company board, students and policy researchers - some with international expertise - to participate in a foresight process and to mull over one issue, the future. We called them the policy ‘Cabinet’, and charged them with decision-making and setting policy direction.

As in any foresight process, the intent of this initiative is not to predict what the future is going to look like but to describe multiple national contexts that are either possible or plausible. This can only be achieved through interaction, research engagement and pursuing strategic forward-looking conversations with a diverse set of individuals.

Insights gleaned from one-on-one interviews with the ‘Cabinet’ and workshops over many days resulted in deep perspectives from the group being brought to the fore and mental models being challenged. This rich source of insights highlighted views as diverse as the impact of an emergence of Indonesia and Vietnam, the poor integration of biotech and genetic engineering into health and ageing policy and whether government can use it’s resources better.

These diverse views and insights were matched with significant efforts of an equally high-powered research team, comprised of emerging policy scholars, Allinnette Adigues and Ingrid Ahlgren, current doctoral students at the Crawford School of Public Policy and led by our own Coombs policy analyst, Kerrie Glennie and facilitated by our futures Visiting Fellow, Dr Gary Saliba.

The creation of a ‘systems map’ with over 90 policy-influencing variables was a mammoth task that required significant time, energy and commitment. These variables related to education and employment policy, level of social cohesion within the Australian society, international economic and governance developments such as countries choosing to adopt savings or debt fuelled growth approaches, energy and natural resources use, decision making capability of government and business and much more.

All of this material encompassing insights and research were used in a workshop with the ‘Cabinet’ to identify critical drivers or uncertainties that could influence Australia’s future. These drivers included reform of international policy institutions, wealth distribution, structure of the national governance system, citizen engagement in society, longevity, energy security and the intensity of climate change.

The next stage of the process will see the Cabinet looking at some plausible national scenarios, predominantly centered on issues of scarcity and post-scarcity, equal and unequal access and how this could influence the emerging policy landscape of Australia.

With each step that systems map looks less a picture of complexity, and more a useful tool for helping policy makers come to grips with what the future may bring.

To find out more about the Policy Futures program visit:

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