Ministry of future

Published: January 15, 2019
The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar

The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar

Do you know that while 3D printers and drones are making inroads into industrial applications, consumer products and even toys all over the world, it is still impossible to import them into Pakistan, without prior government permission? Similarly while crypto currencies like Bitcoin are making headway into the world, with many governments now planning to launch their own versions, they remain completely banned in Pakistan. And while we remain suspicious of genetically modified crops (GMOs), countries like the US, with far superior health and safety standards, are wholeheartedly adopting them, growing their yields manifold.

Permitting new technology does entail some risks. For instance, crypto currencies may lead to frauds; drones and 3D printers may be used for detrimental purposes; and GMOs may have some unintended consequences. But just because these technologies pose some risks does not mean that they should be abandoned altogether. If this were a good logic, we would have banned all weapons, chemicals and even motor vehicles.

The real question to ask is if the future benefits of these technologies outweigh the risks. But unfortunately our regulators are not asking this question, let alone answer it. Rather than taking an objective view towards breakthrough innovations and making our outdated regulatory structures more robust, they find it convenient to stay safe in their cocoons, far away from the rapidly evolving and growing world.

Technology is not the only area, where we are lagging behind the world. We also look at disrupting governance models with fascination, while keep on investing in the same old systems that have failed to deliver. In the health sector, we try to retain doctors in rural areas with limited success but somehow do not mainstream the use of telemedicine in government healthcare systems. Our schools keep on spending substantial time in improving children’s handwriting, not realising that they probably wouldn’t need to write a single line with their own hands. We keep on mulling over line losses and thefts while the world is rapidly moving towards distributed power generation. In the age of emails, hundreds of dispatch riders continue to work in government departments to deliver routine letters and another army of clerks keep on filling piles of registers with record of receipts and deliveries. And we keep on subsidising sate-owned enterprises like PIA, without realising that its accumulated losses (approx Rs400 billion) now equate the total market capitalisation of well-functioning airlines like Air France ($4.5b) and Turkish Airlines ($3.8b).

Why are we so disconnected with the future? The reality is that the changes happening all around us are so profound and disruptive that our traditional policy-making structures have failed to respond to them and to adapt for a better future.

Interestingly there are many countries, where governments have realised this inherent limitation in their bureaucracies and have developed structures and institutions to think about future and how the business-as-usual should be changed.

The UAE, for instance, has a ministry for cabinet affairs and future with the mandate to lead innovation and excellence efforts across the government. Similar structures exist in Singapore, Sweden and South Korea. In Singapore, the Center for Strategic Futures is entrusted to develop insights into “future trends, discontinuities and strategic surprises,” with a dedicated committee on Future Economy. Sweden’s ministry of future issues, strategy and cooperation ensures that the country remains competitive in future and forces the government to take uncomfortable unpopular decisions that may cost today but reap benefits tomorrow. In effect these institutions serve as watchdogs for the future.

While reforms are talk of the town, perhaps what we really need is to set up a ministry of future that can help us open up our thinking, nudge our policymakers to be innovative and serve as custodian for a better future.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 15th, 2019.

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