Where would we be without foresight?

In the last issue of Scion Connections, I outlined why the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement will profoundly reshape national economies and resource use. This includes New Zealand, where some sectors appear to still believe they can compete in a decarbonising world with 20th century technology. This is not a new revelation. Scion’s scenario work in the early 2000s showed it was highly probable that economies would switch from fossil oils to plant and other low emission, renewable resources within a generation1. This set in place Scion’s “Next Generation Biomaterials” research programmes and the development of bioenergy options for New Zealand.

Scion’s strategic focus on this different, but highly plausible, future has received plenty of criticism over the years from parts of the forest industry and others who considered a dominant focus on incremental gains (or business as usual) was a more sensible pathway for economic growth. These voices were particularly strong when carbon, and later oil prices plummeted following the global financial crisis.

While Scion’s scenario plans anticipated the rising cost and scarcity of oil would drive change more strongly than what we see now, they did highlight that the unacceptable risks posed by climate change would precipitate a transition to low carbon, renewable materials and sources of energy. As illustrated within this newsletter, the foundation work in the 2000s has led to internationally competitive facilities, equipment and expertise at Scion that businesses can now access to help them compete.

Important learnings can be drawn from this foresight:

  • Science foresight must be encouraged to ensure economies and societies have options for their future in place. This should ideally occur at multiple levels - enterprise, sector and national. The “Environment and Conservation” and “Primary Sector” 20-30 year roadmaps on science direction are current examples.
  • Science evidence and insights on future markets provide the basis for assessing the plausibility of scenarios. This evidence merits much higher credence by policy makers and business than the advocacy of sceptics and anti-science factions.
  • Long-term competitive advantage for organisations increasingly comes from investing “ahead of the curve” (i.e. discovery of unique intellectual property, and making “smart products”2 using converging technologies in novel ways). Therefore business leaders need to apply a global context to ensure sufficient investment in mid- to long-term research (i.e. Horizon 2 and 3 in McKinsey’s parlance) rather than solely focussing on problem solving and efficiency gains (Horizon 1).
  • Traditional approaches to investment analysis are known to favour current practice over disruptive change3, therefore judging what is plausible in a future world must underpin choices for long-term research investment. Also, commercialisation approaches are often different for emerging growth sectors because their associated value chains disintermediate those already in place.
  • A holistic approach is needed to spot patterns, avoid blind spots and identify cross-sectoral opportunities and risks. Diverse and fresh thinking is essential to achieve step change and shape markets.

Not surprisingly, Scion continues to place a high priority on foresight and gathering intelligence on emerging science, technologies and factors that can ‘steer and grow' markets. In one sense, we are forced to because most plantation trees planted this winter will not be harvested until at least 2040. In another sense, these multi-decade timeframes require us to be flexible and agile by focussing on building knowledge and technology platforms from which many options can be launched.

The Biofuels Roadmap featured on the front page amply illustrates these features. The research, industry and policy experts are contemplating what New Zealand energy mixes could be in 2035 plus, and the role that our forests could play in this. These insights also inform how Scion’s science workforce and facilities should evolve in order to support new materials science (such as for packaging and use in 3D printers), value chain design (distributed manufacturing), products for non-traditional markets (essential oils and food), and to facilitate international collaboration.

I welcome your thoughts on foresights and whether you think we have the balance right. I hope you can see from the research we report in this Scion Connections that it is worthwhile investing in.


WarrenWarren Parker

Dr Warren Parker
Chief Executive

1 Scion. (2006). Annual report. http://www.scionresearch.com/annualreport2006
2 Porter, M.E., & Heppleman, J.E. (2014, November). How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Competition. Harvard Business Review.
3 Christensen, C. (1997). The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston, MA, USA: Harvard Business School Press.