Technology Foresight Ireland

1.1 What is Technology Foresight

Technology Foresight is the process for bringing together in partnership scientists, engineers, industrialists, Government officials and others to identify areas of strategic research and the emerging technologies likely to yield the greatest economic and social benefit and which in the long term will sustain industrial competitiveness. (Martin, 1995)3

In the Technology Foresight process the participants develop consensus on research priorities, creating a shared vision of the future they would like to achieve. The process is concerned with constructing a desirable but achievable long term future for the country and with identifying the critical strategic decisions which must be taken now to make the achievement of this vision more probable. Technology Foresight is ambitious. Ultimately, it is about creating a change in mindset regarding the way a country approaches the future.

1.2 Why Technology Foresight?

Global, national, regional and societal trends all influence the way we live and the way we do business. In the developed world, future competitiveness depends increasingly on goods and services which have a high ‘knowledge content’. New technologies and people who can develop, apply and manage technology are the key to creating these more sophisticated products and businesses of the future and to improving the quality of life for the citizen.

Aligned to this are the increasing pressures on national Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) budgets, the increasing rate of change of technologies and the cost and risk of R&D activities. This means that Governments and business must concentrate available resources and focus on areas of strategic research to underpin important national sectors and areas of opportunity.

Governments and enterprises in the major industrialised countries have in recent years been trying to formalise their discussion of future prospects and current choices concerning science, technology, the economy and society, in order to assist them in prioritising their investments. Technology Foresight is widely recognised as a useful contributing activity to such discussions. It provides one set of useful inputs to the decision making process. It offers governments and firms a set of options, which can be the basis of strategic choices.

Two imperatives influenced the decision to undertake a Technology Foresight exercise in Ireland:

  • Technology is a key driver for knowledge societies and will have wide ranging implications for the structure of society and the way we address economic, social and environmental goals

  • The Government’s strategic investments in research, science and technology must be used effectively to underpin Ireland’s economic competitiveness and development as a knowledge society

1.3 Technology Foresight Ireland

1.3.1 Developing the Approach

The economy of every country is unique and each Technology Foresight exercise and the results that arise from it are unique to the country in which the exercise takes place.

Japan and the US have been undertaking a range of ‘futures research’ activity for over 40 years. Germany, France, UK and the Netherlands have been doing so since the early 1990s. Austria and New Zealand are currently involved in Foresight projects. The Task Force, established by ICSTI to manage the initiative under Brian Sweeney, Deputy Chairman, ICSTI (Chairman, Siemens Ltd Ireland), drew extensively on the recent experience of the Netherlands, UK, Austria and New Zealand.

The Task Force developed an approach appropriate for a small country embarking on a Technology Foresight exercise for the first time. Building on ‘best practice’ elsewhere the Task Force determined that the Irish initiative should be in line with Ireland’s size and economic structure and adopt a time frame to 2015. The process should be short, inclusive, consultative and consensual.

Technology Foresight Ireland was spearheaded by eight broadly based expert Panels established in March 1998. The Panels, chaired by ICSTI members, were composed of representatives from industry, the higher education sector, State agencies, research institutes and Government departments - essentially the ‘stakeholders’ - who were asked to consider the likely social, economic and market trends that would affect Ireland in the medium to long term and the developments required in science and technology to best address future needs.

The short timescale of 12 months adopted to complete the exercise recognised that the depth and detail normally associated with the outputs from a three to five year Foresight exercise could not be replicated in this first Irish exercise. But experience from elsewhere showed that the process itself in terms of consultation, consensus and commitment was in all cases of equal value to the outputs.

Each of the Panel areas was structured to cover a number of related activities and, thereby, to include a comprehensive cross-section of the entire economy.

The sector areas covered by the Technology Foresight Ireland exercise were:

  • Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals

  • Information and Communication Technologies

  • Materials and Manufacturing Processes

  • Health and Life Sciences

  • Natural Resources (Agri-food, Marine, Forestry)

  • Energy

  • Transport and Logistics

  • Construction and Infrastructure

The Technology Foresight Ireland initiative was jointly supported by the Office of Science and Technology, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Forfás.

1.3.2 The Value of the Technology Foresight Process

It was recognised that the quality and stature of the Panel members would significantly influence the outcomes of the Panel studies. The response from industry, the higher education sector, research institutes and the public sector to invitations to serve on the Panels was highly supportive, positive and enthusiastic. The participants made use of ‘scenarios’, or pictures of where future markets and technological opportunities might lie. Scenario-planning is a tool used in Technology Foresight exercises to test the strategies being proposed for each sector for their relative robustness in the face of any combination of future uncertainties. This approach ensured that robust and flexible strategic choices would be recommended for Ireland’s technological development over the next 10 to 15 years. The use of scenario-building is an important feature of the Foresight process. It facilitates large companies, smaller enterprises, the public sector partners and researchers to break out of the constraints of thinking about the future based only on current experience and trends. The systematic process of Technology Foresight can, therefore, be of immense value in fostering a new shared mindset amongst the partners.

Half way through their work, the Panels publicly circulated the ‘First View’ (a preview of final reports) for their respective sectors. This formed the basis for numerous consultative workshops throughout the country and contributions were also invited through the press and the Technology Foresight Ireland web page. The consultation stage of the Foresight initiative is an integral and significant part of the process.

It builds consensus regarding the strategic choices being considered by each Panel and allows for a more broadly based input to the Panel’s deliberations. It also ensures a quality and breadth to the debate about possible strategic choices and a strong commitment to the final outputs.

In total 180 people were directly involved as members of the eight Panels, with almost 60 per cent coming from industry. The extensive consultation phase involved a further 430 people in eight consultative workshops. Submissions were received from 115 organisations and individuals following press advertisements. The Foresight Web site recorded 3,000 visitors (66,000 hits) and over 150 contributions were registered. The level of commitment and the unstinting support for the process from the Panel members and wider public ensured that the results represent the combined wisdom and judgement of the most experienced and dedicated participants in the STI community in Ireland.

The Technology Foresight experience in other countries was that important benefits emerge from the exercise, such as better communication, interaction and mutual understanding between scientific communities, industry and Government departments. The Irish experience has been that the actual involvement in the intensive and interactive discussions about current problems and future scenarios and strategies has been of immense benefit to all participants, and will facilitate future co-operation and networking between them.

How Ireland meets technological challenges in the future must be part of national strategic planning over the medium term, involving the Government and the social partners. The Panel

reports indicate that Ireland’s economic and social future will be strongly influenced by technology and, therefore, that investment in the areas recommended by these reports will have a crucial influence on future industrial competitiveness, the quality of jobs and living standards in Ireland. This investment will also strongly influence the opportunities to develop indigenous industry and to attract overseas industry.

Technology Foresight does not forecast the future but the process can ensure that the startegic choices made now regarding the prioritisation of national S&T expenditure are 'future proofed'.

  1. References see Appendix V