Unlocking Choices Through Futures

HCLI Research
Published 20 October 2016

What will the future of talent look like in Singapore in 2030? Dr Wilson Wong, Head of Insight & Futures at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), shares research on what Singapore could look like in 15 years.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw might have passed away over half a century ago, but he lives on thanks to his words of wisdom. This is the person who noted, “…we are made wise not by the recollections of our past, but by the responsibilities of our future”.

Imagining the future is a bit like looking through a keyhole and then finding the key that opens that door. Which keyhole you peer through, and locating the key that fits, is where Futures research plays a role. The discipline of exploring alternate futures provides a range of keyholes you may not have been aware of, let alone considered.

Most of us imagine the future to be linear, proceeding as a continuation of the past into the present and then onwards in a recognisable way. On most days, it seems we walk a straight path, yet in reality, it’s more like a decision tree with many possible forks in the road — some more welcome than others. Futures research helps us to map some of those potential forks in the road. Our awareness of the many potential futures hopefully also highlights how choices made today can affect those futures.

Keeping an Eye on Time

Therein lies the value of Futures. Most decisions are taken on an analysis of historical data, namely what we’ve experienced and what we can appreciate as important. While that is often adequate for three-year business plans, the factors taken into account are often of a shorter-term, selective and biased. There are numerous studies that demonstrate how behaviourally we overweight the near-term and discount the future, and we apply heuristics to choices we consider familiar (see Kahneman and Tversky’s work). It’s not surprising that we tend to cling to the familiar and avoid exploring the nebulous or unpredictable.

Temporal myopia — the inability to consider the long term implications of an action when making choices in the present — also plays a part. The difficult climate change discussions are just another instance of how challenging it is to appreciate the link between the distant future and past and present actions. When in a leadership role, one is judged not on technical prowess, primarily, but on the quality of decision making and judgment. Given that we are all wired for temporal myopia, how can we balance our need to respond to what’s immediate and knowable, while also consciously building the capability to deal with the longer-term drivers shaping unknowable futures?

Maintaining this tension — juggling the present while trying to look over the horizon — is no easy feat. That’s why in the research report The Future of Talent in Singapore 2030, the concern is the resilience of “talent 2015” to a range of alternate futures that Singapore could face. None of the scenarios — Steady as she goes; No one is an island; Fortress Singapore; or Bless thy neighbour — is a prediction. Rather, they are designed to offer fresh “keyholes” which may challenge the manner “talent” is being prepared for a future 15 years from now.

Taking responsibility for the longer term is, as George Bernard Shaw alludes in his quote above, one way of making wiser decisions. Implicit in Shaw’s statement is that wisdom is motivated by more than narrow measures of shorter term success but an appreciation of the collective ownership of the longer- term effects of decisions taken today. While Futures research helps provide a frame to the complexity and the range of factors that shape alternate futures, the wisdom of responses to such alternate futures is reliant on the maturity of one’s worldview. The adage “two wrongs don’t make a right” illustrates that the outcome to any situation depends in large part on the choices made by the actors.

Steps to Maturity

Those worldviews are explored in a seven-level maturity model in The Future of Talent in Singapore 2030. Modelled on the hierarchy of needs developed by Abraham Maslow, it starts with survival and then progresses through seeking order, belonging, learning and development, an awareness of interconnectedness to the shift to “we” from “me” and an expansive, inclusive vision that acknowledges complexity.

While the model explores a range of actors from the individual to the State, the focus is on individual or group actors who are responsible for making the decisions relevant to the issue at hand. The maturity model poses the hypothesis that a good grasp of how complex systems interact over the longer-term in a variety of plausible environments is key. Achieve this, and the result is often better decisions and more sustainable outcomes. Realistically, when faced with intense competition to survive or the maintenance of order, there are only a limited number of “keyholes” one can look through. Futures research structures these key drivers affecting our particular futures, providing insight into the way these drivers interact.

A “mature” decision maker by viewing more “keyholes”, then has greater scope to leverage these drivers for good (or bad). In The Future of Talent in Singapore 2030, the responses to the scenarios in the study are mapped against the maturity model to illustrate how individual, organisational, societal and state responses can alter the trajectory of the future.

By highlighting the maturity of respondents and their choices, the study also questions the adequacy of the current understanding of “talent”. Are present-day assumptions about success, and what’s considered material to talent and talent development adequate to future challenges? Are investments in people, building resilience against a range of futures or do those investments focus on narrow technical mastery? Both are required but obsolescence is a constant in the latter.

Singapore Strides into the Future

Singapore can rightly be proud of its human capital. It is one of the most productive workforces in the world, delivering a GDP per capita more than twice that of the United Kingdom (on a purchasing-power parity basis). Singapore is now wealthier than many developed economies. But to stay ahead, Singapore needs to think ahead and to experiment with new development pathways. Is the current thinking on talent adequate? Do planned investments (for example in Budget 2016/17) prepare the talent for global relevance, with skills and learning capabilities that will ensure continued success in that globalised economy?

By focusing on both the development of talent and the maturity of decision makers, The Future of Talent in Singapore 2030 hopes to stimulate a challenging conversation on what we can do today to optimise the potential inherent in Singapore’s people. The wisdom of decisions taken today could yield an even better quality of life and more sustainable outcomes, not just in the city-state but also across the region.

“The Future of Talent in Singapore 2030” was developed by CIPD in collaboration with HCLI. To explore this report in greater detail please visit

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