Authors: Lazar Pop Ivanov and Biljana Cvetanovska Gugoska
‘The world faces a deficit of social imagination’, with people finding it easier to imagine negative rather than positive scenarios for the future. This is how Geoff Mulgan frames the current situation regarding the imaginary crisis and how we can overcome it. He argues that we need social imagination to benefit from the menu of possibilities one society can consider for the future; and to encourage transformative changes for the status quo. This argument on the retreat of social imagination rings true for our community as well and is supplemented by a range of other complex challenges in North Macedonia that include citizens’ pessimistic outlook of the future economic situation of the country and some distrust towards political institutions.
In this context, we asked ourselves how can we contribute towards redesigning the way we create, implement, and monitor core national development processes? Can we get citizens, institutions, civil society, and other actors engaged and excited about policymaking? Finally, can we construct common societal aspirations for the future, and use them as a development path, something that we can jointly follow and work collectively towards achieving?
We used these questions to fuel our discussions on how to support national institutions in developing a national development strategy #NDS for the country, something that will accelerate the SDG Agenda as well as the EU accession process in our country. We also wanted to bet on imagination in the process and integrate futures thinking in strategic planning and public policymaking process. One of the tools that we used, to ensure citizens engagement, participation, and ownership of the process of creating the vision of the country are the ‘Dream Labs’, and today, we would like to give readers a sneak peek into this visioning exercise. The ‘Dream Labs’ are a series of visioning workshops that we have helped set throughout the country, and in this past year they hosted more than 1500 citizens represented in various forms participating directly in the construction of the societal vision for the country for the decades ahead, as well as mapping the areas where we need to build capabilities. The insights received from citizens have shaped the conversation on how we can design the policies of the future and are shaping the way experts and institutions frame the policy document.
The Principles of the Dream Labs
The Dream Labs are an idea that has been developed by multiple stakeholders involved in the #NDS process. The initial framework was proposed by the Dark Matter Labs team, that encouraged us to think in the direction of creating an ‘imagination infrastructure’ that will help shape this policy process, build capacities across society to be able to participate in the exercise, but also use the tool in other development processes. We took on this proposal as the basis of our thinking, and we debate it among all key partners and national counterparts, with the goal to best adapt and contextualize it for our country. We also organized co-creation sessions with our UNDP colleagues to tap into their experience and lessons learned when they have organized and facilitated interactive workshops, particularly those that use futures methods. In this process we also used a variety of playbooks and tools that organizations have developed for embedding foresight in similar processes, and we iterated our approach as we got more information from new publications, including the UNDP RBAP Foresight playbook. Through these interactions and learnings, we arrived at the core principles on how our Dream Labs could look like and be organized. These are some of those values:
The Dream Labs should be led by the premise that societies can collectively imagine futures together.
The Dream Labs should bring together a diverse group of citizens, with the goal of discussing the futures and aspirations for the development of the country.
The Dream Labs should be inviting, inclusive and engaging towards all citizens in our country. At a minimum, the recommended mix of participants includes: thematic experts, representatives from the public sector, youth, civil society and private sector representatives, representatives from vulnerable communities.
The content from the Dream Labs should inform both the institutions on how the citizens see the future of the country, but also the materials prepared in the framework of the process to support the development of the NDS.
The participants in the Dream Labs should know beforehand about the main goals of the process, receive useful information pertaining the theme/topic that will be covered at the Dream Lab and their importance for the country. After the Dream Labs all participants should receive a follow up information about the event, as well as where they can learn more about the process.
The Dream Labs should always have a moderator that will facilitate the discussion, but also someone that has participated in the process that is knowledgeable of the status quo for the topic that is being discussed at that Dream Lab so that they provide a useful overview of the current situation.
The Dream Labs should be experimental. They should be organized offline and online, with smaller and larger groups of citizens, with Dream Labs that last for 4 hours or as full day engagements.
The Dream Labs should have collaborative components, where citizens can share ideas among each ether, discuss them, and promote them to the other participants.
The Dream Labs should address different time horizons, in our case we often used the 5 – 10 - 15 -20 years’ time horizon and the development visions/aspirations we would like to see in different thematic areas.
Informed by these principles we organized the Dream Labs, with the intention that to produce multiple scenarios, inspire new policies and mark aspirations that will stand as both an inspiration for our society but also potential offers for our development path. Our belief is that through the Dream Labs we’ve received insights that we usually miss out on when we are pursuing traditional planning processes.
Challenges, successful stories, and the path forward
‘Imagine a world without aspirations. In such a political world, governments and institutions would never set goals that did not appear immediately feasible’. These are the concluding remarks from ‘The Politics of Aspiration’, a paper arguing that it is aspiration that guides political action, and as a process is in its nature transformational and future oriented.
We echo this sentiment, in our experience of embedding foresight in core national development processes through the Dream Labs has had many successful components, the most important one probably being the level of enthusiasm and engagement we’ve seen from citizens to take part in the process. It has had some challenges as well, most notably sometimes during the sessions we have a hard time ‘detaching’ from the situation of today, and the challenges that we are facing right now. However, we also find that insight to be important for institutions as well, because this mapping of the challenges of the status quo, is also a nod in the direction of the immediate change’s citizens would like to see, so that we enable an environment for changes to take place and our aspirations to become a reality. We also tried to use and create tools to encourage futures thinking, and it has led to many of our Dream Labs to develop ideas that set a clear vision of how our society could look like. Be it a vision of a water management system in the country that relies on modern/smart systems that provide continuous water management and monitoring systems, fully digital museums that have augmented educational and cultural programs, zero waste policies across the country, or universities that are higher ranked on international rankings, the Dream Labs have been a valuable tool in providing content to our institutions on how our citizens see the development future of the country. More importantly, in our view is that these sessions have proven that citizens do want to take an active part in shaping the future of the country and engage in policymaking. Therefore, we are still facilitating the organization of the Labs, but we are also working with national institutions in building their capacities of organizing Dream Labs on their own and ensuring that this engagement method will be sustained and exercised not only until the formulation of the content of the strategy but also in its implementation and monitoring – a continues conversation between different actors in society about the development vision of the country.