This blog is about scenarios and how they can be used to help people engage with the future, in this case the future of customs in the EU 2040. It is also about continuing to describe a highly participative and inclusive foresight process, which evolves from one workshop to another and which tries to find ways to make foresight practical for all customs stakeholders.

This blog does not describe all the insights captured during our workshops, nor does it present the full set of outcomes of the ‘Future of Customs in the EU 2040’ project. This content will be further developed and shared in the final report in March 2020.

The two main objectives of our last workshop, which took place on 17-18 September in Brussels, was to finalise the scenarios and use them as a reflection space for the future of customs, and build the ‘Future of customs’ edition of the Scenario Exploration System (SES). For our readers, the scenario building process started during a workshop in May, when we generated our scenario logic (the two axes) and continued during another workshop in June, when the same participants (customs authorities – national and EU – and stakeholders) created the key elements of each scenario. Since then, our team built on these elements and wrote a narrative for each scenario, helping stakeholders to grasp a better image of each of the four alternative future worlds for customs.

It was important for us that the stakeholders (around 40), involved in the project from the beginning, not only understand the scenarios but also recognise their input and feel comfortable with the descriptions. As we wanted to make sure that everyone was on board and that the quality of the scenarios for customs in the EU 2040 was good enough, we allocated most of the first day of the September workshop to discuss and finalise them.

To help participants ‘get’ into the scenarios, each corner of the workshop room was turned into the ‘home’ for one scenario. We did an ice-breaking exercise where the participants were asked to go to the corner corresponding to the scenario they liked best, join up in pairs and answer the question: Who would you like to be in this scenario and why? While in some scenarios, several wanted to be the Director-General of a customs administration, or a multinational company, in other scenarios some imagined themselves as cyber criminals. This exercise showed how the conditions in different scenarios might favour different actors. Here are some examples:

After that, the participants were split into four groups and reviewed all four scenarios in turn through a World Café process. This session was crucial for adding more details to the scenarios, correcting inconsistencies and making sure that they were sufficiently different from one another.

The scenarios paint a picture of how the world and customs could look like in 2040, but this can feel like a long-term future detached from reality. One way to address this is to imagine four realistic sequences of events that could take us from today to each of them. This was done in the last session of the day in which the participants had to imagine a series of events and developments that could lead to the scenarios. Each story was created through a brainstorming process after which post-its covering events under six categories (society and environment, economy, EU, international trade, customs, and technology for customs) were placed on a timeline stretching from today to 2040 in three time steps: 2025, 2030 and 2040. This is how a path looks like:

As mentioned above, the objective of this workshop was also the creation of a simulation and engagement tool on the future of customs. Why? For two main reasons. First, because we wanted to be in a position to engage now with customs decision makers who could not participate in our project; but also because we wanted to enable DG TAXUD and other participants to develop a long-term, continuous, systematic foresight capacity beyond the end of the project, thanks to the tools that were generated. This will support policy-makers in charge of customs in policy planning, stakeholder engagement and making their policies fit for the future.

The SES – an award winning future simulation tool developed by experts from the Joint Research Centre and Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies – provides a platform that engages participants in future-oriented systemic thinking. It makes participants take action to reach their long-term objectives in contrasting scenario-related contexts while taking up a role and interacting with other stakeholders. For more information about the SES, please read this blog.

A customs version of the SES can be used in different contexts and with different audiences. It can offer a safe space for reflection, testing strategies, engaging with stakeholders and, most importantly, a way to explore different future scenarios for customs in just three hours.

For the ‘Future of customs’ edition of the SES, stakeholders will be able to take the roles of EU Business, Non-EU Business, Customs Policy Maker, Policy Maker (general profile) and Public Voice (who will judge the actions of others). This edition of the SES, built completely with the material generated during our participatory processes (see picture below), is currently under production. It will be applied during the High-Level Seminar on Strategic Foresight organised by the Finnish Presidency this month, under the Customs 2020 programme. Stay tuned for a new video explaining the SES!

For more information about the project, please check this page.

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