The importance of nation building and planning for the future is increasingly recognised in Australia. Higher awareness of long term policy opportunities and challenges – from innovation to climate change, from the rise of China and India to an ageing Australian population – has seen a renewed focus on medium and long term issues. The focus of recent Budgets – which have instituted long term funds to meet the challenges of an ageing population and the need to invest in education and infrastructure – and the 2020 Summit, are some manifestations of this shift in thinking.
However, in our view, a nation building agenda and the development of a systematic, far reaching national vision must go hand in hand. This is because a national vision provides a framework for analysing where a country has been, where it is and gives expression to its future aspirations. Moreover, the ‘exhortation effect’ and processes of vision making are significant and can therefore generate greater impetus for the nation building agenda.
A cursory glance at the literature reveals that many countries are now (re)developing and sharpening their national visions. Some of these are more encompassing than others and differ in their breadth and depth. For example, some cover goals for the nation as a whole, while others focus on science and technology, or some other key sector. Both developed and developing nations undertake visions. Many developing nations view their national visions as a means of eventually boosting living standards. Many developed countries also employ a national vision to set new agendas, explore long term policy boundaries and build momentum for change.
Long term national visions are the hallmark of many countries including India (2020), Korea (2030) and Japan (2050). Other visions, such as Finland‘s and the UK‘s, are more focused on the knowledge economy. Whatever the example, it is increasingly the case that having a national vision is an essential element of marshalling a nation’s resources to meet current and emerging opportunities and challenges. In our view, for an Australian Vision, 5 “I’s need to be ticked off.
A national vision should say something about national identity, or if you like, the ‘psyche’ of the nation. This is the glue around which the vision is based on. These can differ widely. For example, both India and Korea focus on reaching developed country status (or thereabouts) by 2020 and 2030 respectively, thus reflecting the aspirational component of national identity. On the other hand, Japan’s 2050 emphasises being a ‘nation of dignity’ and building ‘Asian trust’, reflecting, in part, its attempt to address history.
For Australia, national identity has historically been associated with the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, federalism and fairness. Leigh and Withers point to the secret ballot, voting for women, universal pensions, minimum wages and unemployment benefits as examples of this.
In addition to this basic framework, we would argue our national identity can be thought of as a combination of our brain power (the ‘clever country’), our practical and direct approach, and our rich traditions and history of cultural diversity.
Australia’s cultural diversity is a key competitive strength that can be used in building a vision for the nation as a global solutions centre. Australia has been able to draw on, nurture and integrate the experiences, capabilities, know how and different practices of the vast array of people from all around the world. Some of Australia’s greatest entrepreneurs were born overseas or are the children of migrants. We would also argue that thinking of Australia as an inventive solutions centre recollects the Indigenous Australians who travelled to the island continent many thousands of years ago. They were incredibly adaptive and innovative in using the environment to survive and solve complex problems.
Various articles in InSight highlight how short term thinking and action pervades decision making in Australia, in both the public and private sectors, and that there has been a decline in confidence in institutions.
In our view, institutional reform, and in particular the establishment of institutions for the long haul, is part and parcel of the Vision process. While the establishment of a body is not the silver bullet, the challenges of the 21st century require our national institutions for policy development and implementation be re-examined. Arguably, institutions established in an industrial era may no longer be appropriate in an innovation driven age.
At a minimum, we would argue for the establishment of an independent institution whose prime responsibilities are long term issues generally, and vision making specifically. It would be a focal point for long term analyses, setting long term directions and garnering views from right across society. It would help to ‘lock in’ the gains made by the advancement of a national vision, ensuring that ideas can be implemented and that new ideas can keep coming.
Ultimately, a National Vision belongs to the people. Although government can, and should be, a key player, the national vision must be sourced from the community and belong to it. As such, it needs to draw on the views, input and creativity of those in the community.
One way of doing this is the development and diffusion of alternative scenarios of possibilities for the nation, linked to the broad aims of the Vision. Such scenarios would spell out divergent economic and social paths, risk factors, differing assumptions of international conditions, trade-off’s associated with different development paths and so on. A successful example of building consensus was utilised in South Africa. Known as the Mont Fleur Scenarios, development of alternative possibilities for a post-apartheid South Africa were generated forming a basis for wider community consultation, engagement and ultimately reform. Hardy et al also point to various approaches to eliciting community input to policies and strategies.
The purpose of such scenarios would be to elicit comment, debate and discussion, either electronically or through old fashioned town hall settings. Individuals and communities would have the chance to comment on the scenarios and provide critical feedback and thus provide guideposts for future policy. This engagement should be ongoing, conducted in a decentralised fashion, and extend beyond the usual array of well known stakeholder and commentator groups.
As the overseas experience shows, vision making is information intensive. To help build a national vision, a vast array of information is needed on economic and social trends, and forward looking information. If the full benefits of inclusivity are to be realised, information must be readily accessible. This mandates an enhanced role for institutions which promote information use and diffusion at a local level. An example is libraries as information and technology hubs. A further issue is the urgent need for leading edge online infrastructure to support information intensive vision making. It is interesting to note the recent debate in the UK and around the world which has centred on the role of libraries, among other things, as creative hubs.
- Libraries as creative public spaces to promote reading, information gathering and sharing, for the stimulation and flow of ideas, with particular attention paid to the design and layout of libraries
- Maximisation of the linkages between libraries and schools and other institutions e.g. museums, art galleries
Another emerging idea is that of the ‘ideopolis’ defined by one group as ‘a city of ideas, where knowledge, creativity, enterprise, connectivity and the quality of life combine to create a dynamic local economy.’
Finally, a National Vision will not be complete without implementation. Otherwise it belongs to the ‘gathering dust’ category. It must be ‘live’, be amenable to community engagement, influence ongoing policy and have a concrete reality at every stage of the implementation process.
In our view, key community projects could form an integral part of making the National Vision live. For example, a National Vision based on promoting Australia as a solutions centre could involve community projects (perhaps funded through a contestable community solutions fund) designed to develop and trial local solutions to problems such as water management, housing shortages etc, which, if successful, could be expanded internationally.
More generally, implementation requires careful monitoring of the progress of the National Vision through mid-point reviews, development of appropriate milestones and targets. The Japanese example is instructive: the vision to 2050 is broken down into concrete goals and measures, generally at five year intervals. The process must also simultaneously ‘harness’ ideas, allow for the creation of new ideas and, importantly, discard old views and notions as they become redundant.