On May 13 and 14, 2019, the Competence Centre on Foresight inside the EU Policy Lab organized the first expert workshop of The Future of Customs in the EU 2040 project, running on behalf of the Directorate General for Taxation and Customs Union (DG TAXUD) of the European Commission.

This was the first one in a series of workshops where we will build future scenarios for how customs could develop by 2040. The purpose of this workshop was to identify and understand the key drivers of change for the customs system in the EU and to select two key structuring dimensions around which we will construct the scenarios.

We call ‘drivers of change’, any internal or external pressure or factor that causes change to a system. Therefore, the future of a system depends on the combined actions of all its drivers of change. Imagine a racing car created to perform in different competitions. The victory will depend not only on the driver, but on different elements working all together at the same time: the engine, the design, the temperature, the track, the mood of the pilot, the way he prepared for the racing day etc.

Let’s look at how we structured this foresight exercise in which stakeholders identify multiple drivers of change (in this case that could affect the future evolution of customs in the EU by 2040), prioritize them and choose the axes to create scenarios around.

For such an exercise, the choice of the participants is very important. For our workshop, we selected 42 experts covering all sectors concerned by and with customs – national customs administrations, businesses, trade associations, international organizations, EU institutions, researchers, civil society etc., not only from Europe, but from all around the world. Foresight is a lively, inclusive, engagement process which brings experts together, most often in their personal capacity: unlike in many other workshops, in a foresight workshop participants are asked to contribute in their personal expertise and not to represent their own organization. This is why their name badges did not show the name of their organizations. In our workshops, all participants are equal and they all have a say about the future, no matter how powerful, shy or creative they are.

The first thing we wanted to achieve was not only to get into ‘futures thinking’ mode, but also to get to know each other in an informal way. During the icebreaking exercise, the participants worked in pairs and were asked to imagine that they were in 2040, tweeting something significant about EU customs. Here are a few examples of tweets:

Tweet: Last tariff has been finally abolished! Now we have 100% free trade! #customs #freetrade
Tweet: Last containership sailed. #tradepolicy #tradefacilitation #wto
Tweet: EU Customs announces the end of Customs Declaration.

Before starting to identify the drivers of change, it was important to ensure that all participants shared the same understanding of customs in the EU – actors, relationships, challenges, threats etc. This is why, we went through the canvas created during the scoping workshop and updated it, clarifying some parts as needed. If you want to have a look at it, see here the latest version created by our designer.

The next step, designed to encourage participants to think outside the box and be confronted with provocative statements about the future was a presentation of the results of a Real-Time Delphi survey. This survey methodology is often used in foresight processes to test experts’ opinions, by asking them to make judgments in the face of uncertainty. Our survey contained 16 statements about how customs could look like or situations customs could face in 2040. We will present the results of the survey to you in more depth, in a future blog post.

In a foresight process, and in particular when one wants to develop scenarios, it is essential to identify what are the factors that will influence the evolution of the system being studied – meaning the ‘drivers of change’ explained above. In order to frame the brainstorming, we used the STEEP framework (Society, Technology, Environment, Economy and Policy) –a very common approach used by foresighters to help people take a 360° view of what is being considered.

The brainstorming took place in 6 parallel groups. A big printed STEEP template was used to support the discussions and participants were tasked with writing each driver of change on a post-it. We then collected all the drivers of change that had been identified in a plenary process using the same STEEP methodology.

Collecting drivers of change

Drivers of change need to be clear and coherent, in order to ensure the quality of the process. For that, each driver of change was re-written on a large post-it and moved to a free wall. This resulted in a list of 45 drivers of change for the customs system.

Although all these drivers of change have an impact on customs, we need to find out which are considered the most impactful on the system. Therefore, the next step was prioritisation. Each participant received 3 orange dots, to vote on the 3 drivers of change that they thought would have the most impact on customs in the EU between now and 2040. Fifteen drivers of change received no vote, six received one and nine received two.

The 45 drivers of change for customs in the EU

This left 15 drivers of change with three or more votes, who were considered of sufficient importance to be carried through to the next round. We also needed to find out which are the drivers of change with the highest level of uncertainty. Therefore, in the next round, participants were given 3 black dots to identify the 3 drivers of change for which they were least sure of which way they would develop.

The 15 most impactful drivers of change for customs in the EU

Thanks to this two steps vote, we were able to create the following scatter plot for the 15 most impactful drivers of change:

The foresight methodology requires the selection of the two drivers of change that are both the most impactful and the most uncertain. As can be seen from the picture, the two key uncertainties that emerged were “Geopolitical conflicts” and “EU economic development”. These drivers of change will form the key dimensions around which we will build the scenarios for customs in 2040 in the second workshop coming up in the end of June.

This blog post is the second in a series to describe the way we work with The Future of Customs in the EU 2040 project in the EU Policy Lab. The project aims at better understanding trends and drivers impacting the customs system in the EU, and possible paths for how this system could develop by 2040. The project will empower policymakers and stakeholders to engage in strategic reflections and create conditions for an efficient EU Customs system in the future.

The main objectives of this project are:

• To develop a process to generate strategic intelligence for EU policy making in the domain of customs in the EU, including scenarios.

• To generate a tool to help relevant actors and stakeholders of EU customs engage with the foresight scenarios developed by the project.

• To generate a vision for customs in the EU in 2040. Check our project’s page here.

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