IPS Prism Breaks New GroundNov 12, 2012 at 11:25 am | Hits: 1068
By Dawn Yip
Last December, I was asked to help IPS conceptualise a scenario planning process focusing on the future of governance in Singapore. It was impossible to say no, despite knowing that I would miss the bulk of the process due to a sabbatical.
National-level scenario planning is not new in Singapore. It’s been used by the government, consistently and extensively, for over 20 years. The methodology helps its users explore their deeply-held perceptions, what future environments are plausible, and how their organisations might need to adapt. It’s easy to see why the government of a small and exposed country like Singapore would take scenario planning seriously. Since its introduction to the civil service in the 1990s, multiple national scenario exercises have been undertaken, and many more issue-based exercises besides.
Despite this long history, I think Prism breaks new ground in three significant ways:
First, while government scenario exercises often tap non-government perspectives through interviews and other forums, they have seldom, if ever, gone on to involve non-government actors in discussing and designing the actual scenarios. And understandably too: with 15 (now 16!) Ministries and over 60 statutory boards, scenarios have been seen more as a tool to get these myriad parts to come together, create and share the same strategic futures map.
Prism is the first large-scale national scenario exercise outside the government.IPS organised seven sector workshops, each comprising about 20 participants, from the following categories: academics and public intellectuals; arts, culture and media; business; civil society; new citizens; public service; and young Singaporeans. A final workshop then brought together sector participants to discuss the future of governance. The sheer diversity of the group made for very rich – and sometimes discomfiting – conversations, a key outcome of any successful scenario project.
Second, Prism is the first national-level scenario exercise to engage the public so extensively. Unlike government scenarios which tend to be confined to government officials and forums, IPS has made all Prism workshop materials and reports available to the public (seehere). More significantly, they’ve put together a 7-day exhibition to engage the public in thinking through the same issues that participants of the Prism workshops considered. Titled “Steady Boh?” and situated at the highly accessible National Library Plaza, the exhibition has already been attended by hundreds of people and generated many thoughtful responses.
It’s worth taking a step back to appreciate the boldness of this effort. As a think-tank, IPS is more accustomed to organising paper-and-powerpoint forums for intellectuals. For it to have invested in packaging the scenario content to engage the general public, represents an important shift in focus. Think-tanks, with their vast intellectual resources, have the potential to shape and influence public understanding and discourse more decisively. I daresay IPS is leading the way with this effort.
Third, Prism is the first national-level scenario exercise to use the arts as a means of engagement. Scenarios that remain on a shelf are little more than an intellectual curiosity; so a recurring theme among scenario planners is how best to use scenarios to reshape mental models and strategic action.
As a government scenario planner at the turn of the millennium, I recall that using images, soundclips and videos to communicate scenarios were already something of a novelty. Later on, colleagues in the government futures community attempted other experiments: a choose-your-own-adventure format, comics and video animations. The main constraint was usually budget and time, rather than a lack of ideas.
The Prism exhibition has gone well beyond these forms. Using interactive displays, videos of what the future might look like, forum theatre and even a sing-along, the production team has designed a compelling experience that visitors cannot help but be drawn into, whether for a few minutes or (in my case) a couple of hours. I’ve since learnt that forum theatre has a storied history in Singapore, and was at one point banned as an art form. Visitors to the exhibiton should savour the irony.
Prism is probably not the most impactful instance of national-level scenario planning; that honour will belong, I suspect, to the South African Montfleur scenarios for years to come, in large part because of the unique political circumstances in which those scenarios were birthed. (Morehere.)
But as a set of scenarios intended to stimulate thoughtfulness about the future of governance, I believe Prism is achieving exactly what it set out to do.
The Prism exhibition runs from 8 to 14 November 2012, from 10am to 9pm daily. More programming details at the Prism website.
Dawn Yip runs a consultancy focused on designing and facilitating group processes, typically around organisation development, leadership and strategy. She was formerly a civil servant and was involved in several government scenario planning projects. She may be reached email@example.com.