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What is sense-making, and why is it important for policy makers?

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.

The components of sense-making

There are six key components to sense-making: The information ecosystem; natural and built surroundings; institutions; culture; sensing, feeling, thinking bodies; and mental models.


Each component has a distinct function that is essential to the processes individuals and groups use to gather and interpret information, construct meaning, make decisions, and take action. Though distinct, they are also connected to one another in a dynamic relationship that is constantly evolving as the world changes. This means that significant changes taking place in one component of sense-making inevitably ripple through some of the other components, often with surprising outcomes.

Forces of change

Our Future of Sense-making report identified 27 areas of change in sense-making. Continued research suggested that seven of these forces have the greatest potential to disrupt the processes we use to gather and interpret information, construct meaning, make decisions, and take action. These seven forces are: intensifying social surveillance, quantification and sorting; pervasive mis/disinformation; more and more powerful AI; less hospitable natural environments; convergence of the digital and physical; revision of shared narratives; and displacement of traditional knowledge authorities.

Exploratory futures

In this section, we explore plausible futures in light of the forces of change previously described. The goal is to help you imagine future realities you may face.


The following stories—narratives, videos, and headlines—are the outcome of a variety of scenario processes, and were selected for the range of futures they offer as well as their relevance to policy making.


As you read or watch, try to suspend your disbelief. Focus on what it would be like to live in a world where these scenarios are real.


If that is difficult—which it often is—ask yourself some of these questions: Does this feel like a comfortable future to inhabit? Why or why not? Could parts of this future present challenges or opportunities for your work? Could they make it harder or easier for your organization to achieve its goals? Is it a reality you or anyone else would desire or prefer to avoid?

Future headlines

For the first time in ten years, the Global Disinformation Index indicates a decline in disinformation

A study shows that regulating data surveillance systems has had a positive impact on the behaviour of online users

Anti-government conspiracy theory blamed for latest attacks on digital infrastructure

New AI system helps municipal health authorities identify people at riskof being lonely / L’intelligence artificielle permet d’identifier les personnes susceptibles de se sentir seules

Education ministers meet virtually to launch national metaverse literacies strategy

An artificial intelligence is at the heart of an investigation after providing poor translations to a UN representative

The Canadian History Museum’s new exhibit on deepfakes from the early 2020s asserts that “Deepfakes have come a long way—they are now 3D and more realistic than ever.”


Regina woman wins custody of family emotional support robot in landmark ruling

Hearts and darts for streaming service’s new experiential sitcom, where the setting and characters are drawn from each viewer’s online profile

New study suggests quality of AI assistant impacts life expectancy +/- three years

Record sales for Apocalypse You: new online survival game brings floods or wildfires to your hometown’s digital twin

Canadians divided on medalert chips: worries over safety and privacy cited

Smart appliances hacked to change in-home sensory environments in ways that affect mood

University mandates use of in-house AI learning mentor for all students: cites fairness and academic integrity

Anti-road rage campaign: Police remind motorists to turn down assertiveness settings on AI assistants ahead of long weekend rush


Sense-making is changing and will continue to do so in the decades to come. Disruptions to the ways we gather and interpret information, construct meaning, make decisions, and take action will affect the policy landscape. Each box in this grid represents an area of policy that could face disruption in the future. Exploring the different sense-making futures described in the previous section helped us identify these areas. Some of the implications listed in each box have direct relevance to policy and programs. For others, the connections are less obvious or immediate. Rather than shaping specific policies and programs, they shape the context—the ideas, mental models, biases, issues etc.—in which policy thinking happens or in which programs play out.

In conclusion

Sense-making will continue to change. New kinds of information and experiences, and new ways of processing both, will change how we think and act. So will shifts in the stories we tell, who we trust, and the values we hold in common. Collectively, these developments could challenge our shared reality, which is a key support for social cohesion.


Shared reality and social cohesion are persistent challenges in pluralistic and multicultural democracies. Such societies promote the idea of openness to distinct group identities based on language, culture, region, etc. even if they do not always follow through on their promises of equality and inclusion. But they also depend on a degree of common ground of shared values, identity, and ways of knowing.


If this common ground gets too small—if distinct groups come to inhabit entirely separate realities—it may become difficult for different parts of society to understand each other. Governments could become unintelligible to some parts of the public and some parts of the public could become equally unintelligible to governments. In such a future, our ability to find broad social consensus on problems, much less design and implement solutions, could deteriorate.

On the other hand, as with any major challenge, disruptions of shared reality may present unexpected opportunities. So if the version of reality traditionally shared by the Canadian establishment has contributed to economic inequality, environmental degradation, and various forms of discrimination, disruptions to that reality might not be signals of social disintegration. They could be the first step in constructing a more equitable and inclusive shared reality—one that provides a stronger foundation for collective action addressing tomorrow’s greatest challenges.

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