In 1858, Londoners were baking in a hot summer, just as they did this year. But while the soaring temperatures of 2022 fuelled anxiety about climate change, that summer focused minds on a different crisis of human making. The smell emanating from the open sewers of the city and the polluted Thames—dubbed the “Great Stink”—had finally become intolerable, even for the politicians in Westminster. Plans were hurriedly approved for that feat of Victorian engineering, Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers, an investment which subsequently prevented countless deaths from waterborne diseases such as cholera.
This remarkable legacy is an illustration of how acts of long-termism can bestow massive benefits on those generations that follow. But it is also a reminder that humans are almost always slow to take action without a trigger, like a moment of crisis or collective trauma. Take Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act, which raised the school leaving age and outlawed fee paying at state schools, or the creation of the NHS. Both came about in the wake of the Second World War which exposed threadbare state provision.
The logic of inaction
It should come as no surprise that sweeping reforms are generally enacted on a burning platform. Such triggers act like the outermost tentacles of some dim future reaching through the veil, imposing an immediate cost for inaction.
Classically, long-term problems prove tricky to grip because, according to the Institute for Government, they tend to share a set of thorny traits in common. Almost always politically or intellectually contested, such problems span multiple parts of government—while the costs and benefits are dislocated in time. That means paying upfront for future benefit.
These factors often conspire to make doing nothing actually appear logical. Most politicians know that, as a first mover, their intervention is bound to be suboptimal—destined to become a “lessons learned” case study for those that follow. Easier, then, to simply sit, like the frog, in the pot of slow-boiling water.
Short-term by design
This trap goes some way towards explaining how those who govern us came to inhabit a “reactive” state, jumping only when the heat becomes intolerable. But there is more to the story, not least the ever-growing supply of urgent crises threatening to overwhelm our cognitive bandwidth. The economic and political volatility of recent years has given rise to a collective condition that is perhaps best expressed by the Collins Dictionary word of 2022—“permacrisis”.
Against this backdrop, policymakers could be forgiven for feeling like they have precious little time for over-the-horizon thinking. In their work on scarcity, US academics Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan noted that time scarcity has the effect of capturing decisionmakers in “firefighting traps” where they focus on the urgent at the expense of what is more important over the long term.
If the human mind plays a part, then so too does our (unwritten) constitution, which prioritises today’s taxpayers while lacking the mechanisms to bind us to long-term commitments. Policy “solutions” to long-term challenges regularly end up passing along costs to younger or future generations, often in the form of government debt. It is bias towards the present such as this that prompted the philosopher Roman Krznaric to talk of “the tyranny of the now”.
If it feels like we are staggering from crisis to crisis, it is not by accident or quirk of the system, but because our model incentivises governments to kick the can down the road on the big issues of our era—from deep demographic shifts to food insecurity.
There will never be a panacea for chronic short-termism, given the strength of the institutional and cognitive biases which underpin it
Ironically, Whitehall is replete with rigorous analysis, horizon scans and future scenarios shedding light on the road ahead. Partly thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Government Office for Science, policymakers now have an increasingly sophisticated array of methods for anticipating and articulating the impact of future trends, wild cards and Black Swan events.
But the problem comes in putting the theory into practice, not to mention making it politically palatable. When confronted with one of the “wicked problems” of the 21st century, the average policymaker likely knows enough systems theory to be fearful of unintended consequences. Complexity thus induces paralysis.
But the UK is far from alone in grappling with this. Governments across the world suffer from a bias towards the present. Encouragingly, growing awareness of this bind has sparked a wave of experiments seeking to embed futures into institutional decisionmaking.
Locking in the long view
It is only right to acknowledge the debt this wave of experimentation owes to fiction writers, who have regularly grappled with the future as a political project. In 2005 the author Kurt Vonnegut lamented that there had never been a Cabinet Secretary for the Future, while Kim Stanley Robinson’s book The Ministry for the Future follows an international organisation of that name tasked with addressing climate change. But writers such as Vonnegut and Robinson have been joined in such imaginings by a host of real-world agitators seeking to tilt the balance in favour of future generations.
One approach gaining ground is the strategy of creating a body or a role (not unlike our own minister) with responsibility for future-facing action. In 2015, Sweden tasked a minister with temporary responsibility for future challenges, while Finland has long had a Parliamentary Committee for the Future. Back in the UK, the Welsh government appointed their own future generations commissioner in 2016.
Elsewhere, the judicial system has been the site of efforts to counteract the short-termism of parliaments, often to safeguard the environment. In 2021, Germany’s highest court issued a ruling asserting that the country’s climate change laws violated fundamental freedoms by shifting the burden of curbing emissions to the young.
There have been novel moves to “measure” the intergenerational fairness of policies. The School of International Futures recently developed a framework to help civil servants test whether policies are fair to future generations, which has since been adopted by the Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
At Westminster the question of intergenerational fairness has been taken up by crossbench peer John Bird, who has been championing a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill for the UK. Among other duties, the bill seeks to establish a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Future Generations and would require public bodies to publish future generations impact assessments.
There will never be a panacea for chronic short-termism, given the strength of the institutional and cognitive biases which underpin it. Yet this patchwork of experiments does hint at a sea change in attitudes, as well as a growing appetite to think more systematically and ambitiously about governing in line with a nation’s future interests.
To these experiments we add our own Minister for the Future; a blank canvas upon which more ambitious ideas or projects can be projected. The very act of creating permission for such thinking in mainstream policy discourse helps to shift the Overton window—or the policy “possibility space”—which has become gradually more restrictive as successive crises fatigue us.
The minister’s inbox
We’ve chosen eight themes that would dominate any real Minister for the Future’s inbox. While far from comprehensive, the collection offers up a cross-section of the kinds of trends, technologies and cultural shifts which will loom large on the policymaking horizon in coming decades.
This uncertain landscape is littered with both risks and opportunities for the UK, especially as these dynamic trends start to interact unpredictably. A case in point: how can we plan for a labour market simultaneously rocked by the aftermath of Brexit, the green transition and automation? Although some hold out hope that the latter will unlock productivity growth, in practice many workers will struggle to adapt to this brave new world without support.
To fill up the minister’s red box with actionable ideas, we’ve assembled world-leading academics, scientists, campaigners and business leaders alongside many who have spent time at the heart of government. Together, they bring deep expertise, a dash of leftfield thinking and unique insight into the way these challenges are likely to unfold.
Pluralism is at the heart of this undertaking. Over time, too much airtime has been given to just a handful of Silicon Valley technologists and billionaires with visionary schemes for the advancement of humanity. Because there are no simple solutions to such multifaceted challenges, you’ll also find several proposals for every topic.
The intent is that these contributions stimulate, provoke and inspire. To that end, we invite you to look beyond the permacrisis of the current moment, and pull up a seat behind the minister’s desk.
This article first appeared in Minister for the future, a special report produced in association with Nesta.