How people make sense of the world is undergoing a dramatic change. Emerging technologies, misinformation, and shifts in shared stories[i] continue to alter the kind of information we can access, how we interpret it, and whether we trust it. This in turn affects how we make judgments and decisions about ourselves, others, institutions, and issues. It is hard to imagine any domain—social, economic, cultural, or political—that could remain unaltered by such changes.
As we plan for the future, strategic foresight on sense-making can help policy makers manage risks, navigate social and ethical challenges, and design programs. More specifically, it can map out challenges and opportunities in areas such as strategic communications, data governance, platform regulation, social cohesion, national identity, and democratic institutions.
This report builds on our previous report, The Future of Sense-making: Examining changes to the ways we think, act, and behave. It maps out the key components of sense-making, identifies the forces driving change in sense-making, explores plausible futures that may arise from those forces, and highlights a range of policy-relevant implications that could emerge.
Policy Horizons Canada (Policy Horizons) does not provide policy recommendations or advice. Guided by its mandate, it explores what might happen in the future policy landscape, to help the Government of Canada develop future-oriented policy and programs, and to prepare for possible radical and disruptive change.
We hope you will find this report insightful and thought-provoking. By reflecting on what might happen, we can support Canadians and decision makers in considering which futures we want and which ones we want to avoid.
On behalf of Policy Horizons, I would like to thank those who generously shared their time, knowledge, and thoughts with us.
What is sense-making?
Have you ever watched a video and wondered if it is real? Or questioned whether a meme was created by a conspiracy theorist, a bot, or your best friend? If so, you have first-hand experience of the challenges created by our rapidly changing sense-making environment.
Sense-making is the process by which we gather and interpret information to give meaning to our world, make decisions, and take action. Examples of this can be as simple as considering which phone to buy, or as complex as recognizing and coping with disinformation.
In either case, we might think we are doing this on our own, but sense-making is never entirely separate from the context in which it happens. It is shaped by physical environments, cultural surroundings, social relations, and many other external factors. These factors shape the information we encounter and how we interpret it as the basis for decisions and actions.
Disruptions to how individuals and collectives learn, decide, and act will increase in speed and power, and deserve close attention. Some elements of sense-making have remained fairly constant, such as the cognitive potential of the human brain or the social aspect of learning. However, many others evolve more or less continually, like language, popular culture, or news media. The present is a period of especially significant upheaval in sense-making, which is likely to accelerate in the future. Novel digital information and communications technologies could drive much of this upheaval. But powerful social and cultural shifts, such as rising political ideologies or conspiracy theories, may also play a major role.
Why is strategic foresight on sense-making important for policy makers?
Current and future disruptions to sense-making are relevant to policy makers in two broad ways. First, governments are sense-making institutions. They generate knowledge and distribute it to help the public make sense of the world. Second, the success of many policies and programs, including those designed to safeguard public health or sustain a healthy democracy, depends on whether or how the public makes sense of them.
Strategic foresight on sense-making is a systematic way to explore how current and future changes may affect the sense-making processes of governments and the public. It can help policy makers consider how new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) could enhance the government’s capacity to build stronger policies and programs. It also highlights how some types of AI could make it harder to know what sources of information to trust. It can illustrate the troubling implications of shifting views on things like science, expertise, and democratic institutions. And it reveals opportunities that might arise from the breakdown of old narratives and symbols that sustained various forms of discrimination and oppression.
This just scratches the surface. If your work involves communicating with the public, sustaining national identity, regulating communications infrastructure, shaping economic activity through tax policy, advancing reconciliation, integrating newcomers, or securing privacy, among many other things, then changes in sense-making matter to you.