The constituency of the future
Secretary-General of the OECD
On the Eiffel Tower here in Paris where the OECD is based, there is a clock which clicks down the days left to the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the new. It is a large, brightly-lit clock and it can be seen from quite a distance away. At the time of writing there were 178 days to go. Tomorrow it will be 177. Soon it will be 10 and in the blink of an eye, it will be day zero, or is that day 1?
The idea is important because during the months ahead many people's minds will be filled with a mixture of excitement and anxiety about the future. There will also be a sense of nostalgia and celebration of the past, for when you drift into a new era, as with every New Year, you leave another one behind. There will of course be much to celebrate. The last half century alone has been a period of extraordinary human progress, in the sciences, in the conquest of space, in industry, entertainment and discovery. Life in 1999 is quite a lot different to what it was in 1949.A large group of people bears witness to that time, of hope, of rebuilding after the devastation of war, of renewal in ideas, in technology and possibilities. It was in effect a constituency for the future. The OECD is one institution which was forged from that exciting period of reconstruction and international co-operation, helping often dispirited governments and people understand and meet the challenges that lay before them. Despite our successes, some of the challenges we have encountered over the decades came as quite a shock, from political conflicts and tragic assassinations to oil price changes and global warming. Certainly, had a well-reasoned map of the future been available to us over the years to help us plot our way forward and perhaps avoid some of these problems, I am sure we would have used it eagerly.Today's constituency for the future is even larger and more demanding than before. Perhaps by having experienced rapid change ourselves we are more conscious of our relationship with future generations. But there is more to it than that. People are not only living longer, they can expect to be healthy throughout most of their lives too. And greater personal responsibility for welfare has meant that more and more people feel they have a direct stake in the future.Indeed, investments they make or which are made collectively on their behalf depend on anticipating the way ahead: whether in pensions, in environmental developments, in energy or in global political arrangements. And in this time of thickening innovation and dizzy expansion, particularly in fields such as electronic commerce and biotechnology, there is a great pressure to find fast, though considered, responses. To anticipate the future well, if not precisely, and to allow us the opportunity to influence developments ahead of time: that is what today's constituency of the future rightly wants.One problem today is that the future arrives too quickly! Time, of course, has not sped up, but the rapidity of change, driven by modern technology, makes it increasingly difficult to adapt our public policy frameworks, let alone create new ones. But try we must. The OECD's response to this challenge was to establish the International Futures Programme in 1990, to help us think clearly and plan well. The Spotlight of this Observer is drawn from that programme, and a range of other articles in this special summer edition also consider the future in its longer term, usually 50 years.
The OECD has an important role to play in the building of the new age. The challenges will mount and new local and global problems will abound. The OECD will be there to balance the objectives, to guard against contingencies and use its expertise to advance best practice advice to its member governments. It is not a forum to promote an acquired ideology or a unitary view. It is not a closed club either: in this year's ministerial council the Organisation showed its new sense of global responsibility by opening up dialogue with non-members for the first time.The OECD has a duty to review itself just as it reviews its members, to keep its knowledge up to date, to make sure it is capable of offering a service to the citizens of tomorrow's world. It is our engagement in lifelong learning! When I see that clock on the Eiffel Tower calling out the days, and the teams of excited young tourists gathered round it, I am reminded that the vast constituency of the future will expect no less.©OECD Observer No 217-218, Summer 1999