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The Year is 2020: The Future Agenda Programme

Companies are looking further out than they used to. The recession has questioned many of the assumptions by which organisations operate, has prompted people to consider alternative pathways and, most significantly, has challenged major firms to take a more informed view of the future.

Now while the likes of Shell, IBM, Nokia and P&G have long-standing futures programmes that have served them well over the years, as the rate of change in many areas accelerates; as the drivers of change such as China, population growth and water scarcity become more tangible; and as other companies start to look further and wider for potential growth platforms, the approaches are changing. While Shell’s scenarios and Technology Futures programmes and IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook have sought to bring together and consult with expert groups, Nokia’s Wild Cards programme has been analysing uncertainties that could have impact going forward.

Interestingly Vodafone, the world’s largest communications company, is taking a new approach. As an organisation whose products and services are used in an increasingly diverse range of applications from micro-payments in Africa to machine to machine communication for cars and remote meters in Europe, Vodafone is keen to explore and understand how the wider world will probably change over the next year, but to do so using the new communication platforms that many of use now take for granted. Vodafone wants to listen to what experts think, but to do so in a way that encourages global debate and, most significantly in an era of open innovation, share all the insights for everyone to use.

So, what are they doing? Well, they are sponsoring a unique global debate called futureagenda.org. This has just kicked off and is looking at the 16 of the biggest challenges the world faces over the next decade– the future of authenticity, choice, cities, connectivity, currency, data, energy, food, health, identity, migration, money, transport, waste, water and work! The Future Agenda programme aims to unite the best minds from around the globe to address these issues. In doing so, it is mapping out the major issues, identifying and debating potential solutions and suggesting the best ways forward. As a consequence, it aims to provide a platform for collective innovation at a higher level than has been previously been achieved. A big remit and bold ambition!

Starting with the expert views from some of the world’s leading academics, business thinkers, economists and senior people from the likes of Google, Shell, General Mills and the BBC, everyone is now being invited to add their thoughts and comments into the mix. Whether you agree with the views or have alternative perspectives, anyone can join in this programme, which open for comment until the end of the year. The questions being addressed are big ones – what are the major global challenges we face? What is certain and uncertain? Which way should we go? What are the impacts and implications? For each topic, bringing together expert views as well as engaging the wider public at the same time is a unique approach and one which many other organisations are keen to participate in.

What I see as interesting about this can be summarised as three things – openness, connectivity and focus:

No other futures programme has invited so many people to participate in an open debate and given all participants free access to use all the information from the discussions as they wish: Other companies have filtered out the noise and shared summaries – this programme is flipping conventional approaches on their head.

As 1 billion of us now have mobile access and many more use the internet as a core platform for information sharing, this is also another step forward as blogging enters the mainstream. For CEOs and professors to join students and the wider community in such a big experiment is a sign that blogs are maybe no longer a niche communication platform.

Lastly, by making the focus the ten year view, the Future Agenda programme is pushing people’s thinking beyond the usual horizon. While many of us find it easy to make comments on the here and now, and even postulate on short term trends, most are not used to thinking out to 2020, never-mind trying to address such major global challenges. However, at a time when many of the topics being addressed are increasingly present in the mainstream media, probably the timing is spot on?

Already there are some high impact insights on the futureagenda.org site – ranging from an incredible open view of the energy challenge that questions our short term ability to really change, through to a perspective on the future of food that advocates a second green revolution. On top of this, experts have suggested that the future is about less variety not more; that by 2020 the dollar will have been joined by the Asian Currency Unit as a global reserve currency; and that digital money transfer via mobiles will become the dominant means of exchange in the next decade.

In the New Year, Vodafone and many other organisations participating in the programme will be taking all the insights and filtering them to see what new connections and opportunities are likely to arise. They will be looking to seed new areas for cross-platform innovation and better understand their priorities going forward.

As a unique and admittedly ambitious approach, the Future Agenda programme is already causing a stir and attracting many companies to get involved. As a mechanism for organisations to collectively share views and build more collaborative paths forward to tackle the big global challenges, it will be well worth watching and even taking part?

- A special thank you to Tim Jones, Programme Director for the Future Agenda. If you would like more information about Future Agenda please visit www.futureagenda.org or contact Tim at tim.jones@futureagenda.org

Picture: A man hitchhiking a ride with a yellow sign in his hands that reads 'future'. with thanks to Vermin_Inc for publishing on Flickr under a Creative Commons license some rights reserved.

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