Strategic Foresight: A Catalyst for Economic Recovery

By Air Chief Marshal Gagan Bulathsinghala, Senior Fellow SAFN

Sri Lanka should also consider the national security clearance aspect of large-scale foreign strategic projects.

Strategic planning is great if your environment is stable and unchanging but should be better when we are facing “VUCA” – Volatility, Uncertainty, Chaos, and Ambiguity. 

We must expect the unexpected. However, we can ensure that we have the versatility and the means to respond to new risks and threats to our security.


Was there a lack of strategic foresight in policy-making in Sri Lanka?  

There have been many contributory factors to the challenges posed to Sri Lanka such as the 30-year conflict, Easter Sunday attacks, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and finally the economic meltdown. 

The government valued Sri Lanka’s economy at $89 billion last year. Even with an 8.7% contraction in gross domestic product predicted for this year and accounting for currency depreciation, the economy will be around $75 billion, with a per-capita income of about $3,400.

The crisis has had multiple compounding factors like tax cuts, devaluation of its currency, increasing inflation, money creation, and a nationwide policy to shift to organic or biological farming. Sri Lanka will remain a middle-income country,” the International Development Association (IDA) office said in a statement. “We will request the World Bank to grant the country eligibility to obtain loans offered by the International Development Association (IDA).”  

The IDA is an arm of the World Bank that helps the world’s poorest countries to reduce poverty by providing zero to low-interest loans and grants.

“Transformational leadership begins with a strategic vision that ignites the hearts and minds of individuals, propelling them towards a shared purpose.” Martin Rowinski

Strategic Foresight and Transformation Leadership

Strategic vision and purpose are the driving forces behind transformational leadership. Leaders who embrace strategic vision and purpose unlock the potential for transformation and greatness within their teams and organizations. 

By developing a strategic vision, leaders provide a clear direction and a compelling narrative that guides the actions and decisions of their teams. This vision is shaped through self-reflection, environmental analysis, stakeholder engagement, and effective communication. 

Aligning purpose is equally crucial for organizational success. Purpose infuses meaning and significance into the work individuals do, fostering a sense of fulfilment and motivation. Leaders must effectively communicate the “why” behind the vision, empowering individuals to connect their values and aspirations to the shared purpose. By providing autonomy, cultivating a supportive environment, and recognizing the contributions of team members, leaders nurture a sense of ownership and inspire innovation. 

In action, transformational leaders with a strategic vision and purpose create a culture of inspiration and excellence. They lead by example, embodying the values and vision they communicate to their teams. Through their empathy, authenticity, and focus on individual growth, these leaders foster an environment of trust and collaboration. They empower their teams to take risks, embrace change, and continuously strive for excellence. 

Strategic vision and purpose are the cornerstones of transformational leadership. Leaders who possess a clear vision and purpose have the power to inspire and motivate their teams towards extraordinary achievements. By developing a strategic vision, aligning purpose, and embodying the values they espouse, leaders ignite the potential within their teams and propel their organizations towards transformation and success. Through the art of transformational leadership, leaders create a lasting impact and leave a legacy of greatness. 

Further, Strategic foresight is a structured and systematic way of using ideas about the future to anticipate and better prepare for change. It is about exploring different plausible futures that could arise and the opportunities and challenges they could present. Developing countries benefit from strategic foresight for several important reasons (See Table).

Anticipation of ChallangesHelps developing countries to anticipate and identify potential challenges and opportunities in the future. This proactive approach allows them to prepare for and mitigate potential risks, making their development more resilient.  
Resource AllocationDeveloping countries often face resource constraints. Strategic foresight enables the allocation of resources more effectively by prioritizing key areas for development and addressing emerging issues before they become crises.
Long-Term PlanningProvides a framework for long-term planning. It helps developing countries set realistic and achievable goals, aligning short-term actions with long-term objectives. This is crucial for sustained economic and social development.
Informed Decision-MakingPrepares decision-makers with a better understanding of the potential future scenarios. Informed decision-making is based on foresight that can lead to more effective policies and interventions, reducing the likelihood of making reactive decisions that may not be in the country’s best interest.  
Technology and Innovation AdoptionDeveloping countries often face challenges in adopting and adapting new technologies. Foresight allows them to identify emerging technologies and trends, facilitating the strategic adoption of innovations that can drive economic growth and improve quality of life.   
Global CompetitivenessHelps developing countries to position themselves more competitively in the global arena. By understanding global trends and anticipating market demands, they can tailor their strategies to take advantage of opportunities in the international marketplace.  
Resilience to External ShocksDeveloping countries are often vulnerable to external shocks, such as economic crises, natural disasters, or health pandemics. Strategic foresight helps them build resilience by identifying potential risks and developing strategies to cope with and recover from unexpected events.  
Stakeholder EngagementInvolving a wide range of stakeholders in the foresight process fosters collaboration and ensures that diverse perspectives are considered. This inclusivity can lead to more comprehensive and effective strategies that address the needs of various sectors of society.  
Capacity BuildingImplementing strategic foresight requires a certain level of institutional capacity. Engaging in foresight activities can contribute to the development of organizational and institutional capabilities within developing countries, enhancing their ability to circumnavigate future challenges.  
Sustainable DevelopmentContributes to sustainable development by promoting a holistic approach that considers economic, social, and environmental factors. This helps developing countries pursue development paths that are not only economically viable but, also environmentally and socially responsible. 
Table: Developing countries benefit from strategic foresight for these important reasons

Strategic foresight does not attempt to offer definitive answers about what the future will hold. Foresight understands the future as an emerging entity that’s only partially visible in the present, not a predetermined destiny that can be fully known in advance and predicted. 

Foresight in Leadership 

While strategic vision will help a leader plan for the future, strategic foresight will enable a leader to deal with the inevitable variations that will occur as that future unfolds. 

Today’s world leaders commit noteworthy vigor to building compelling strategic visions to inspire and guide their organizations into the future. But, without the ability to anticipate how this future might unfold, some world leaders find themselves unprepared to deal with the future they’ve led their country towards. While strategic vision will help a leader plan for the future, strategic foresight will enable a leader to deal with the inevitable variations that will occur as that future unfolds. Thus, while our vision will always denote an image of the preferred, idealistic future, our scenario planning will outline those possible alternatives. 

Sri Lanka’s Strategic and Economic Significance 

Sri Lanka needs to assess the strategic and economic significance of major projects with large foreign investment by 2030, 2050, and beyond. It would be relevant to take public input on these strategic long-term projects. Further, importantly, when a project is awarded 99 years of lease agreements, most of the policymakers who decide on it are very unlikely to see its conclusion. 

In many other countries, especially our regionally important partners China and India, any large-scale strategic foreign project undertaken is reviewed and granted clearance considering National Security. Sri Lanka should also consider the national security clearance aspect of large-scale foreign strategic projects. This clearance or the study report could be preserved for the next generation as a point of reference. Furthermore, these reports generally assess the project’s strategic value addition to our economy. It is important to consider that given the volatile global order, what may be the best strategic option today may not be the same in a few years. 

Perhaps a methodology should be designed to deeply understand likely unfolding future events and scenarios. Foresight analysis is a good methodology for countries to predict the best future scenarios. As discussed, “Strategic foresight” is a bland term for a great idea to look into the future and beyond to figure out what’s coming, so you can be ready. Also, Strategic foresight is different from strategic planning. Strategic planning looks at what you have historically offered and asks, “How can we do this a little better, faster, or more efficiently? How can we improve or expand upon what we’re currently doing?” Strategic foresight looks 10 or 20 years into the future and asks, “What will our future pool members value? What kind of products and services will our members need, and how can we best serve them?” Strategic planning is great if your environment is stable and unchanging but should be better when we are facing “VUCA” – Volatility, Uncertainty, Chaos, and Ambiguity. 

Foresight and National Security

Normally National Security depends on our economic security, and vice versa. The first step in the National Security Strategy should be to ensure the economy is, and remains, strong. When sticking to a long-term economic plan, any country becomes a faster-growing major advanced economy in the world. Renewed economic security means we can afford to invest further in our National Security. This is vital at a time when the threats are growing. In ensuring our National Security, we protect our economic security, which is fundamental to the success of any nation. It is important to keep the sea lanes open and the arteries of global/regional commerce to remain free-flowing. 

To meet these priorities, we must continue to harness all the tools of national power available to us, coordinated through the National Security apparatus, to deliver a ‘full-spectrum approach’. Armed Forces can deal with modern and evolving threats. In essence, the term “full-spectrum approach” generally implies a comprehensive and inclusive strategy that considers a broad range of factors or considerations within a particular context. The specific meaning can be more precisely determined by considering the field in which the term is used. 

In keeping with the emerging threats, investment in counterterrorism and aviation security remains paramount. It’s also important to maintain soft power to promote values and tackle the causes of regional security threats, not just their consequences. 

Safety and security depend not just on the efforts but on working hand in glove with our allies with bilateral and multilateral engagement to deal with the common threats faced by all. Common threats can vary depending on the context, whether it’s in the realm of cybersecurity, global security, public health, terrorism, climate change or other areas. 

Yesteryear reveals that no government can predict the future. We have no way of knowing precisely what course events will take over the next five years: we must expect the unexpected. However, we can ensure that we have the versatility and the means to respond to new risks and threats to our security as they arise. 

Evolving Passage

Reshaping Economic Interdependence in the Indo-Pacific examines shifts occurring in the global trading system and their implications for the strategic environment in Asia. In each aspect, it explores developments in goods, services, and finances, assesses the extent to which key countries and regions are decoupling from regional giants, and evaluates the consequences for regional and global politics. 

Sri Lankan policymakers may adopt a long-term perspective when making strategic decisions, even if immediate data may be deficient. It’s never too late to conduct comprehensive strategic analyses while still moving forward with decision-making. In cases where decisive action is imperative for immediate economic benefits, such as job creation and economic stimulation, decisions can proceed even without comprehensive statistics when the ventures are shovel-ready. 

Given our strategic geographical location, it’s imperative to consider the interests of both regional and extra-regional entities. The attention from both the global north and global south underscores our significance on the world stage. Further Strategic foresight emerges as an invaluable tool for developing countries like Sri Lanka to navigate the complexities of an uncertain future. It enables us to anticipate challenges and chart a course towards a more resilient and sustainable development trajectory.  Strategic foresight enhances commitment, efficiency, and policy alignment with national development objectives by fostering collaboration among government, private sector, academia, and civil society. Ultimately, strategic foresight would empower Sri Lanka to make informed decisions and pave the way for a sustainable and resilient future amidst dynamic economic, social, and political landscapes.

The author has made efforts to incorporate open-source information and acknowledges the personal thoughts sighted in this conversation while maintaining a preemptive stance towards addressing potential risks/challenges. It is important to understand the wisdom of the reality landscape and ongoing global/regional evolutions. 

Air Chief Marshal Gagan Bulathsinghala RWP RSP VSV USP MPhil MSc FIM ndc pscDirector Strategic Development WKV Group, Senior Fellow South Asia Foresight Network, President Association of Retired Flag Rank Officers, Formerly Commander Sri Lanka Air Force and Sri Lankan Ambassador to Afghanistan

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