Policy Levers of the Future

Authors: Stefanie Bowles, Policy Horizons Canada
Document Type: Policy Insight
Published Date: Friday, June 1, 2012 - 4:00am
ISBN number: PH4-118/2012E-PDF, 978-1-100-20875-6
Alternative Format: 2012-0110-eng.pdf

As forces such as energy, demographics and technological change converge to shape the trajectory of our modern ”glocal” economy, immediate employment and investor confidence challenges continue to dominate news headlines and occupy decision-makers of all types and stripes.

Moving ten- to- fifteen years into the future, how will the roles and responsibilities of governments, business, Civil Society Organizations (CSO's) and citizens, change as the challenges we face become more complex? What policy levers (i.e. tools and approaches used by societal actors to achieve their goals) will be best suited to meet societies' objectives and to address the news headlines of 2025?

Policy Horizons Canada asked these core questions to over 30 experts in Canada and internationally as part of our 2012 Policy Levers Foresight Study (forthcoming). Five key areas of change with implications for future policy levers emerged

Attraction, Attraction, Attraction

Finding ways and means to attract attention, people and investment – whether you are a government, a for-profit or a CSO – is set to become an all-consuming imperative. As people are increasingly bombarded with information and choice, all actors compete for message attention and city-states vie to attract highly mobile human and non-human resources. Alliances between the state and the private sector to generate and control attraction are set to vary considerably by region (e.g. degrees of state capitalism in the BRICS, regulated internal markets in Europe, and a more decentralized North American governance model). Established tactics for attraction may shift as some for-profit actors appeal to what is typically the realm of the non-profit (e.g. social and environmental justice) to move up the value(s) chain, as CSO's branch into new realms (e.g. consulting, certification and sales), and as new hybrid forms of organizations emerge (e.g. B-corps1, social enterprise2).

Direct Communication – the By-pass

The proliferation of online communication and social media are set to facilitate significantly higher volumes of rapid and direct communication by 2025, which may change the roles of established intermediaries. Policy hierarchies whose functions evolved in slower and less global times (including public service bureaucracies, political parties, some CSO's and media organizations) may have their work affected and potentially by-passed, as politicians and heads of organizations are communicating and collaborating directly with individuals. While this type of direct communication is not likely to be done in secret, it does by-pass standardized procedures, and "special treatment" may increase. This higher volume of rapid and direct communication also divides individual's and organization's attention, altering established models of follow-up and accountability.

Public Servants without Borders

While (nation) state-level regulation and public administration have not disappeared, they do not constitutionally function at the scales that may be necessary to institutionally support 2025's glocal economy. Levers of the future are likely to exist at the intersection of the consultative spaces of representative governments on the one hand, and the collaborative, co-creation, and co-consumption/production spaces of networks and supply chains on the other. Levers which marshal the distributed, network-based nature of decision-making may well predominate in 2025, including those used by government(s). Here, the citizen-consumer may be playing a more active role in service provision (e.g. health care) and public outcome generation (e.g. consumer and environmental protection) than was previously the case when governments played a more top down role. Despite the rise of networks, maintaining an inter-operable glocal infrastructure able to legitimize transactions and mitigate environmental and social risk remains paramount.

The Values Chain – Invisible Hand 2.0

Supply chains and community networks may increasingly self-organize, and take regulatory matters into their own hands in 2025. In this world, supplier or retailer-imposed quality and safety requirements are often higher than government imposed regulatory requirements, and have expanded into environmental sustainability and social equity realms (e.g. via carbon footprint or wage ratio metrics). Where local is not possible, consumer-citizens and procurement officers may look increasingly to (visible) third-party certification/labeling for assurance across multi-jurisdiction supply chains. While CSO's may be increasingly relied upon to legitimize transactions in North America and globally for multi-national firms (e.g. I-SEAL Alliance, GRI), state-based models of legitimization may remain pre-dominant in emerging economies and for smaller firms. Despite the international trade benefits, all sovereign states are likely to resist ceding legitimacy to the formal but still voluntary International Organization for Standardization (ISO).


If information is power, by 2025 the online, artificial intelligence (AI) and open data revolutions may have dramatically altered how and where societal actors exert leverage. Targeted advertisers, developers, and governments may mine your online history to learn and leverage your preferences. Critical numbers of people and objects are set to carry AI sensors, making behavioral information readily available (e.g. the number of calories on your plate or the molecular compositions of your toilet waste). Smart wallets can give you –or others –instant feedback with every transaction. This can increase individual agency, but may also result in expanded informal life-style peer pressure and dramatically reduced privacy. As some data is "opened", the ownership of and responsibility for that data becomes shared, and can blur accountabilities. Real time environmental and social risk mitigation information can also be foreseen to travel along supply chains (e.g. by I-SEAL and/or using ISO standardized life-cycle assessment information), re-orienting levers for societal actors.

Final Thoughts

In the aggregate, the objectives of societal actors and the levers they deploy to achieve those objectives would ideally interface in a mutually recognizable and functionally supportive way. Delineating societal actors according to a single function tied to a facet of human motivation (e.g. profit, charity) or level (e.g. local, global) is increasingly difficult, and established divisions of labour and models of accountability are under strain. As we consider the levers of the future, where will "we" focus our civic energies and identities? Will grand bargains emerge akin to the social compact (1762) or the Bretton Woods consensus (1944)? Core socio-economic functions such as value creation, transaction legitimization and social and environmental risk mitigation will continue to be essential, yet the ways in which social actors and the levers they employ interface and configure remains to be seen.


1 Certified B-corporations expand the responsibilities of the corporation to include consideration of the interests of employees, consumers, the community, and the environment. This requires changes to both the firm's legal status and legal changes in the host jurisdiction. Certified B-Corporations have been enabled by legislation in Maryland, Vermont, New Jersey and Hawaii. B Lab, a non-profit organization, certifies B Corporations, in the same way that TransFair certifies Fair Trade coffee or USGBC certifies LEED buildings. They have preferential tax status in some jurisdictions (e.g. Philadelphia), and have also been supported by the US Federal government in international development/post-crises contexts (e.g. Haiti) as a way to advance multiple social objectives simultaneously.

2 For more information on social enterprise please request: The State of Social Enterprise in Canada. Manwaring, Susan and Andrew Valentine. Policy Horizons Canada. February 2011.