Why Politics Fails the Future

Digitalization offers remarkable opportunities both in increasing productivity, improving wellbeing and reducing environmental impact.

Everyone knows this. Everyone agrees on this. Yet progress is painfully slow.

Finland still ranks fourth among EU countries in the DESI index of digital economy. However, in the Tufts University digital evolution index our ranking is a sad 48th.

In other words: We used to be great at digitalization. But recently we have fallen behind.

People making decisions about digitalization tend to know very little about it. There are well known exceptions – MP, D. Sc. (Tech.) Jyrki Kasvi being the prime example – but they are few and far between.

Short-termism a problem for digitalization

However, technological illiteracy is not the only problem. Some challenges are more systemic and wide-ranging in nature.

Politicians engage in short-termism. This political myopia hampers our ability to make required long-term changes, including harnessing the power of digitalization.

There are various drivers of short-termism. Some of them are very human, such as ignorance and procrastination. People have a natural tendency to ignore “creeping problems” of the kind which seem invisible, uncertain or just too abstract.

In economics, there is a tendency to place greater value on current costs and benefits (discounting). But it is also true in everyday life: given the choice between 100 euros today or 110 euros in a month's time, many of us would take the 100 euros and run.

Some of our existing incentives structures also encourage short-term thinking. Executives must satisfy their shareholders within a quarterly time-frame, politicians are tied to the 24 hour news cycle.

Tackling the challenges

Luckily short-termism can be tackled. We can increase the public’s knowledge of future challenges and solutions. Funding for foresight programmes and requiring the assessment of the long-term impacts of decisions would be a good start.

Each country's commitment to the long-term could be assessed using a long-term impact index. There could be a requirement to release information on the long-term effects of projects, such as the emissions generated by a coal-fired power plant during its lifetime. In the field of economics, we should think carefully about how we use discounting in evaluating the future impact of an action.

The rights of future generations have been written into the constitutions of many countries, such as Belgium, Norway, Germany, Hungary and Estonia. This could steer decision-making, at least indirectly, towards empowering future generations.

A future-oriented perspective could be strengthened through advisory bodies. One model is provided by the German Advisory Council on Global Change WBGU.

Some countries have established an ombudsman or commissioner for future generations. The World Future Council is advocating the establishment of a new role, a High Level Representative for Future Generations, among existing UN bodies.

Another solution worth considering is appointing people specifically focusing on long-term policies within governments and parliaments. The Finnish Committee for the Future has attracted worldwide attention. Meanwhile, Sweden’s government has nominated a Minister for Future Issues.

I have written earlier in greater detail about the challenges, the solutions and how Finland fares in comparison. The take home message is: there are various tools and techniques to address short-termism in politics.

Making the best of use of these tools we can solve future challenges. And harness the power of digitalization.