Imagining Wales in 2100: An introduction by David Clubb

Dave Clubb, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales, introduces Imagining Wales in 2100, an anthology of essays we will be releasing in partnership over this summer.

In his book The Good Ancestor, Roman Krznaric describes the question posed by a member of the team that developed a vaccine for polio. Jonas Salk asked: ‘Are we being good ancestors?’

In a world seemingly driven by the immediacy of information, sourced from around the globe and available instantly on devices that are always at our fingertips, our attention is often focused relentlessly on the present.

Yet, in Wales at least, we should be doing things differently. The Future Generations Act, implemented in 2015, requires a number of ‘Ways of Working’ of public bodies, one of which is ‘long-term thinking’.

Within NICW we have struggled to develop, or adopt, a framework for our own ‘futures’ work. How can we hope to imagine the needs of somebody born in 2104, for example?

This introduces a significant tension; many public bodies in Wales, after more than a decade of austerity, may be tactically focusing on the here and now in response to legitimate and highly pressing service delivery issues. Why worry about a world 80 years hence, when we have statutory obligations to deliver today, tomorrow and next week? A strategic approach might use a long-term perspective to help shape, and possibly improve, the necessary tactical decisions of now.

The National Infrastructure Commission for Wales (NICW) occupies a possibly unique position within the context of a timeline of thought. Our terms of reference require us to consider Wales’ infrastructure needs within a timeframe of 5 to 80 years into the future.

This timeframe provides challenges. Within NICW we have struggled to develop, or adopt, a framework for our own ‘futures’ work. How can we hope to imagine the needs of somebody born in 2104, for example? It would have been like asking somebody in 1945 to imagine the infrastructure needs of 2025, and for them to have come up with recommendations to improve our lives using the techniques, thinking and technologies of the time.

But the people of 2100 have as much right to a healthy and enjoyable life as we do. Just because they occupy a different time, way off into the future, does not mean that they are not as valuable or worthwhile as anybody alive today, including the reader of this sentence. I can see no philosophical reason why we should not extend our best efforts to try to make decisions now that safeguard nature, the environment and the climate, for the people and communities of Wales that will live in a world replete with the consequences of our decisions – hopefully for the better.

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I believe that a long-term perspective can help improve short-term decision-making. Take the Roads Review as an example. The Welsh Government’s response to it accepted the principle of using tests to permit new road-building. The agreed tests include increasing modal shift, reducing carbon emissions, improving safety, improving road adaptation to climate change, and improving economic outcomes through better connectivity. Each of these tests has a link to the well-being of people long into the future.

The inhabitants of 2100 Wales would presumably endorse the idea of constructing fewer, better roads with increased resilience to climate change, hence being more likely to be an investment that persists into ‘their’ reality. For me, the Roads Review passes the ‘good ancestor’ test.

NICW’s own view was that the Roads Review was largely well aligned with our own framework that includes long-term thinking, albeit with some suggestions to improve outcomes for nature, to increase digital preparedness, and to use a systems approach to incorporate wider infrastructure needs. 

Policies like this give an indication that Welsh Government’s implementation of long term thinking is developing. Even if futures thinking is not yet pervasive within the public sector, I think sustainability practitioners are beginning to see Wales as a policy pioneer within the UK, and even further afield.

This collection of essays is both inspiring and challenging. In asking the contributors to imagine Wales’ infrastructure needs in the very long term, we have asked them to step out of their comfort zones. Our challenge to ourselves, and to everybody else in Wales, is to step out of our own and our collective comfort zones, and to try to consider the ‘us’ who will be living here in the far-off future when we make decisions about today. Let us all strive to be good ancestors.

This essay is part of a series commissioned in collaboration with the National Infrastructure for Wales.

Dr David Clubb a Founding Partner at Afallen LLP, which supports organisations and businesses across Wales in delivery using Future Generations frameworks. He is Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales.

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