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From Science Fiction to Designing the Future: Annual Foresight Conference Commences at HSE University

From Science Fiction to Designing the Future: Annual Foresight Conference Commences at HSE University

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This week, researchers from all over the world have gathered online for the 10th annual International Academic Conference ‘Foresight and STI Policy’ at HSE University. One of the cross-cutting themes of the anniversary forum, which will be held from November 9 to 13, is lessons learned from the pandemic and the crisis’s effects in future scenarios.

Futures Studies has been a distinct field for already half a century, and large teams of HSE researchers have made a significant contribution to it. Every autumn since 2011, HSE University’s Institute for Statistical  Studies and Economics of Knowledge (ISSEK) has been organising the International Academic Conference ‘Foresight in Science, Technology & Innovation (STI) Policy’

If the author HG Wells, the first writer to use the term ‘foresight’, had participated in the discussions of the HSE University Foresight Conference, he probably would be happy to see that at least one of his numerous predictions had come true so unequivocally and at such a scale. Specialists who ‘professionally assess the impact of new inventions and new devices’, the absence of which so surprised the writer back in the early 1940s, are active all over the world. The results of their work are in demand not only in leading universities and think tanks, but also in government bodies, development institutions and high-tech companies. On its tenth anniversary this year, the HSE University Foresight Conference reflects the continuing growth of the community of researchers of the future, the expansion of their work topics and the improvement of tools.

As Leonid Gokhberg, First Vice Rector of HSE and Director of ISSEK, underscored in his opening remarks for the Conference, the researchers that make up the event’s programme represent an impressive range of countries from Japan to the United States and Brazil. About 400 attendees from 37 countries are registered to participate in the virtual conference, which is being held over Zoom. In total, more than 60 presentations are planned for the five days.

Assessing the impact of the pandemic on the introduction of new technologies

The X HSE University Foresight Conference has become a platform for the debut of a new study by the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) of Japan. This country is considered to be the original pioneer of foresight studies: Japanese researchers have been producing forecasts every five years without interruption for almost half a century (since 1971) and continually test the strength of their previous ones.

The project, the preliminary results of which were presented by Kuniko Urashima, Deputy Director of the NISTEP Foresight Centre, compared the results of the 11th Japanese Foresight with a more recent cross-section of expert evaluations. Researchers wanted to identify the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the technical and social aspects of new technologies, in particular, assessing expectations regarding the introduction of certain developments and the possible opportunities for cooperation between diverse links of the innovation chain.

Japanese foresights are based on large scale Delphi surveys (conducted on thousands of samples and in several rounds). For example, more than 6,500 people participated in the first round of the 11th National Survey (2017-2019) and more than 5,300 people participated in the second round. The research, which was presented by Kuniko Urashima, took place over two weeks in September - October 2020 on a smaller sample (of ~2,000 questionnaires sent, more than 70% of them were completed and returned by respondents). The questionnaires were sent to experts directly involved in the development of advanced technologies, working in universities and research centres, as well as those involved in their implementation, for example in high-tech companies. As noted by Kuniko Urashima, the largest number of responses came from university staff. Respondents were asked to estimate the importance and timing for the implementation of 702 technologies (the same number as the 11th Delphi Survey), grouped into seven areas, covering the entire field of modern science and technology — from developments for health care and ICT to marine, space, and other technologies.

The study results showed that the corona crisis slowed the implementation of some technologies and raised the level of public expectations about the timing of introducing others. Experts moved some aerospace developments and environmental technologies to later than indicated in the 11th Delphi Survey. Earthquake-resistant construction technologies remain of utmost importance for Japan. In the reality of today, development and engineering solutions are in demand, on the one hand enhancing comfort and connectivity, and on the other, the ability to control what is happening both outside and inside the house; for example, for an employer who wants to monitor the effectiveness of staff working remotely.

Evidence-based moderation of dialogue between stakeholders

The path of modern technologies from concept to market can be of varying length and complexity. The implementation of economic development models based on radically new principles and technological platforms can be particularly difficult as, in addition to the profound transformation of all links in the value chain, attitudes are seriously changed and values affected.

Jennifer Casingena Harper, Consultant to the Malta Council for Science and Technology, gave a detailed presentation on how EU countries approach the implementation of the recently adopted sustainable growth strategy, the EU Green Deal. The new strategy sets an ambitious goal for the EU to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, that is, to stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by shifting the entire European economy to embrace the principles and technologies of resource efficiency. Foresight, which in this case acts not only as a forecasting tool, but as a unifying platform for dialogue between stakeholders, cannot be avoided, the speaker concluded.

The importance of foresight is constantly increasing and is reaching the supranational level not just in the framework of EU policy. Anastasia Belostotskaya, who heads the ‘Scenarios and Special Projects’ foresight programme of the World Energy Council, continued with the energy theme and described the likely scenarios of overcoming the global energy crisis on the horizon by 2024. They all involve different configurations of collective actions that define the contours of a common future and also transcend sectors and geographical boundaries.

Alanna Markle and Dexter Docherty, members of the Strategic Foresight department, shared the experience of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for which foresight is a priority. In their presentation, they noted the growing influence of non-state actors, in particular, global corporations, which may in the foreseeable future gain the same global control over vital resources. Foresight offers tools not only to forecast new technologies and their impact, but also provides a framework for dialogue between those who create, launch, and support new technologies, and those who use them.

The subsequent days of conference will feature a presentation of new tools to conduct foresight research, including those based on the analysis of big data, policy, and business decision-making, as well as public relations research on new technologies and the measurement of outcomes in relation to cooperation between participants of this novel approach.

Visit the conference website to view the full conference agenda, links to the online webcasts, and video recordings of all sessions.

Alexander Chulok, Director of the Centre for Science and Technology Foresight of ISSEK, HSE University, discussed the programme highlights in detail in an interview with ‘RBC Trends’: ‘It is impossible to predict: how analysing the future is changing’.

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