Fart jokes are not quite the same when you hang out with the crowd at Policy Horizons, the federal government’s in-house strategic foresight think tank.

It took me a while to figure out the lingo when I stopped by for a visit at its downtown Ottawa offices. (It turns out that “fart” — or rather “FARTS” — stands for Fully Automated Rapid Transit System, but more on that later.) Actually, everything about the place — the talk, the workspace, the approach to advising government on policy — takes a moment to absorb.

Over my 20 years working as a journalist in Ottawa and hanging with bureaucrat friends, I’ve been programmed to think of the public service as being a certain way: largely risk-averse, insular and slow-moving. But here, instead of the typical cubicle farm, are rooms covered in sticky notes and writing on the walls (wipeable walls, who knew?). There are Star-Trek-ish chairs for discussion and thinking.

Policy Horizons team members Deanna Jamieson, John Giraldez and Peter Padbury in one of their meeting rooms (photo by Fred Chartrand).

More important is the overall spirit of the organization. Its self-described “mantra” is “anticipate, experiment and explore.” Its futurists, foresight experts (not forecasters — they hate that misnomer), behavioural experts and design thinkers are paid to analyze the disruptions that are happening in our society and economy, and to envision how they might lead to even greater changes in areas we might not anticipate.

For example, are the transit systems our big cities are building in 2017 going to be obsolete in a decade, with the arrival of fleets of self-driving vehicles?

“We don’t want people to panic about what the future’s going to look like, but we do want Canadians to know that there are possible disruptions based on technology changes. And the government’s keeping an eye on this, so much so that we’ve got an internal think tank, and all they do is think about these things,” says James Gilbert, the assistant deputy minister in charge of Policy Horizons.

Assistant Deputy Minister James Gilbert (photo by Fred Chartrand).

Governments seem to have a fluctuating attitude toward the work of the group. Its first real incarnation dates back to the Chrétien years, when it was known as the Policy Research Initiative and housed in the Privy Council Office. During the Harper years, it was rebranded as Policy Horizons and was shifted to Human Resources and Skills Development, as the department was then called. Since then it has bounced between PCO again and Employment and Skills Development Canada one more time.

The organization has kept a pretty low profile — I admit I had never heard of it before I started work in the policy field and stumbled upon one of its papers on the Web. Many bureaucrat friends I know had also never heard of it, or they said something along the lines of “Didn’t they get closed by the Harper government?” (No.)

But the group is starting to expand its presence inside and outside of government. Inviting a nosy stranger to visit the offices is probably a sign of that.

“Weak signals” is another phrase I learned during my visit. Again, it’s not what you expect — not the same as the weak signal I get on my cell when driving up to North Bay to visit relatives. No, weak signals are little harbingers of change, data points, that pop up on the radars of people who are watching the world’s accelerations. They’re not quite trends or patterns of data just yet.

“What’s shaping the world, what’s shaping the country that others aren’t noticing” is how chief futurist Peter Padbury describes those signals.

I was invited to the weekly Policy Horizons “Scan Club” in a bright, high-tech meeting room, along with visiting public servants from a number of other departments. There was even a member of the team attending via telepresence robot from Montreal (I had only ever seen that on an episode of The Good Wife). The talk at Scan Club (apparently there’s no rule against talking about Scan Club) was all about weak signals.

Deanna Jamieson, Lisa Dixon and Marcus Ballinger at Scan Club (photo by Fred Chartrand).

Scan Club reminded me instantly of a morning news meeting, where we reporters would bring ideas to the table, things we had heard through the grapevine or taken from other outlets that could be developed into stories. Colleagues would offer their two cents’ worth on people to talk to or intel they had gleaned that could be of help.

But this was a much more structured and intellectual affair (no offence to my journalist friends): each participant had sent along in advance a description of the weak signal he or she wanted to discuss. They all made brief presentations on the topics, most of them picked up from international media sources.

Steffen Christensen, a senior policy researcher dressed in an Ontario Science Centre T-shirt that said “Black Hole,” and Padbury kept the discussion moving forward — there wasn’t any room for long self-indulgent observations or tangential discussions. Christensen has a PhD in computer science (with a thesis in something called evolutionary computation). Padbury was the very chill veteran futurist in the room, asking the group every so often to “push it forward” when reflecting on a signal.

Steffen Christensen leads Scan Club (photo by Fred Chartrand).

These are some of the signals presented and discussed:

Each event was looked at from a number of angles, as the group tried to envision where it might eventually lead and how the development might disrupt other elements of life. Would more companies start hijacking the CPU power of unsuspecting visitors to their websites, and if so, what are the considerations for privacy in the future? What’s to stop the government from using your CPU power? What would we be consenting to in the future when we purchase products with an online component, and would this erode our concept of ownership?

Stuart Sykes, Jason Steeves and Dione Scott at Scan Club (photo by Fred Chartrand).

Shell is probably buying charging stations because in the future gas stations could become obsolete. Because charging an electric car can take longer than pumping gas, this could give rise to a new kind of shopping experience for travellers. Slowing down the demise of gas stations could be a good thing: municipalities don’t want a host of empty, contaminated sites on their hands. But would charging stations themselves be necessary in the future, if the roads themselves became charged? (Whoa, crazy!) Will public utilities (like Hydro-Québec) start competing with energy companies to fuel your vehicle?

The conversation was exciting and, at least for the observers, slightly exhausting. We were exposed to a bunch of new concepts (FARTS!) and some intimidatingly smart people who seem to know something about everything. At Scan Club, they throw around comments like “So, cars can’t generate power enough from solar to drive themselves because of energetics…”

“I’d actually like to do this every day,” one of the visiting public servants remarked at the end.

Now, the people at Policy Horizons don’t spend all their days at Scan Club — although Padbury notes that people on the team are expected to be “constantly scanning,” which I take to mean constantly reading. They are mostly wrapped up in extensive foresight exercises on various topics. Padbury says that the research can sometimes involve interviewing 200 or 300 experts around the world, as the team works to understand and map different systems (a food production system, an economic system, for example), identify change drivers that might disrupt different parts of that system and develop scenarios for what might plausibly happen in the future.

The work involves challenging deeply embedded policy assumptions, and Padbury says not everyone is receptive to this. He emphasizes the difference between the Policy Horizons approach and simple forecasting or extrapolation, which he says does not involve the extensive work of examining the much larger systems within which complex policy problems lie.

“What creates surprises for most organizations is the things they’re not paying attention to…We’re trying to find the things that aren’t well recognized, but that might have impacts that are quite significant and disruptive,” says Padbury.

The question that naturally arises about Policy Horizons is whether its work is actually useful to anyone in the trenches of government policy work. Is it just a bunch of wonks in an ivory tower, blue-skying (or dark-skying)?

Gilbert says the group’s studies are disseminated around the senior policy committees of government and also shared internationally. But he emphasizes that Policy Horizons is also trying to introduce a new mindset inside the public service. Part of that involves participating in a PCO-led program called Canada Beyond 150, which is training early-career, mid-level public servants on the basics of strategic foresight, design thinking and other policy development methods.

“We can’t look at future problems as just a projection of today’s problems one year out. We need to be able to find a way where we can methodically move our mindset into a horizon that is 15 to 20 years out, so that the decisions that we’re making around policy, programs, service and regulations contemplate a range of future possibilities and disruptions.”

Photo: The Policy Horizons team meet for “Scan Club” at their downtown Ottawa office. (photo by Fred Chartrand).

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Jennifer Ditchburn is the President and CEO of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. From 2016 to 2021, she was the Editor-in-Chief of the IRPP’s influential digital magazine, Policy Options. Prior to joining the IRPP, Jennifer spent two decades covering national and parliamentary affairs for The Canadian Press and for CBC Television. She is the co-editor with Graham Fox of The Harper Factor: Assessing a Prime Minister’s Policy Legacy (McGill-Queen’s).

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