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- Science at USAID
On November 4, 2011, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) hosted the first-ever “Symposium on the Future of Development Challenges” in Washington, D.C. Along with our partners at the Department of State, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the National Defense University, we brought together development theorists and practitioners, economists and demographers, scientists and futurists to explore and discuss emerging development trends that will shape our collective policies and programs long into the future.
It was an inspiring day. The symposium’s goal was to use futures analysis to help USAID and other development organizations turn our vision from our current portfolio of projects and programs, and extend our gaze out over decades to come. In so doing, we were seeking to catch up with our counterparts in the private sector, the intelligence community, and the military, who have been engaging in futures analysis for years. A brief view of development trends over the past two decades suggests how important this exercise can be. Today, the technology available to every person on the planet in a personal digital assistant is more advanced than super-computers in 1990. Breakthroughs in science and innovation applicable to global health, food security, and climate change adaptation and remediation occur daily. The flow of capital to developing countries — about $1 trillion each year — now dwarfs development assistance, making public-private partnerships ever more important. Child mortality rates are plummeting throughout the developing world at rates even the most optimistic experts could not have anticipated, producing a so-called “demographic dividend.” The wave of democratic governance has accelerated: when the Berlin Wall fell, only two of our development partners in Africa were democracies; today, more than 20 enjoy that status.
Many of these past trends will continue into the future, but as we know from investment prospectuses, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future developments. The many outstanding presenters and discussants at the November 2011 symposium stretched our imaginations and forced us to reassess our developmental, demographic and foreign affairs assumptions.
As I launched the symposium, I could not help but think back to the work of Isaac Asimov, the American biochemistry professor and renowned science fiction author. In 1951, Asimov published the novel Foundation, the first of seven volumes released as part of his Foundation Series. In these books, Asimov introduced the concepts of “mathematical sociology” and “psycho-history.” He suggested that studying the collective actions and tendencies of societies — filtered through probability theory — can help predict the future. In his series, a group of the world’s greatest scientists and thinkers came together to form the Foundation, an institution that seeks not just to foresee the future, but to gently guide it into more prosperous, peaceful, and democratic directions.
At the USAID symposium, attendees explored new development frontiers using futures analysis and turned the event into a virtual reality of Asimov’s Foundation. True, our time-frame was a bit shorter than that of the Foundation, which looked 30 millennia in advance, but the lesson is the same. Traditional short-term development plans are no longer sufficient, and longer-term plans must be grounded in thoughtful analyses of future trends. This message is particularly important as we consider new development goals for the next generation in the follow-up on the Millennium Development Goals.
I am immensely proud of USAID’s status as a pre-eminent learning institution and a thought leader in futures analysis for development. Working with our development partners in governments, multilateral institutions, the private sector and civil society, USAID seeks to elevate the importance and draw from the lessons of futures analysis. I hope you will find inspiration in the thought-provoking chapters in this book to work with us to make Asimov’s vision of a Foundation not just a fantasy, but a reality.
Donald Steinberg, Former USAID Deputy Administrator
Last updated: October 07, 2013