Here’s why trade unions should practice foresight to shape the future of work

A recent Forbes article described how business leaders are using new technologies, big data and analytics to do business, and yet, despite the apparent control and understanding this gives them over their environment, they are still confronted with the impacts of unpredictable economic shocks, volatility, ambiguity and complexity. Numerous companies today understand that, in such uncertain circumstances, one needs to be ‘future prepared’ and have turned to foresight, which is now an integral part of how they keep their businesses, products and services in the market.

Foresight is not prediction, wishful thinking or an extrapolation of current trends, and it’s certainly not the modern equivalent of looking into a crystal ball. The Forbes article defines foresight as an action-oriented practice whereby one becomes more aware and engages in creating and leading their own realities. Here at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) we regard foresight as a means of research that uses various methods to help an organisation to think ahead, so that it can shape, create and develop plausible and different futures. In short, foresight produces and uses data that organisations can then interpret to anticipate change.

Foresight has been used by private companies since the first quarter of the 20th century but is increasingly used by public actors, including municipalities and states, many of whom feel the need to invent and imagine their own long-term future.

For example, the city of Antwerp in Belgium is aiming to becoming a sustainable city by 2050. Through its Stadslab2050 project, it is working together with companies, citizens and universities, and using open data to optimise digital services in government and prepare its infrastructure for technologies like blockchain.

Another example is Policy Horizons Canada, a federal organisation with the mandate to “help the government of Canada develop future-oriented policy and programs that are more robust and resilient in the face of disruptive change on the horizon”. They have developed a wide range of methods to address ongoing changes in society, the future of work and digital transition.

Trade unions also operate in a fast-changing environment and are feeling the need to use foresight to shape their future. In the UK, Unions21 is exploring methods to gather trade union data, scan the environment and analyse the leverage of power and influence to improve its most relevant areas of action. In Sweden, Futurion – the think tank of the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) – has been set up to analyse and predict the conditions for the future of work, and to spread knowledge about the Nordic labour market model. And in Denmark, HK Lab is the futures laboratory of the National Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees. Its mission is to develop HK digitally by inventing future jobs for its members and by developing new products and business models for the union itself.

As these examples show, foresight can be used to develop the internal operational processes of trade unions and improve the services they offer to their members. It also helps unions to have a wider view and be more effective in collective bargaining at all levels. So, here’s five reasons why trade unions should practice foresight:

- To better explore their horizons: trade unions have the advantage of being present both on the shop floors of companies (as close as one can be to actual working conditions) but also in European Works Councils, on the boards of multinationals and in European Union social dialogue. This privileged position allows unions to collect data from many sources, conduct mega trend analysis and explore long-term horizons.

- To collect weak signals: trade unions should develop a greater ability to listen to ‘weak signals’ (indicators that may not be obvious at present, but if not taken into account, could lead to disruptive changes). Trade unions have access to a large variety of data sources, from observing working conditions in a specific region to experiencing how agreements are negotiated. This gives unions a unique opportunity to identify issues that could go unnoticed to the untrained eye and, by collecting data, generate useful strategic information.

- To work with a long-term approach rather than short-term reactions: with foresight, trade unions can work on long-term scenarios. Thinking 30 or 40 years ahead, rather than reacting to day-to-day events, is how one can make meaningful changes. Trade unions should define long-term priorities and enduring roadmaps, which their leaders can follow in order to achieve greater societal goals.

- To reshape how trade unions see their own future: as ETUI researcher Kurt Vandaele shows in a recent publication, trade union membership in Europe is on the decline, and organising workers is a major challenge, particularly with the predominance of self-employed workers and workers active in the ‘shadow economy’. Through foresight and ‘visioning’, trade unions can unveil and experiment different ways of communicating and reaching out to new and younger potential members.

- To decide what to preserve and what to change: the world of work has changed enormously in the past 50 years. Where we once had tripartite negotiations, now there are other actors involved or, indeed, no negotiations at all. Workers of today face a barrage of new forms of non-standard or gig-work, new types of discriminatory practices, automatic profiling and algorithmic workforce management, to name just some of the issues. Foresight is key to preserving the essence of the trade union mission, while ensuring the movement evolves to make sure that new problems and threats are tackled.

There is no unique recipe to foresight. The recent ETUI publication Anticipating change, staying relevant: why should trade unions do foresight shows just how foresight can be practiced using the methods that trade unions have employed for generations. This includes participatory approaches; involving non-current stakeholders; understanding variables like demography, climate and geopolitics; setting up early warning systems for emerging issues and evaluating all of this systematically. Whatever the chosen approach, foresight can provide invaluable help to trade unions and ensure that workers are better prepared for the unpredictable, today and every day.