First posted on:
RIETI, 14 February 2019
On 1 January 2019, the term ‘future design’ appeared in feature articles and editorials in a number of newspapers. As far I could confirm, future design was introduced in the following papers: The Hokkaido Shimbun, The Shinano Mainichi Shimbun, The Kyoto Shimbun, and The Japan Agricultural News.
Future design is a policymaking mechanism that a group led by Tatsuyoshi Saijo, a professor at Kochi University of Technology, and Keishiro Hara, an associate professor at Osaka University and a consulting fellow at RIETI, have been advocating since 2012. Its basic idea is surprisingly intuitive and simple.
The policy challenges we face include many problems that should be considered on a long-term timeline across generational lines. This includes, for example, everything from macro policy challenges, such as global warming and maintaining the sustainability of public finance, to issues at the local government level, such as operation and maintenance of bridges, roads, and water supply and sewerage systems. These are intergenerational problems with timelines lasting from a few decades up to a century. But there is a strong tendency among those in policymaking positions, including members of the Diet and local assemblies, central and local government bureaucrats, and industry groups, to think about these issues on a scale of a few years, at most.
Intergenerational problems are such that the present generation pays a cost and gets nothing, but future generations several decades to a hundred years from now reap the returns. Take fiscal problems, for example: if the present generation takes on the heavy burden of a tax hike, future generations reap the returns of a stable economic environment without financial collapse. Due to the fact that this structure exists, there is no incentive for legislators, bureaucrats, or industry groups, who are members of the present generation, to try to solve intergenerational problems because they would have to agree to pay the cost to solve an intergenerational problem while knowing full well that the present generation would gain nothing in return. When it comes to a big cost to the present generation, they are unlikely to accept that cost for the benefit of future generations. It is the present generation that engages in decision-making, and future generations have no seat at the table. That is why the interests of future generations are not protected sufficiently.
What is future design?
Future design is an attempt to solve this dilemma. The idea is simple: if there is no one to protect the interests of future generations, then designate people to ‘take on the role of future generations’ and have them stand in for future generations. This is the same reasoning as role-playing scenarios used frequently in things such as war games (table-top exercises in war). Saijo and his colleagues called these people whom are to take on the role of future generations the ‘imaginary future generation’ or ‘imaginary future persons’.
People, when they become an ‘imaginary future generation’ – that is, when they role-play an imaginary future generation – really change their lines of thought and points of view, becoming clearly aware of the interests of future generations. As a result, they actually think and act in the interest of future generations. That is the hypothesis of future design.
Future design researchers have discovered some experimental evidence supporting this hypothesis. An especially impressive experiment was a deliberation among citizens conducted in the town of Yahaba, Iwate Prefecture in 2015. Keishiro Hara and his team split randomly selected residents of Yahaba into groups representing the interests of the current generation and groups representing the interests of future generations, and then had them discuss a future vision for town administration (e.g. administration of a water utility). The groups representing the interests of future generations discussed town administration from the present until 2060 as if they were a future generation living in 2060. A big difference occurred in the discussion over the water utility, which was actually profitable at that time. The groups representing the interests of the current generation argued for returning the surplus to residents by reducing water charges, whereas the groups representing the interests of future generations argued for increasing water charges, stressing the importance of the need to accumulate funds for future investment in updating the waterworks facilities. After this experiment, Yahaba was able to actually increase water rates.
The goal of policy research
Similar experiments in deliberation among citizens have been conducted in several municipalities, including the cities of Suita and Matsumoto, suggesting that having an imaginary future generation in policy discussion could be changing people's opinion-forming processes. In terms of academic research, there is a need to scientifically and quantitatively demonstrate that having someone assume the role of an imaginary future generation changes the thought process of individuals, but there is not yet enough data and the experimental techniques have not been unified into consistent forms that allow for comparisons. If the effectiveness of imaginary future generations can be confirmed through scientific research, the goal would be to incorporate imaginary future generations into central and local government policymaking processes. Before long, the aforementioned town of Yahaba plans to establish a department for promoting future design. As the basis of future design is a simple role-playing game, it should be possible for organisations such as central government ministries and agencies and companies to experimentally introduce imaginary future generations. For example, experiments could be carried out right away in budget development work within ministries and agencies by making imaginary future generation teams that check budget proposals for the current year.
With the growing importance of dealing with intergenerational problems, I have high hopes that research into future design will lead to its widespread implementation.