In the past two decades, we have experienced several ‘wild cards’ or major, disruptive events that were not anticipated. But, as Dr Malcolm Menzies writes, we have shown remarkable resilience.

In times of crisis, the future becomes a focus as we think of a better world.

In New Zealand, whether it is the Tourism Futures Task Force or future-proofing Aotearoa for broad-based social change, the future, rei-magination and transformation are the new buzz words for government, industry leaders and politicians. But we have seen this all before. For example, the Knowledge Wave conference, held in 2001, aimed at finding practical new ways to make New Zealand a smarter, more successful country. The jury is still out on how successful it was.

The Knowledge Wave had a whakapapa stretching back to a National Industry Conference held in 1928, an Industrial Development Conference in 1960, and National Development Conferences in 1968 and 1972.

The last led to the New Zealand Planning Act (1977), which formally established two sibling bodies, the Commission for the Future and the Planning Council. The Commission was to study the possibilities for the long-term economic and social development of New Zealand, while the Planning Council had a more medium-term horizon.

Centralised futures thinking and planning both fell out of favour, however, and the Commission for the Future was disestablished in 1982, followed by the demise of the Planning Council in 1990. Institutionalised approaches were on the back foot. Faith rose in free-market, ‘self-organising’ mechanisms for determining future directions.

But the 1990s onward saw a flurry of disconnected planning and futures-related activity. For example, the Porter Project report outlined ways to upgrade New Zealand’s competitive advantages.

There was another go at transformation in 2009 after the global financial crisis, with the Job Summit.

What has been learned?

Over the past 60 years, the track record of planning for economic and social transformation is mixed. Attempts to ‘imagine the future’ have struggled to make headway. Some economic initiatives have delivered success, but only after a long delay, and a few have proved ephemeral. Others have almost taken us by surprise, such as hi-tech and kiwifruit, which had its best season ever in the middle of a pandemic. An old stand-by, the meat industry, is also exporting plenty and forestry is cranking back into action. Dairy never stopped.

The social landscape of today would be unrecognisable to someone from 1960. Environmentally, things might seem more familiar, although the state of our water would shock a visitor from the past.

Regardless of the low profile of futures thinking and planning’s patchy performance, Aotearoa has been through several major transformations. Some might be traced to initiatives such as the Knowledge Wave, while others have been due to individual champions, collective campaigns or people voting with their feet. Think homosexual law reform, the MMP referendum, Christchurch residents effectively moving the city westward after the earthquakes, or the actions of various entrepreneurs. Innovation and change have also been enabled by regulatory and macroeconomic settings, trade policies and so on. All sectors have benefited from the availability of infrastructure such as transport networks and ultra-fast broadband.

So transformation is complex and has been driven or facilitated from the top, middle and bottom, and enabled by wider conditions.

We have also learned the best laid plans can go awry. In the past two decades, we have experienced several ‘wild cards’ or major, disruptive events that were not anticipated. But we have shown remarkable resilience.

Currently, there are many initiatives that make up a national ‘ecosystem’ for futures thinking. The trick will be to learn from experience while nurturing that ecosystem in the interests of future generations.

Dr Malcolm Menzies will be taking part in the Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington webinar ‘(re)designing the future in a post Covid-19 world’ at 1–2pm on Wednesday 21 October.

Dr Malcolm Menzies is a visiting scholar and alumnus of Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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