Raising ambitions with futures thinking

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Interviewed by Emily Ghassemi, Partnership Researcher, Impact17

Who are you?

I’m Beris Gwynne. I have worked as a diplomat and aid official and in the not-for-profit sector – 20 years in each. Taking “retirement” as “freedom” in 2015, I decided to set up a platform for critical thinking and cooperation called Incitāre.  This is Italian for let’s get started, let’s do something – with just a hint of radicalism which reflects a concern I’ve had for many years that there’s too much talking but not enough action. So many good intentions, so many wonderful ideas but for the 4 billion in the Majority Tercile, very little changes.

You are planning a series of workshops in September. Could you explain what these are about and what you hope they will achieve?

Incitāre allowed me to draw on all of my networks globally and in various sectors.  I found groups of people interested in the same sorts of things and asking the same kinds of questions. I settled on three main areas of activity which also frame what I’m planning for the rest of this year.

The first is strategic foresight and futures thinking which seems to be a growth industry, but for some it is just the latest buzzword. A lot of foresight work stops with horizon scanning or scenario planning. That is great because it develops new ideas, breaks down some assumptions about how we got to this point in the world, and what needs to change if we’re going to make any real progress. But that doesn’t necessarily lead to action. If we imagine the possible futures, we can work backwards to decide what has to change.

This realization led me to prioritize innovation in partnering. Current partnership approaches have typically evolved from a Western mindset, with all the assumptions made about capitalism and market forces and compassion, and charity. We need a different mindset with a more profound understanding of power relationships and a fairer distribution of costs and benefits on a more level and more inclusive playing field.

This leads me to the third area. We have to establish success indicators that reflect a different worldview and incentivise and measure acceleration and transformation – both are essential if we’re to achieve life-preserving global goals for people and planet.

For old-fashioned and many continuing aid projects, money is spent over two or three years, often providing solutions but over-simplifying the problem.  “Aid” has certainly been important, but debt, unequal trade and investment regimes far outweigh the resources available from aid or from charity or philanthropy or Corporate Social Responsibility.  We need to change the system.

In preparation for the events planned for September and October this year, there is a need for the sustainable development constituency to reflect on recent events in Ukraine, recalling the role of the “great powers” states (since 1648!) to define “national boundaries” globally. Instead of seeing these as immutable borders or lines of contact, why could we not resource the creation of significant corridors of economic and other forms of cooperation across contested borders to build prosperous and peaceful societies?

In September, we hope to gather people who have been exposed to and understand the value of futures thinking. The next part of the process will be for task teams to map existing, real and radical innovation at the food/water-waste/energy nexus and ask how we could increase investment in existing or potential solutions at a much grander scale, in the Majority Tercile.  We’ll spend a few weeks asking if we can scale up known solutions and work on new ones. Then we’ll come together again to see if what we have is actually presentable to potential impact investors and providers of blended finance.

I don’t have the necessary competencies (or the resources) to prepare a decent business case, with adjusted, new economy risk assessments and revised expectations on return on investment that factor in indirect costs and benefits.  There is a wealth of experience out there but we need help if we’re going to break out of the aid box and impress a $100 million investor.  Many international relations and “development” experts struggle to communicate in the same way that big business and finance struggle to hear.  We don’t speak the same language.

Information Technology is overcoming all sorts of barriers and providing networked solutions in global businesses.  Why not for reducing inequality, SDG purposed resilience building and climate adaptation at scale for food, water and energy security?

This is the sort of conversation we’d like to see at Building Bridges Week in Geneva in October. There will be hundreds of people there who represent a community that is genuinely committed to the Sustainable Development Goals.  This community of individuals, and institutions, public and private, is in a position to invest significant resources but, in my view, under-achieves because of old habits and paradigms that maintain post- or neo-colonial practices and continue to privilege the already well off. 

What are some of the obstacles preventing collaboration for a better world?

Neither people nor the planet can afford to delay more serious and more purposeful efforts at redistribution, regeneration and restoration but there’s no point in pretending it will be easy.  The main obstacles in my view are communication, complexity and cost.

Enthusiasm is contagious and I find it easy to motivate others, but I write like a public servant.  It’s difficult to communicate complicated and complex issues in five PowerPoint slides and apparently impossible to get people to buy in without being able to show “what’s in it for them” – as if world peace and the protection of our and other species belonged to beauty pageants.

I often hear people saying, “this is really exciting, very ambitious, but I need something bite-sized”.  But bite-sized to enable action cannot be allowed to dull our understanding of complexity or stunt our efforts to thinking outside of the square and abandon “boxes” for systems.  We need different tools to overcome decades of simple development solutions and silos. 

This is why we present what we call “whole systems transformation” focusing on the food/water-waste/energy/environment nexus as key to climate resilience, urban and rural. As a former aid official, I’ve seen and supported water programs and programs for agriculture, energy and infrastructure, often rewarding first world consultants rather than working on capacity and other issues in local economies. But these programs rarely talk to one another because they’re too busy doing what they do to worry about transferring ad securing the available technology and associated competencies. 

We’ve created boxes for government, business and “civil society”, ignoring the fault-lines of power and failing to listen to and truly appreciate different points of view. We seem to forget that at the end of the day, we’re all citizens and only one of the life forms on this precious planet.

Finally, there’s the small matter of cost where the critical factor is not whether there are funds available.  There are!  It is whether there is a will to move resources from damaging or unhelpful production and consumption to genuinely greener, circular, sustainable and inclusive business models.  Until the already advantaged understand are willing to lower their expectations and take a smaller share of the world’s resources, efforts to achieve the Global Goals will be constrained by the size of the “aid” bucket and everyone will be in for a rough ride. 

Lots of small actions add up but peer pressure and voluntarism will not be enough to encourage consumers or businesses or the super-rich to move from current unsustainable practices.  Governments change but States need to be held to account to deliver on the promises made.  That’s not currently our business model.

How can we partner better with organizations from other sectors?

Three suggestions: 

1. Futures thinking

Overcoming the feeling of being overwhelmed requires inspired and principled leadership. The evidence suggests that this can be found in professionally competent and action-oriented foresight or futures thinking processes

I have seen people from UN Agencies, NGOs, businesses and academia who come to see that we are the only life form on the planet that has agency. They have been encouraged by what is revealed as the various techniques of futures thinking applied to present and possible trajectories.  We can (and must) act. 

2. Multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder and inter-generational engagement and active and sustained partnership brokering

Complexity is king but collective intelligence knowledge creation is essential because no one sector, discipline or constituency has the answer. We need a mix of people from all industries, ages, and backgrounds willing to leave egos and logos at the door and work for the common good. From complexity, simple systems emerge. 

When I was younger, I’m sure that I also was guilty of thinking “Oh my goodness, that person’s in their 50s, what could they possibly know about my life?” I was young once, too and while the images have changed, the patterns are the same. But with inter-generational dialogue between older people who can say:

“This is what we did, and it wasn’t helpful but here are some of the things that we think work.”

and younger people (driven to shore up prospects for better futures and brimming with energy, new competencies and skill sets), we can begin to develop plans of action that I believe could lead to some really significant changes. Young people are better prepared but older people who recognize some of the mistakes we’ve made can provide guidance when we see patterns of behaviour being repeated.

The importance of sustained curating and support for purpose-driven multi-stakeholder processes where donors and funders are partners cannot be over-estimated. 

3. Incentivising acceleration and transformation

What we do will be determined by what we measure, providing both incentives and disincentives.  In place of outputs and outcomes determined on the basis of outdated theories of change and log-frames with a 3-5 year time frame, how might we measure the accelerated action that the United Nations has called for?  How can we make sure that the acceleration is of next-generation designs, transforming the systems that lock us into more of the same?  It’s not an easy question to answer but there are groups working on these kinds of questions who are keen to field test new sets of indicators and standards alongside conventional performance metrics for efficiency and effectiveness.

Call to Action

There are many in academia, business, government, and the United Nations who agree on the current version of capitalism, with its emphasis on money and finance and unmonetized exploitation of labour and other inputs of production, is not adequate.  It incentivizes the concentration of wealth and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, environmental degradation and global warming.  Everything is related to everything else.


Nelson Mandela said something about there being no point in living a life with low ambitions. That’s why, for the purposes of these events coming up, I’m hoping to find people who are already on a “futures thinking” journey, go back to who we are as human beings and our roles and responsibilities on the planet, as part – not “masters” – of the system, to embrace complexity, elaborate a new charter for people and planet for present and future generations and encourage experimentation.

That’s where I think this combination of events is unique, taking all of the words and some excellent thinking from many people around the world and saying, incitiamo!  Let’s do it! Let’s stop the chatter. Not another “pilot”, not bubbles of excellence, but systematically, at scale, we can be the change we want.  This isn’t about promoting futures thinking, specific products or services, or developing new guidelines, templates, tools or training courses.  Whether it’s around global security, international relations, international development, or humanitarian assistance, it all comes back to who we are as human beings and what kind of behaviour we represent. It’s about human survival. We have to deal with it one piece at a time and that’s really where I need help to be able to find people who see beyond 2030 and will be willing to help to make the business case for big ideas and move from self-enriching talk to action.  

Beris Gwynne
Beris Gwynne
Founder and Lead Facilitator at Incitare | Website

Beris applies futures thinking and strategic foresight to fast track innovation in international relations and sustainable development for the Global Goals. She explores innovative financing, and impact investing for scalable initiatives at the food/water-waste/energy/environment nexus to rebalance the global political economy, and social processes including multi-stakeholder, inter-disciplinary and multi-sector partnerships and sustainability reporting and accountability.

Beris is a former Australian Dilomat, and Director and UN Representative for World Vision International.

She is the Founder and Lead Facilitator, Incitāre and the principal investor in the social enterprise, Iso-Tech sp.Z.o.o (Poland). Beris is an Associate of Impact Bridges Group (Canada) and of LeanFinance, Brisbane, Australia.

Beris has also been a major partner in the Centre for Socio-Economic Development (Switzerland) and the Humanitarian Futures Roundtable (UK).

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