Policy-makers need to plan for the changes sweeping society, developing approaches to emerging trends that are affecting the future wellbeing of citizens.

(This article has been translated into French.)

In the past 18 months or so, new governments have taken power in three of the four largest provinces — British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. Alberta will go to the polls this year, as will Canada as a whole. Regardless of the result of the federal election, much of the country is under control of governments new to office and rethinking things in light of new mandates.

They have plenty to ponder. The world is changing at a pace akin to the Industrial Revolution. Decision-makers in all fields face intense challenges to even keep up – from geopolitical transformation, including rising US-China rivalry; to the new concentrations of power and wealth caused by the sweeping innovations of the digital age; to the impacts on autonomy and the world of work sparked by artificial intelligence and automation; to the catastrophic effects of climate change.

Phenomenal powers of insight are required not just to grasp the impact of these changes, but also to anticipate and respond to them in order to shape the future we want. It falls primarily to two groups to represent the public interest in these disrupted times: elected officials and the public servants who advise them.

Planning is one of the key functions of a nonpartisan public service as exists in Canada and other countries that operate under the Westminster system. Many governments have cabinet committees focused on priorities and planning, and corresponding units in the public service to support them.

The priorities part gets most of the attention because it is about delivering on a government’s programs and responding to events of the day. It’s the bread and butter of government.

Planning is different. Planning entails lifting one’s eyes from the messy table of daily government functions to look around the corner or out to the horizon. In some circles, the word foresight is used to describe this long-term thinking. No one can divine the future but any government is smart to try.

In addition to helping the government deliver on its current policy priorities, then, policy-makers need to plan for the medium and longer term, including developing policies and advice to address emerging trends that will affect the future well-being of Canadians.

In the digital age, nobody holds a monopoly on understanding the future. Planning in a period of extreme change is humbling and necessary work.

Meanwhile, Canada’s political parties and non-political public servants also consult more widely than they did in the past. Each learns, sorts and synthesizes in order to govern well. In the digital age, nobody holds a monopoly on understanding the future. Planning in a period of extreme change is humbling and necessary work.

It is with similar humility that the Public Policy Forum is releasing the report Canada Next: 12 Ways to Get Ahead of Disruption, as part of Canada’s planning conversation. The report is composed of papers by professors, think tank heads and former senior government officials, and follows extensive consultations with thought leaders and doers. This series in Policy Options features their work, and is aimed at helping policy-makers identify potential future policy directions to address a range of emerging trends.

Officials from the federal government and seven provinces also provided their perspectives about what’s going to matter next and how policy-makers can best get prepared. Two messages from those consultations were that disruption can be both positive and negative. While the contributors to the report and to this series have focused in particular on technological change, including its implications on the workforce and on the public services Canadian depend on, their pre-occupations for Canada’s future extend beyond planning for disruption to include the impacts of shifting social values, demographics and climate change.

Simply put, there are three ways to deal with what has come to be known as disruption:

  • let it do its own thing and adjust accordingly;
  • implement policies intended to hold back the tide of change;
  • use policy levers to manage change for competitive advantage and harm mitigation.

Under the first approach, the damage to individuals or similarly placed groupings of individuals (for example, residents of rust belt areas, fossil fuel-producing regions, rural areas, or those with little education) is difficult to bear. And in the internet age, those individuals can be swept easily into a reactionary force fighting the tide of change. Smooth adjustments are hard. During the farm-to-factory adjustment of the 19th century, anti-market philosophies arose in response – the most notable being the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Communism exacted a heavy toll in the 20th century, as did fascism, which arose in response to political, economic and social pressures of 1920s and 1930s Europe. When such extreme ideologies arise, it is a sure sign that enlightened public policy leadership has failed.

Under the second approach, long-term national benefit is damaged for short-term advantage. Freedom itself – political autonomy, economic agency – is sometimes the victim. This suppression of expectations also can lead to greater shocks to the system later. Creative destruction cannot be denied, only delayed at potentially greater adjustment cost later.

The moderate course employs different blends of market reliance and political intervention to set free, to channel or to mitigate the process of change.

The third approach is the moderate course. It has enjoyed the greatest success, albeit by different measures in different circumstances by a varied array of social democrats, liberals and conservatives. The moderate course employs different blends of market reliance and political intervention to set free, to channel or to mitigate the process of change.

For example, the Munk School’s Daniel Munro suggests in his article three ways to address issues arising from artificial intelligence, including a laissez-faire approach to allow AI “to develop and diffuse without limit” and a precautionary approach to restrain development until “risks are better understood and capacity to manage them is in place.” Between these bookends is “a case- and context-sensitive risk management approach.” This, he argues, allows space for “AI technologies and applications to develop while monitoring and managing possible risks as they emerge in specific applications.”

Other writers in this series have sought to find the same sweet spot. They put forward ideas for managing disruption so that innovators aren’t handcuffed and the tech savvy can ride the crest of change.  But their proposals also ensure that those not so well-placed to benefit from the new economy aren’t left behind.

We hope that this series of articles, and the papers they are drawn from, are of broad interest, but particularly to those charged with the difficult task of planning smart public policy: the elected officials and public servants making Canada battle ready for what’s just around the corner or out on the horizon. Public policy is difficult to execute at the best of times but it is hugely difficult in times of sweeping change. We wish them the best of luck.

This article is part of the Nimble Policy-Making for a Canada in Flux special feature.

Photo: Pyrotechnics explode above Centre Block on Parliament Hill during the Christmas Lights Across Canada illumination ceremony in Ottawa on Dec. 5, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang


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