Pandemics to power dynamics: how we factored the future into our new global strategy

5 min read
WaterAid/ Srishti Bhardwaj

How can an organisation best develop a 10-year plan when the path ahead looks so uncertain? Set against a backdrop of health crises, climate change and mass migration, find out more about WaterAid's work to produce a global strategy fit for the future.

Have you ever wondered whether the planning decisions you make today will turn out to be the right ones? This question underpins work on strategic foresight and the conundrum of how organisations can best plan for an uncertain future.

We have been grappling with this at WaterAid while developing our new global strategy. As relative newcomers to some of the more advanced methods in futures and foresight, we have spent the last year on a steep learning curve. We’ve gathered information, trialled new techniques and spoken to many people to help us think about the future and what it might mean for our aims. Along the way, we’ve uncovered new ideas and developed new ways of thinking, all supported by the team at the School of International Futures.

So, what did we find out? Our first lesson was that while you can’t predict the future, you can explore the range of possibilities in the decades ahead. Thinking about these possibilities gave us many insights and helped us to ask new questions about our work and how it might change over time.

Through various workshops – thinking about the future is a collaborative process – we explored ideas around uncertainty, change, impact and influence in new ways. And this gave us our second lesson: that thinking about the future can change staff mindsets and support decision-making.

Our third lesson was around complexity and the array of possible data sources we could use. There are hundreds of different trends, signals of change and various pieces of information that can help us understand the future. So, we needed to prioritise. To do this, we collected insights from our staff and external experts as they talked about how they see change happening in the world around them. These discussions produced six main themes that we’ve used to guide our thinking about the future and the possible impacts for our work.

1. Public health and pandemics

There’s no escaping the catastrophic and disruptive impact of COVID-19. The pandemic will shape our future for years to come as the health impacts and subsequent economic fallout unfold. COVID-19 has highlighted not only the success of life sciences in developing a vaccine, but also the inequalities within global health systems. A key question for us, going forward, is whether we will see a renewed focus on the root causes of health inequalities, allowing public health to rise up the political agenda.

2. Environmental crises

The projections for the environment are gloomy. Water scarcity, pollution, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, deforestation and the loss of biodiversity are all likely to worsen, with the effects falling disproportionately on vulnerable communities. But the path to addressing the deep structural problems in our relationship with the environment could also bring opportunity and innovation. Perhaps we’ll see new policy and entrepreneurial levers for positive change? We’ll almost certainly see continued growth in renewable energy, but will that also bring increased environmental stewardship and a greater focus on the sustainable use of resources? Or will our consumption patterns follow ‘business as usual’?

3. Power dynamics

Power dynamics are changing at all levels and, in some cases, being upended. We see change all around us, from cities and businesses becoming more influential actors on the global stage, to a world in which China, and other Asian economies, continue their economic ascendance. This brings challenges and opportunities at different scales. We also see shifts in several other areas, from the level of public trust in institutions and corporations, to the role of technology in changing which groups in society are seen and heard, or censored.

4. Urbanisation

Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a vast surge in urbanisation, especially in the global south. The patterns that drive this urbanisation might be changing, for example, different forms of migration, shifts in demographics, and the influence of digital working. What remains constant, though, is that the places people live, and the social, cultural, economic and infrastructural fabric of the world around them, will have a huge impact on people's lives, particularly on how they access essential services like water and sanitation.

But there’s a range of possible outcomes. On one hand, the prospect of mass migration, climate change and huge volumes of municipal waste point to cities and small towns being placed under increasing pressure. But on the other, the hub effect of urban spaces and the role of cities in global processes bring the potential for improved standards of living, innovation and new solutions.

5. Financial flows

Financial flows in the aid sector and beyond are changing. The amount and form of aid given by Asian economies, the growing importance of partnership and the erosion of the conventional North-South dynamic of donors and beneficiaries are all playing their part. More broadly, we are also seeing the increased focus on environmental, social and governance investing which use more socially and environmentally conscious criteria to screen investment decisions.

6. Technology

Our increasing dependence on technology – for everything from social interactions and financial transactions, to health monitoring and the ways we engage with systems of governance – is changing the world. Digitalisation, inter-connectivity and access to data provide important opportunities for the delivery of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes. However, the extent to which technology can change the world around us will depend on how equally these emerging technologies can be accessed.

These six themes have given us a framework through which to think about our work as a WASH organisation, but analysing trends and exploring themes is only the beginning of our journey. The question now is how we move from thinking about our futures to adapting those ideas into our new global strategy.

The blog was written by:

  • Virginia Newton-Lewis, Senior Policy Analyst – Water Security
  • Lucy Flaws, Global Strategy and Transformation Manager
  • Elaine Dunlop, Delivery Lead

with support from the School of International Futures.

Top image: Youth leaders Drishti, 14, and Rajeev, 18, do tests for water quality in Raghubir Nagar, New Delhi, India. 12 March 2020