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Foresight is 2020....or even 2045

by Gavin Thomas, President, PSA

For the past few years I have been strongly advocating for the service to have a capability to look to the future.

Not just to the next year, or even to the end of the next political cycle which seems to determine our budget setting processes.

I mean properly into the future – next generational distances, perhaps even further.

Such a capability would provide not just policing but also opinion formers, politicians and the public, with some foresight as to the threats, risks and opportunities facing the service. I see this  reaching out 20-30 years: beyond my time and probably that of many of you who are reading this!

What we do know is that in the 2020s, as well as negotiating post-Brexit, we will be facing an accelerating wave of social, economic and technological change.

Current forecasts suggest a decade characterised by low economic growth, strained public finances, new patterns of immigration, advances in artificial intelligence, the automation of low–skill jobs, and a larger, older diverse population.

While life beyond Brexit remains uncertain, by 2030 the UK is likely to have a radically reshaped economy and have experienced changes to its social, legal and political institutions.

At the same time advances in technology, data, and artificial intelligence will transform how we live learn, work and communicate.

But what does all this really mean for policing? What lies beyond it? And should we really be exercised with needing to understand?

On this latter point, for me the answer is categorically “yes”. A service as important as ours should not be operating “futures blind”.

Policing has always been shaped by a complex convergence of social, political, economic and technological factors.

Failing to foresee and think about these factors is a risk. The alternative is a short-term perspective promoting a reactionary approach to events when they arise. History tells us this is not the best way to approach policing.

This is not new. One recent study of corporate foresight in 83 multinational firms found future preparedness to be a strong predictor of increased profitability and market growth.

Had policing had this capability 20 years ago, we may have been in a better position to deal with some of the wave of cyber-enabled crime society is now facing and which makes up half of recorded crime.

On a smaller, but still important, scale, indicators existed which could have pointed us towards the likelihood of metal theft becoming a major issue a few years ago.

But we weren’t looking at them as a service, as a whole, and it affected every force to some degree.

The Ministry of Defence makes extensive use of foresight with its Strategic Trends Programme, producing its “Global Strategic Trends” document which identifies key trends and projects them forward 30 years.

This influences their “Future Operating Environment” which describes a strategic context focused on defence and security implications.

To date policing currently lacks a coherent understanding of it’s future operating environment.

However my Association, together with the College of Policing, have put forward proposals that have been agreed for the service to adopt and take forward such a programme; working closely with the Police Futures Scanning Group, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office Analysis and Insight team.

I am confident that we can start to address this and produce a programme that future police leaders, politicians, and stakeholders and can use to shape their thinking, policies, and future reforms.

This is a small step forward but one that I am excited will help our great service to meet the future with even greater confidence.