The Forum for the Future in India: An Interview with Anna Warrington

The Forum for the Future in India: An Interview with Anna Warrington

The discipline of Futures is an interesting one in today's world, beset as we are by complex systems. There are lots of organisations working in this space now, but some of them are better than others. Forum for the Future is one of these. It has existed in the UK since 1996, but recently opened an office in Mumbai, India.  I had the chance to have a long email conversation about the work of their Mumbai office with Anna Warrington, Director of Forum for the Future India. She also mentioned a number of movements in India in areas like sustainability and technology, many of which I was familiar with, but some which I wasn't. It was an illuminating chat - have a read below: 

As I understand, it, Forum for the Future works across sustainability in multiple sectors, notably food & energy but also areas like transport, finance and digital technology; it's been working in London since 1996 but only opened in Mumbai recently - what prompted the opening of the India office? Was it specific trends or events, or something more organic than that?

Anna: A number of things really. We have global Partners (what we call the organisations that we work with) with manufacturing, sales and marketing out here who were asking for assistance in country. We were doing projects that needed more of a global perspective, and no matter how much reading and talking to people you do, without presence on the ground you can’t contribute that level of insight on the developing context. India is a make or break country when it comes to sustainability, especially climate change. We had a hypothesis that we could play a part in ensuring that it ‘made’ rather ‘broke’, using approaches (such as Futures) that weren’t yet offered in the country.

What are the interesting things happening in India (and the South Asian region more broadly) from a futures perspective, that are worth the developed world paying more attention to?

Anna: So much here!

The conversation around digital equality is fascinating. Facebook’s Free Basics was dramatically shunned as a result of public outcry that centred on the rights of one organisation to determine what limited set of websites someone should have access to as the first step.

Also digitally, in what is often referred to as the world’s largest democracy, the digital tools we have now are offering so much in terms of transparency. This matters as corruption is such a big deal – a massive inhibitor of progress towards a more sustainable world. If this generation coming through can harness the digital tools – from social media to apps that click a photo when you have to pay a bribe and way beyond – the result could be amazing.

Water is a massive challenge here at the moment, and we’re facing abnormally high temperatures for this time of year. India is on the front line of climate change and it’s showing us what can happen as a result from mass farmer suicides to corporate shutdowns.

The social challenges at the nexus of climate change, land use and labour rights exemplified by the tea industry here are also being watched globally. Tea estates are being held up for poor practice on labour conditions, and the next generation is not seeing working on tea plantations as an option.

And also, just more generally, India is where so many of the big trends are converging. The rising middle class, the increasingly educated, climate change, increasing inequality, nutritional woes on both ends of the wealth spectrum, the future of work and what millennials want for their ‘careers’, the future of the family...all sorts. Their interplay is unpredictable, so many eyes are on what happens.

What has your experience been working in the futures space in a country with 1 billion+ people (and the attendant problems and opportunities; for example the huge young workforce vs. lack of employment)?

Anna: It’s an interesting one. On the one hand, you can totally understand that the urgent problems need to be tackled. The immediate challenges are on a huge scale. On the other, a more long-term approach would help understand and guide many of these areas in the right direction at once. Thinking about the long term, let alone being able to embrace the unpredictable nature of what the future may look like, is not something that comes naturally to any of us. India just has a natural tendency away from it in bucket loads. You can see long term commitments being made, but the ones that catch the headlines are the ones that are more immediate, for instance PM Modi’s commitment to electrify every village within 1000 days. That’s a headline grabber; doesn’t matter if it’s possible or not. So you have to frame any futures exercise, quite rightly, in what it will help you do better in the near term as well as long. 

Please could you mention a couple of projects that Forum for the Future Mumbai is working on, and what their goals are?

Anna: We’ve been supporting the Aditya Birla Group on what they call ‘Future Proofing’. This is essentially employing futures techniques to understand how their long term growth strategies might be challenged by, or how they find opportunity, in the trends we are seeing coming our way.

We’re also in the middle of a project with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and DfID on the future of decentralised energy solutions and how they contribute to the 24x7 Power for All commitments at State level.

How do you transfer project or research learnings from London to Mumbai and vice-versa - assuming of course that there are shareable lessons?

Anna: There are lots of lessons. We have a rolling programme of secondments of people the UK (or other offices) working in Mumbai, so this works two ways. We hold Brown Bag Lunches on our projects and share insights as you normally would wherever you are based in team meetings. Finding a time that works for Singapore, India, UK and the US is quite a challenge! We know we need to do a lot more here, and we’re very open to suggestions on things people have got to work in a culture that is more about verbally sharing than written.

India has a number of vibrant civil society and non-profit organisations that are doing some impactful work at the moment (Dasra and Villgro for example), but equally there are interesting private sector companies working in areas like renewable energy, retail and e-commerce (all fields which are seeing a lot of venture capital investment). From a systems/innovation perspective, how do you see civil society and private sector interacting in India?

Anna: There are some classic forms such as the CSR Bill 2% commitment where corporates need to contribute to civil society or education initiatives. Opinions are divided on how productive this interaction is.

Then there are more constructive examples. The Makers Asylum maker space in Mumbai, for instance, has managed to build up good conversations with corporates including India’s largest 3D printing company Imaginarium. They see a benefit that flows both ways in that interaction; an example of what we need much more of here. 

We do bring all players in a system together on our collaborative projects. Should the next phase of our work on the contribution of decentralised energy to 24x7 Power for All go forward, we will be employing our normal technique of bringing together organisations from across that value chain and the fields that it influences, such as engineering education and industrial land planning. We’ll need both civil society and corporate in that mix for any lasting change.

What are some of the most inspiring innovations, services or projects (across any area) that you've seen from the Indian community in the last couple of years, and why do you like them? 

Anna: There is so much happening here that it’s hard to know where to start.

The Uber for autorickshaws (Editor's note: this is now on pause) was attracting a lot of attention, but I would prefer time to be spent on getting sustainable mobility going here. The electric rickshaw is pretty exciting, as it will bring with it the demand for the charging infrastructure. Once that’s in, the private electric car market will have one less major barrier. 

There are smart things happening to solve problems in the rural electrification market. A lot of solar home systems (and some mini-grids) sit idle because of basic faults that can’t be fixed by someone who doesn’t know about the specific electrical wiring. Some of these lie idle because they don’t know who to ask to fix it once the local engineer has done what he can, or because they have lodged a complaint and the engineer won’t come out because it’s an eight hour round- trip and it’s not commercially viable. Scene (an organisation which uses technology from Urjaa Samaadhan) has a new mobile-based system for texting faults into a central hub that then aggregates all the faults in one area, to make it worth the engineer’s while to go and fix them. Another app is being launched that diagnoses a fault in a mini-grid remotely, and so the company can phone the local agent and give instructions remotely, or can send someone specialist – check out Sun Moksha in this space.

Some of the most inspiring stories are of people breaking traditional moulds. Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone has recently spoken out about her experience of depression for instance. Mental health has been a real taboo for too long. Godrej India Culture Lab is a real shining star in challenging the traditional narrative on gay rights and sexuality and gender more generally. I’m waiting for something (or someone) constructive like this to come up and speak sensibly about the caste and religion-based nonsense. What is going on at Hyderabad University and JNU has the signs of something brewing on these issues .

Could you tell us a bit about the advantages and challenges of working with corporates in India when it comes to sustainability & resource development? For example, what in your experience are the Indian equivalents of programmes like M&S' Plan A, Patagonia's cause marketing philosophy, and the buy-one-give-one business models? What is the conversation around this like within industry circles?

Anna: For a start, there are huge issues with some of these models, so I would caution against holding any bar too high. The buy-one-give-one model in particular is corporate philanthropy in the emperors’ clothes I’m afraid.

Tata Global Beverages Power of 49 campaign

Tata Global Beverages Power of 49 campaign

Tata Group has a phenomenal disaster response programme where it brings together volunteers and resources from businesses that can contribute such as steel and logistics, when major disasters strike in the area. Their tea and drinks business Tata Global Beverages had a very successful campaign to get women voting in last year’s elections in some states. 

I’ve already mentioned the Godrej Culture Lab. Godrej’s Good & Green programme across their businesses is doing some great stuff, and they’re making it their business rather than just philanthropic. 

So, like in any market, there are some real leaders, and some that will always be ignoring what is happening around them. I do think it’s less likely to be strategic here – and less likely to be an explicit part of their corporate strategy – but we’re working on that.

In terms of advantages, when you’re talking to the big conglomerates that were founded on strong family values such as Tata and Godrej, you have a natural values alignment amongst the very top management. That doesn’t necessarily translate lower down, but even Unilever have that challenge. Indian businesses are very hierarchical so the whole management structure needs to ‘get it’ before something can be approved. This takes time and resource, which mostly has to be given for free, which presents a challenge for a non-profit like us.

One of the challenges is the distraction that the CSR Bill has brought. People (particularly new comers) are fixated on meeting this figure rather than thinking strategically about their role in creating a sustainable future for the world and their business concurrently.

What mechanisms or tools do you use to create impact at Forum for the Future Mumbai, and how do you measure impact?

Anna: All the usual Forum approaches and tools, but more Futures techniques like horizon scanning, scenario planning and visioning with stakeholders across the system. Measuring impact is a perpetual challenge, as we catalyse rather than have immediate impact (we don’t build toilets for instance, but we might help a company prioritise sanitation as part of their strategy). We tend to do it qualitatively, looking back each year with our partner or project contacts to see how we have contributed.

What are you and Forum for the Future looking forward to working on in the near future in India?

Anna: I’m really hoping we’ll get the next phase of the Additive Challenge going globally over the next year. It's a programme we’re calling Make Like where we take teams of people that have ideas for how to use digital fabrication techniques to address the Global Goals through a mentoring and pre-incubator process. We ran it in Europe in 2014/15 and it was a real success, and we’d like to bring it to the US and India next. Our role is the convenor and facilitator and the injector of Futures thinking, to help the concepts have as much impact as possible.

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Thanks Anna, for your time and very insightful answers. Looking forward to hearing more about the work of Forum for the Future India!

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