Some say that the journey is more important than the destination. Literature promotes characters whose strengths develop along the journey, through the trials and lessons experienced. Foresight is not much different. In any foresight exercise, the quality of the results is mostly due to one community of thinkers, who accept the challenge, co-create the landscapes, own the process and evolve together during the entire journey.

The foresight project on the Future of Customs in the EU is a case in point. It aims at empowering policymakers and stakeholders to engage in refreshed strategic reflections and create the EU Customs of the future. It is carried out by the EU Policy Lab, at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, in close collaboration with the Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union (DG TAXUD). The overall aim of the project is to create a robust shared vision for customs in the EU in 2040 as a strong basis to bring the Customs Union to the next level. To that end, it was necessary to understand well the key trends and drivers affecting the complex system that Customs in the EU are, and identify possible alternative paths for how this system could develop by 2040. A draft vision has now been created. We will now explain briefly how we have reached that point.

The foresight journey started in February 2019 with a scoping exercise. This step was essential, not only for us to understand what the EU customs ecosystem consists of in its entirety, but also to help the various customs actors (and potential users of the results of the project) understand each other better and create together a shared picture of customs in the EU today. We performed this work using the canvas visual tool.

Next, we gathered a larger group of experts from all stakeholder groups that are part of the customs world – EU and international institutions, Members States’ customs administrations, industry, business, academia and civil society. This community would be part of the entire foresight process.

At the first foresight workshop, in May, we identified together the key drivers of change that will affect the future evolution of customs in the EU up until 2040 as well as the main uncertainties affecting them. This allowed us to identify the two parameters around which we would structure the exploration space needed to build alternative future scenarios. By the time of the second workshop, in June, all 40 experts were very much engaged. In a foresight process, the community of reflection resulting from the journey is essential: not only is it the main source of knowledge and expertise, but it is also the group that has to co-create the end vision and take ownership of the process and all its outcomes. In the June workshop, we started to imagine the details of possible alternative futures of the customs in the EU in 2040 and we co-created 4 scenarios representing 4 different futures. Having all the key stakeholders involved from the very beginning enabled the co-production of detailed scenario narratives, presenting plausible futures relevant to the customs world – understood and accepted by all.

On this basis, the expert community then built the ‘Future of customs’ edition of the Scenario Exploration System (SES – a foresight tool) during the September workshop. After a few tests and training, a few members of the community became ”Scenario Exploration Masters” and the tool was successfully used by a large group from the top rungs of customs administrations across the EU at the Helsinki High Level Seminar on Strategic Foresight and the Future of the Customs Union. This seminar helped participants understand how foresight can help strategic reflection and generated a few ideas about a future vision for customs. Having discussed and experienced what different futures of the customs could mean for the EU, for states, traders and citizens, the time was ripe for our community of participants to express their shared desire for the future of customs in the EU and create a shared proposal for a positive future for EU customs – a vision. This happened during our fourth workshop (19-20 November), which we describe in more detail in the second part of this blog.

As usual, this fourth “vision building” workshop started with an introduction from  DG TAXUD in the person of Philip Kermode, Director for Customs, who explained the impact of this foresight exercise on the future Commission’s action plan, aiming at ‘making the Customs Union framework stronger’. Right after, Jean-Michel Grave, Head of Unit at DG TAXUD, presented the history of the Customs Union, shedding light on why, when and how it was created. This set the scene of the rest of the programme, as understanding the past is essential to build the future.

The first participatory exercise of the day aimed at getting the participants into vision-building mode. They were asked to answer the question: If you were to express in one word the main characteristic that customs in the EU should have in 2040, what would it be? They then wrote their answers on post-its and stuck them to the wall. Here are some of the ideas collected: ONE voice, EU Customs, Invisible but all-seeing, Efficient, Intelligent, Easily understandable, Simplification, Proactive, Harmonisation, European identity, and Transparency.

After that first quick brainstorming, Laurent Bontoux from the EU Policy Lab, went back to basics and answered the question: What is a vision? According to him, a good vision is one that is future-oriented, ideal, engaging, co-created, credible, challenging, clear, stable and achievable.

A vision is not a mission, nor a goal. Nor is it a fantasy. The role of a good vision is to inspire about a positive future in such a way as to influence decision making today, to give a sense of direction, to rally people around common values and to set people onto coherent paths.

With this in mind and helped by vision-relevant keywords harvested from previous customs policy documents and from the Helsinki High Level Seminar on Strategic Foresight and the Future of the Customs Union, participants were asked to organise the 50 or so keywords under the following headings:

  2. WHAT FOR? (What functions do we want to have?)

Here are as an illustration some of the elements placed on the wall: agility and speed of EU customs decision making; better information exchange & interoperability; protect citizens, society and legitimate trade; guardian of the internal market; important role of trade in drafting and implementing efficient customs procedures that safeguard national and EU interest etc.

We started the second day of the workshop with a step-by-step cumulative process to build progressively a draft vision for the Customs Union. AT first, participants were asked to work in pairs and to create their draft visions on the basis of the vision elements collected on the previous day. Thereafter, they were asked to join two other pairs, making groups of 6 people, and to reconcile their draft visions. After a break, the groups were asked again to merge with another group and reconcile their co-created draft visions.

Finally, the two remaining groups of 12 pitched their draft visions in plenary before engaging in a moderated discussion to come up with one single vision. Anda Ghiran was typing the emerging vision in real time with projection on a big screen as a support for the discussion.

The lunch break re-energised the group and gave new intensity to the discussions, resulting in a draft vision charting clearly a path from customs in the EU to EU customs. Over the coming months, this draft vision will be reviewed and commented upon by many policymakers and stakeholders until the next workshop, scheduled for early February 2020.

In the last exercise of the day, the participants were split into three diverse groups. They were asked to identify the milestones and SMART strategic objectives that would have to be achieved between now and 2040 to realise the vision. SMART stands for: Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. They placed these elements on a timeline to 2040 in 5-year steps, displayed on a large wall. The exercise ended with merging all the results and each group presenting what they came up with in a plenary discussion. This was a teaser for a roadmapping exercise which will be further developed during the fifth workshop of this foresight process.

For more information on this project, please read our blog page.

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