Making our own collective future in Scotland
Sunday National, January 3rd 2021
Until it arrived, 2020 was seen by many as a symbol of the future. It was a benchmark and distant date with destiny – aided by phrases like ‘2020 vision’. But 2020 didn’t feel like the future that had been predicted – or like any other year. This is a salutary lesson. Much of the future is always surprising, unimagined and unpredictable – while other parts are predictable or ‘inevitable surprises’.
To think, dream and conceive of the future is part of what it is to be human. Yet, conventional futures thinking (what used to be called ‘futurology’) tends to miss much as it contains such a narrow set of assumptions. There is an over-propensity to prioritise order and rationality, a belief in the efficacy of models and predictions, and now – with unparalled computer capacity – there is a faith in algorithms as a substitute for reality.
How we imagined the future in the past
The world of past future predictions is littered with people making mistakes. For example, the economist and statistician Irving Fisher predicted just before the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 that stocks had ‘reached a permanently high plateau’ – his reputation never recovered.
Another, the comprehensive Hudson Institute publication The Year 2000, published in 1967, covered much ground predicting that by the 21st century ‘the EEC has evolved into a semi-protectionist club with Britain excluded’. But it missed the changing role of women in society and the economy, the resurgence of Islam, the increasing turbulence in the Middle East and its impact on the world economy, and the importance of the environment.
Margaret Heffernan believes we need to rethink the future and in her book: Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together, observes that: ‘We have come to expect the future to be minutely and perfectly predictable. And then it rains after all, the train’s late, traffic is held up by a crash, the neighbourhood is noisy, the job hateful, and the election doesn’t go our way. Trump. Brexit. The end of history. The fall of idols. Booms and busts and out of the blue, #MeToo. The predictability of life, on which we’ve come to depend, seems to fall away and we’re left angry, intolerant, fearful.’
Heffernan comments: ‘The other thing that’s really important is that we have, over the last 100 years at least, very much fallen in love with this idea that human life is predictable. Whether it’s economic models, or big data or AI, if we just have enough data we can know everything. That was one of the founding ideas of a lot of Silicon Valley.’
Past Scotlands and their lessons for now
Scotland over the years has had its share of future visions and plans. In the 1930s planners and experts began focusing on the long-term challenges of Scotland around prosperity, poor health and life expectancy, and the legacy of a brutal, laissez fare capitalism. Their solutions involved planning, better use of resources, partnership between government and business, and a state which was more interventionist and powerful – seen in the new powers given to the Scottish Office and the opening of St. Andrew’s House in 1939.
All of this laid the ground work for the impulse and drive in post-war Scotland which created a New Deal between state and citizen and tamed the worst excesses of capitalism, introduced full employment and the NHS, built ambitious Hydro-electric schemes, engaged in massive public health programmes eradicating diseases such as polio, and embarked on slum clearance across most of our cities, leading to the rise of council housing and New Towns. This was seen at the time as a great achievement: a ‘new society’ of Scotland and Britain which banished the evils and fears of the past.
By the 1960s this vision had become eroded with worries about the economic competitiveness of Scotland and the UK, and these led to far-reaching economic plans such as the Toothill Report of 1961 and National Plan for Scotland of 1965 – the latter part of an official UK plan. The abandonment by the Wilson Government of its economic growth policies as a result of devaluation of the pound in November 1967 and triumph of short-termism was a moment in modern social democracy in Britain never recovered from – leading directly to the IMF crisis of 1976 and Thatcherism.
At the same time, elements of the great and good of Scottish society had strategic ideas for the economy which coalesced into the ‘Oceanspan’ project, backed by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry who, pre-Scottish Enterprise, were the nearest the country had to an economic development agency. From the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, this was pushed as the answer to Scotland’s future. It entailed using Scotland as a gateway between the Americas and Europe with materials coming into the West via the Firth of Clyde being finished and then exported from the East, but was overtaken by the economic storms of the early 1970s.
Coming full circle to the devolution era, in the last days of Labour – in 2007 – a group of senior civil servants produced research analysing the main trends, prospects and future scenarios facing Scotland called The Futures Project. These were published just as Labour lost office and the SNP came to power; the political dynamic then changed, and the work and any insights was pushed to the side.
Scotland 2020 and Glasgow 2020 and the Power of Story
At this point I became aware of the absence of serious futures thinking in Scotland and brought together a range of partners in two projects: Scotland 2020 and Glasgow 2020. These were shaped as much by limitations in futures thinking as its scarcity here, and by the prevalence of scenario planning – pioneered by the likes of Shell in the 1970s but which had by then become a consultancy template. And there was also the desire to embrace the realm of imagination, creativity and unpredictability through using narrative and storytelling.
Glasgow 2020, the more innovative project, entailed a reimagining of the city through the power of story and the stories people tell and create. It identified the ‘official future’ of the city which was sectoral – tourist, shopping, cultural – and instead presented one about values and people. It looked at missing voices and stories, and drew national and international attention, by democratising the future through ‘futures literacy’ and reimagining the city through people’s stories.
The independence debate implicitly brought hopes about a different future to the fore, but did not produce many explicit plans. There were exceptions such as the work of Lateral North – a multi-disciplinary research and design collective, who produced an inspiring An Atlas of Opportunity on a Scotland repositioning itself as a northern nation. This group have gone on to do community and practitioner work aiding change and capacity around the country.
It is in this context that Scotland 2070 has just been published; produced by Ian Godden, Hillary Sillitto and Dorothy Godden, deliberately focused on a fifty-year vision to get to the big questions. Their answer is that it has to be post-oil, pro-renewables and embracing our future as a northern European nation. If there is one missing area in their work it is the realm of politics – with their strapline reading: ‘An ambitious vision for Scotland’s future without the politics’ – but it is clear that the reach of their ideas can only come about in an independent country.
Hillary Sillitto says of creating Scotland 2070: ‘We saw a massive gap in the debate. There is very little long-term thinking, and the 50-year view is missing altogether – no one else seems to be thinking this far ahead.’ He summarises its core message as: ‘Telling new stories about Scotland’s future. Scotland can succeed in the new world if we act decisively and ambitiously to take advantage of new opportunities that we can see emerging’. And for this to have impact he emphasises that: ‘Our dream would be that Scots look to the future positively, post-COVID, post-Brexit, post-oil, with the ‘can-do’ attitudes that so characterised it in the past. Scottish scientists, engineers, administrators, academics and entrepreneurs have set the pace before. We still have those latent skills.’
2020 – the year we have lived through, rather than the abstraction – shows that humanity needs to get serious about thinking about, assessing and planning for the future. In Scotland, this is related to key issues: one the reluctance of institutions to do so and the independence debate. On the former, a whole host of agencies that should embrace this terrain have chosen not to. The Scottish Parliament Futures Forum, as one example, is a creation of the Parliament and has always avoided controversial subjects – which seems to include the future of the nation, but so have the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Royal Society of Arts and NESTA.
Independence and creating our collective future
The independence debate is explicitly about the big choices facing the country. This has so far been about an SNP catch-all version of a progressive Scotland which attempts to incrementally make people feel more confident and independent, doing so while avoiding as much as possible the difficult trade-offs and priorities which can lose votes.
Writer and thinker Pat Kane says that this untenable position is locked up in what senior SNP figures have called ‘the golden threat of competence’ as the governing credo of the party in power. This implies building up voter confidence in self-government and the belief in our own collective capacity, but Kane views ‘even that version of independence is a pragmatic ‘normalism’, not a romantic nationalism.’ It aspires for big change and ‘expects to be just as good as Norway, Ireland or Finland, in their mild prosperity and sensible world status’, but has a strategic ambiguity which Kane summarises as: ‘Let us get to the starting block of nation-statehood, and we’ll worry about the future when it comes.’
Returning to Margaret Heffernan it is illuminating that her book Uncharted was published in February 2020 before the scale of COVID-19 become evident, yet her last chapter, ‘Be Prepared’ is about the danger of amongst other things: pandemics. Heffernan comments: ‘Epidemics are always crises. That means relationships have to be carefully nurtured and negotiated before an outbreak.’
This requires she believes leadership who ‘need the moral authority to be honest about sacrifices and they will have to resist the rhetorical allure of over-simplified fantasies’ and instead be ‘characterised by rational optimism [and] a grounded belief in human capacity.’
This is a tough ask but can be done, and is being done in places not that far from here – such as Wales. The Welsh Government passed a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in 2015, advocated by former minister Jane Davidson who had grown increasingly fed up with the high talk of sustainability by public bodies while failing to deliver in the immediate. Using the UN Sustainable Development goals as a starting point these provided status, structure and urgency, and led to the creation of a Future Generations Commissioner for Wales – Sophie Howe. She is tasked with examining proposed legislation and development with a mind to the future and sees her work as being ‘the guardian of the interests of future generations in Wales.’
Where Wales has gone Scotland could go too. We could decide to get serious about our collective future – one that would make more substantial our debate on independence. That would require the Scottish Government embracing the need for deeper and longer-term thinking – which would act as a catalyst for other public institutions and agencies to step up and embrace the future.
We should be clear that facing some of the tough choices about the future – about the economy, wealth, inequality, climate change, immigration and demographics – are not additional debates to the big question of our constitutional question. They are central to asking the collective questions which define us: what do we need to do and what do we need to be, to map the future?
Scotland sees itself as increasingly as a progressive, democratic and outward looking European country: all qualities that are not exactly revolutionary, but are increasingly at odds with the direction of the UK and successive UK Governments. Making this an explicit vision which defines us requires that we collectively decide to do so as citizens, get government and public bodies to prioritise this, and define our choices by who we want to be and the future we want to live in. In so doing, this has the chance to make Scotland a better place to live, work, grow up and grow old, and a place that is a better home for all who live here.