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Foresight or Foreclosure? An Examination of the New Zealand Foresight Project.


Sharon Harvey

Faculty of Arts

Auckland University of Technology (from 2000)



At the beginning of 1998, the New Zealand Ministry of Research, Science and Technology set in train an ambitious consultative process known as the Foresight project to begin to "rethink" and prioritise research directions for New Zealand into the next century. This paper examines the reasons for the project and tracks its progress over 1998 and 1999.


This paper covers two years (December 1997 - December 1999) of New Zealand's public science history, tracking the initiation and implementation of the Foresight project undertaken by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology in consultation with the science community and others. The project is relevant to tertiary education in New Zealand and particularly the future of university research as government science research is seen as one side to the knowledge production triangle; university research and research funded by and for private enterprise are the others. Increasingly, it is assumed, and much public discourse states, that these sectors will work independently and together towards the interests of national prosperity. While all political parties have chanted the mantra of the knowledge economy in the lead up to Saturday's election, National, in its policies for education across the board, and science, make no mistake about the purpose of knowledge production. It is to provide the engine for an invigorated economic recovery which should competitively position New Zealand in the globalised race to a marketised Nirvana.

Restructuring of the Science Regime

In order to understand the genesis of Foresight in New Zealand a little of New Zealand's science funding history needs to be understood. In 1989 and 1990, in a context of strong neo-liberal governance in New Zealand by a Labour government and in the wake of a number of reports enumerating its multiple flaws, the Department of Science and Industrial Research (DSIR), which had served New Zealand publicly funded science since its establishment in 1926, was officially dismantled. In an era dominated by public choice theory the purchasing and policy advice functions were to be decoupled and the aggregated activities of the DSIR were replaced by a number of alternative arrangements. These included a Ministry of Research, Science and Technology charged with the function of giving policy advice to the Minister; the Foundation of Research Science and Technology, which was to administer the large contestable funding mechanism, the Public Good Science Fund and Crown Research Institutes which were to run as entrepreneurial units touting for private as well as government contracts. This new New Zealand government science regime has been noted by John Ziman as being one of the most commercial in the world (Ziman, 1994). By 1997, it had been through two major reprioritising exercises following on from the upheavals of 1989. Both of the latter exercises had caused considerable disruption to a science community which saw itself as underfunded, lacking in job security and less effective than in its pre-1990 days.

The move to a contestable funding regime in the early nineties signalled a shift from science policy led by career scientists to the much awaited strategic era of science planning for New Zealand. An article in the Ministry's new newsletter noted:

... this new approach will ensure that Crown-funded research has strategic coherence; it will provide a coordinating mechanism for identifying both gaps and excessive overlaps in the overall programme... (Sci-Tech, 1990: 2).

The restructuring of the science regime occurred on the cusp of a change of government from Labour to National which signalled more restructuring for New Zealand in the midst of the most radical changes to public infrastucture in the country's short history under European governance.

However, as early as 1992, and as the realities of short term contestable funding began to be felt, there was a sense within the Ministry that strategic planning was only part of the answer to New Zealand's science restructuring. The new science priorities were seen to reflect traditional science funding channels. A document entitled, Long Term Priorities for the Public Good Science Fund: A Discussion Paper, (Sci- Tech, 1992: 3) pointed this out and noted that the pattern of public good science expenditure should reflect future requirements rather than historical funding categories. In addition, the Science and Technology Expert Panel (STEP - a wide ranging panel of specialists from the science community and authors of Long Term Priorities for the Public Good Science Fund: A Discussion Paper), felt that in mid-recession New Zealand, the need for economic regeneration was so dire that other things had to be put aside in the mean time. Among their recommendations to government in the public discussion paper were these two strategic directions:

  • to place lower emphasis on maintaining general information bases in the natural sciences in the face of short-term funding restrictions, so that research directly related to economic performance can be enhanced;
  • to accept higher levels of risk (for example from hazards arising from natural phenomena) as a price for better economic performance (Sci- Tech, 1992: 3).
Beginning to Look Forward

In 1993, Simon Upton, Minister for Research, Science and Technology, returned from a Science and Technology Mission in Asia, stating that as a result of his observations it had become apparent that New Zealand needed to develop a vision of what sort of society it wanted to be in twenty years time (Upton, 1993: 1). This interest in future directions received continuing coverage over the next few years. A 1993 visit to the United Kingdom by the New Zealand Chief Scientist, Professor Don McGregor? prompted reference to the United Kingdom's recent White Paper on Science and Technology (Ministry for Science and Technology, 1993) in Sci-Tech, including their proposed foresight operation (Sci-Tech, 1993). In October of the same year Dr Laurie Hammond, Chief Executive of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology prepared the science community for a major change in "purchasing practices" which would not be instituted until 1999 under the New Zealand Foresight Project. He signalled the move away from peer review to "...a more negotiated approach to the funding of portfolios of bids" (Menzies, 1993: 3). The stakes and interest in foresight planning were further raised when Ben Martin, Director of Graduate Studies at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex spoke at a three day Research, Science and Technology seminar in Wellington in October 1994. Martin, in collaboration with John Irvine had "...pioneered the notion of research 'foresight' as a tool for looking into the longer term future for science and technology. Foresight aims to identify areas of strategic research likely to yield the greatest social or economic benefits" (Sci-Tech, 1994: 3).

Funding of public science in New Zealand had decreased substantially over the eighties until in 1989 it had dropped to 0.57% of GDP from a high in 1981 of nearly 0.85% of GDP (Science and Technology Expert Panel, 1992: 2). Reports such as Long Term Priorities for the Public Good Science Fund: A Discussion Paper (1992) Path to 2010 (1993), RS&T:2010, draft discussion paper (1995), however, began to explicitly link economic progress with funding levels for science. The 1993 document outlined the government's commitment to raise public investment in science to 0.8% of Gross Domestic Product GDP by the year 2010. In addition, attempts to transcend the difficulties in the new science regime's relatively short-term funding cycles were articulated in the 1995 draft discussion document, RS&T:2010, The Government's Strategy for Research, Science and Technology in New Zealand to the Year 2010. In this document a range of objectives for New Zealand Science were expressed including Key Science Areas (KSAs) - "...areas of core capability in which investment must be sustained in order to assure the long-term integrity of our science system" (MORST, 1995:25).

While the need for long-term planning had begun to be obvious in MORST by the mid nineties, the emphasis was more on securing an ongoing funding commitment from the government of the day and encouraging private investment in R&D than a Foresight approach. In addition the emphasis in the RS&T: 2010 (1995) draft discussion document was not as focussed on economic development and competitiveness as later documents under Foresight were to become. For example, in the draft discussion document, attention was given to three broad (science-based) areas: the recognition of the cultural importance of science; a demonstrated positive commitment to science, technology and innovation; and the achievement of socio-economic targets. In addition, Simon Upton noted that the pursuit of knowledge was intinsically valuable and that the pursuit of wealth could not be the only motivator for national science research:

The strategy (RS&T2010) also makes it clear that scientific research is valued for the simple purpose of advancing knowledge 'for it's own sake' and for the role it plays in allowing people to make rational decisions and to challenge conventional wisdom (Sci-Tech, 1995).

Science and Technology - New Zealand's Key to Future Economic Success

A clear shift in the game plan for science came in 1996 when Dr James Buwalda replaced Dr Basil Walker as Chief Executive of the Ministry for Science, Research and Technology. Buwalda, a younger and energetic replacement vigorously began to articulate the connection between science, knowledge and the economy. His article "Foresight-Innovation-Technology; today's successful business trinity" (Buwalda, 1996:6) leaves no room for doubt as to how he viewed science research and where strategic planning in the Ministry was heading. In the article, which had been printed in the Dominion the month before, Buwalda (1996) puts forward a market logic for private and public science which bypasses the broader goals for science, present in earlier MoRST? documents. Basically, innovation (a synonym for research) was to be utilised for the formulation of new products in hyper-competitive world markets: "Success in such dynamic markets will depend increasingly on anticipating or leading changes in consumer preferences, and being the first to develop new products to fit" (Buwalda, 1996a: 6). Buwalda linked a range of areas in the article to possibilities for product development and economic expansion. The ageing community, for example is not foregrounded as a focus for research on changing patterns of employment or health concerns but as a profit making opportunity for "...a growing market for healthy lifestyles and health products" (ibid). Whereas once New Zealand had been concerned with utilising its science knowledge to assist developing countries in the region (Palmer, 1994), Buwalda focussed on "The emerging middle class in Asia (as) ... a vital niche market for New Zealand firms" (Buwalda, 1996a: 6). Rather than seeing a need to research convergences between communications, computing and entertainment for their effects on the ways people conduct and manage their lives, they too are seen "niche opportunities". In addition both environmentalism and cultural diversity are commandeered to serve market interests rather than being worthy goals for research in their own right.

Buwalda's context for innovative thinking was to be Foresight, a method of thinking forward to an idealised future supposedly free of current constraints and prejudices. Research policy and planning was to occur within this framework rather than any historical or present day notion of what was required. Foresight went hand in hand with concepts of a knowledge-based society. It seemed, however, that only certain kinds of knowledge (knowledge products which were relevant to a/the market) were to be valorised:

Knowledge, the ability to diffuse it and to assure innovation, productivity and quality, will be a central, defining feature of the development of our society (Buwalda, 1996b: 6).

The February 1997 issue of Sci-Tech neatly juxtaposed tensions and growing research gaps in the science regime. The new Minister of Research, Science and Technology, Maurice Williamson outlined his vision for the portfolio, implying a required shift of research investment into sunrise technological industries and away from traditional agricultural based research. He stressed the need for New Zealand to compete strongly on the international market and that success in this field was more likely to occur if New Zealanders were equipped with the "right" skills and knowledge. Williamson's slippage between "knowledge" and "information" runs the length of the article. Williamson (1997) also reifies the commercial model of science funding and clearly hopes for this to go further:

I have never been one to let Government departments tread where private enterprise rightfully belongs. Governments do not make good innovators and we need innovation as much as anything at present....That is not a government job; it is the realm of people who share a vision that New Zealand stands to benefit hugely (sic) (Williamson, 1997: 1&3).

Meanwhile, in another article in the newsletter: "Science and Government decision making", the loss of research-based knowledge to the country since the break up of the DSIR and other government department restructuring is graphically recorded. The article notes that since all government departments had had to focus more narrowly on a set of core functions, the wider research capability in these areas had disappeared. Reduced funding also meant that research could not be contracted for externally. Also, without in-house research capability, departments were less able to make effective use of external research. The article noted:

This is in contrast to many other developed countries, such as the UK, Canada or the USA, where individual government departments have significant scientific and research capability in their own right (Sci-Tech, 1997: 2-4).

The article also stated that some of the long term social, economic and environmental monitoring and databases, previously managed by the DSIR, had fallen by the wayside in the post-1990 environment because it was not clear which CRI would or should be responsible for any particular area. This was especially so if there was no commercial advantage. The article makes the point:

Some long-term science activities may also be critical for underpinning policy development. For example, some key environmental and social monitoring activities, collections and databases may have intrinsic and long-term value but may not address current socio-economic priorities (Sci-Tech, 1997: 2).

Further on in the article, issues not seen since in Ministry documentation, are articulated, such as a need for scientific advisory groups to be able to "speak truth to power" and voice critical and dissident opinions. The need for diverse representation on advisory groups is also noted as a way to avoid "ossification" of views and policies (Sci-Tech, 1997).

While talk of foresight planning, underpinned by a commodified notion of a "knowledge society", had been abroad through the mid nineties it came to fruition under James Buwalda and the new Minister, Maurice Williamson. In his final comment in Sci-Tech as Chief Executive of MoRST?, Dr Basil Walker (wrongly) predicted that there would not be more than "fine-tuning" to the funding priorities set for the Public Good Science Fund for at least five years (Walker, 1996, 12). He hinted that further changes to a change-weary system could result in considerable harm.

Foresight is launched

Only a year later, in December 1997, the New Zealand Foresight project was launched. Its two-fold purpose was to develop the new priorities for government science "investment" that Walker did not foresee, and a new way of conceptualising the future particularly in regards to new knowledge and technological change (Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, 1998). The future which was to be imagined, despite the rhetoric of free choice, was closely pre-constructed for participants in the Foresight Project. The four key imperatives set out very clearly the assumptions which were to be followed. They were/are:

  • The focus on the future must not be constrained by what we have been doing in the past
Comment: If we accept that we are socially, historically and culturally constructed and that everything we do is shaped by the confluence of past and present experiences, it is actually impossible for us to imagine a future unrelated to our past.

  • Technology is a key driver for knowledge societies, and will have wide-ranging implications for the structure of society and the way we address economic, social and environmental goals.
Comment: This is a pre-constructed future scenario based on current trends and preferences. The option of a no or limited technology future is removed. Moreover, technology is already prepositioned as a preference for government research funding.

  • A globalised economy requires us to be internationally competitive.
Comment: This is another pre-constructed scenario. The assumption is that New Zealand will compete globally. The option of an economic future based on internal rather than external markets is removed.

  • The Government's strategic investments in research, science and technology must be used effectively to underpin New Zealand's development of a knowledge society.
Comment: As noted later in the document, the notion of a knowledge society is closely tied up in the notion of a knowledge economy and the consequent commodification of knowledge:

Globalisation of the world's economies has fuelled competition, and increasingly competitiveness is achieved through knowledge-based technological innovation (Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, 1998: 8).

In this case the supposition is that a particular kind of knowledge will be preferred: culture-free knowledge that can be bought and sold on a world market. The document does not allow a future for those who do not wish to market their knowledge. What of indigenous groups who consider their knowledge sacred or those with knowledge about how to look after a family in a loving and caring way. In a society where all knowledge has a price how will these types of knowledge be valued?

As Peters and Roberts (1999) point out the Ministry took a rather monological stance on issues of globalisation and the knowledge society. These notions have never been "neutral and transparent" and in fact have been vigorously debated in scholarly and popular literature over many years, although there is never a hint of such debate in the Ministry Foresight literature. Peters and Roberts note:

These are not uncontested terms, (knowledge society, global information society). They are value-laden and theory-laden concepts that have been part of social and cultural theory for over thirty years. What this means is that there is no innocent approach to these terms or their unproblematic use which can be hived off from the accumulation of theory, especially the sociology of post-industrialism and post-Fordism to which they belong. We would argue that there is a public obligation on the part of MoRST? officials to acknowledge these theory contexts and to present then clearly as part of the overall discussion (Peters and Roberts, 1999: 72).


From the outset, then, Foresight was designed to encourage thinking and research of a certain type. This was further borne out by the three scenarios presented at the end of Building Tomorrow's Success (Ministry of Science, Research and Technology,1998). Scenarios, the document points out, are an integral part of the Foresight process. They are supposed to be:

...engaging, plausible stories about the future. They are not predictions or plans, but devices for mentally organising a large amount of information and thinking about various choices that lie in front of us....Within scenarios, the insights about the future can help us to identify what needs to be avoided as well as what is desirable. By constructing several scenarios, it is possible to explore how various futures might evolve - including nightmares as well as utopian visions (Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, 1998).

The writer goes on to explain that usually three and no more than five scenarios are used in scenario building. MoRST? chose to present three scenarios- two nightmares: Possum in the Glare and Shark Roaming Alone, and one story which is constructed as the utopian vision which participants in Foresight are obviously expected to favour: Nga Kahikatea Reaching New Heights. The scenarios are as follows:

Possum in the Glare

New Zealand is caught like a possum in the glare of the oncoming

future. But possums are hardy creatures, and New Zealand muddles

along by finding new markets for traditional agricultural products,

and combating falling prices with new production technologies. . .

Shark Roaming Alone

After a period of economic difficulty, New Zealand has adapted

quickly to keep up with the changes of the early 21st Century.

Rapid uptake of new technology and the Internet, and the success

of the entrepreneurial approach, have made us a highly

individualised society of sharks. . . .

Nga Kahikatea Reaching New Heights

Around the world, there is much interest in the social change that

has occurred in New Zealand over the first decade of the 21st

Century. What marks New Zealand out from other countries is a

strong and widely shared sense of purpose a national intent. A

nation of kahikatea, standing together. . . .(Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, 1998).

Ironically, each of the scenarios is clearly rooted (if superficially) in contemporary New Zealand self images. The utopian Nga Kahikatea relies especially strongly on current romanticised notions of entrepreneurialism, right wing solutions to Maaori land claims advocated by the ACT party in the lead-up to the 1999 election, and assumptions of a privatised, globalised future which are already being realised. What help they serve in imagining something really different is not at all obvious. In a discussion relating Ankie Hoogvelt's (1997) work to the Foresight project, Wallace and Packer note: "What is truly disturbing about this picture is that these are not alternative or distant possibilities. They are all happening in the same place. Here. Now." (Wallace and Packer, 1998: 5). The stunned possums caught in the glare are the unemployed and underclass in New Zealand unable to connect to education, technology and therefore employment; the roaming sharks are those in short term casualised jobs and contracts, always looking over their shoulders and protecting their "patch"; and the kahikateas are the lucky ones who are able to enjoy the full fruits of the globalised economy, their security is assured through a good level of income in long term employment.

Additional difficulties with a foresight strategy for national policy making, is that tomorrow never comes, so that future promises (like the three year trial of consultation between the government and the people posited in Nga Kahikatea) never have to be delivered (Wallace and Packer, 1998). Also, because of a future focus, current problems and difficulties do not need to be confronted. For example, serious social policy research looking at how New Zealand can promote a fair and equitable standard of living for all does not have to be immediately funded. Historical lessons and knowledge also do not need to be taken into account in any serious fashion. As Bruce Jesson (1999) has noted in relation to the post-1984 restructuring of New Zealand: "The total break with the past is linked with total contempt for the past" (Jesson, 1999: 61) and this seems to be the case with the Foresight fixation with the future.

Wallace and Packer (1998) point out that scenario building originated in film making and went on to be uplifted in government and corporate strategic planning exercises in the seventies and eighties as a way of making choices for the future. Scenario building continues to be closely associated with business management, especially. They examine the over-emphasis in the MoRST? scenarios on economic and technological factors to the (almost) exclusion of social and cultural explorations of possible future scenarios and note the way that New Zealand is positioned, especially in Nga Kahikatea (the favoured scenario) as New Zealand Incorporated, a large private corporation, with everyone working towards the same goal (economic success), rather than as a diverse (and complicated) democratic country. Wallace and Packer's motivation in writing the paper is to consider ways in which the future is culturally and socially, rather than economically (or scientifically) determined. They write, "What is required are scenarios where a variety of voices and languages are placed alongside each other so that they can keep on discussing the evolution of the environment. Scenarios are needed which have complex options with complicated consequences" (Wallace and Packer, 1998: 14). The irony in the very conception of the Foresight project itself is that the documentation implies New Zealand will have no control over the effects of globalisation and yet the project itself purports to be able, through the Foresight consultative exercise, to choose and even to dictate a New Zealand future.


The Foresight project proceeded apace in 1998 with a variety of sector groups becoming closely involved in the process. The Midsight conference of June 1998 was considered a great success and won the KPMG award for "Innovation in the Public Sector" for the use of the E-conference tool kit. Foresight claimed to encourage diverse consultation and indeed many sectors were involved, especially science "providers" some business representatives and other government organisations e.g. Health. However, as Peters and Roberts (1999) have noted, as a process which traded heavily on predictions and conceptions of the knowledge society there was a noticeable lack of links in to and representations from the country's main knowledge institutions, the universites. In addition, there seemed to be minimal participation and awareness about the process from those outside the immediate spheres of Science. For example, at the Midsight conference only about fourteen of the participants were women, four were Maaori and two were Pacific Islands. No other ethnic groups seemed to be represented. In addition, the prioritising exercise was heavily influenced by MoRST? and FoRST? officials and their closely-tailored ideas as to how they envisioned the new science priorities should be shaped. At the Midsight conference the officials worked on the conference participants' prioritising exercises overnight to arrive at draft priorities for the next day. The drafts were more reflective of Ministry and Foundation views than the actual work that had been done in the workshops on day one.

By the end of October 1998 more than 120 sector groups had submitted foresight strategies to the Ministry and these provided the basis of target outcomes released for feedback in December 1998. In keeping with the innovation theme the draft target outcomes were presented in a hexagonal box more akin to drinking coasters than proposals for science funding. As Fiona Cassie (1999) wrote in New Zealand Educational Review:

The 17 draft target outcomes for research investment were released late last year on colourful hexagonal cards packaged in a designer hexagonal box. The idea was to arrange the cards in honeycomb clusters to help judge whether they covered the entire spectrum of research activities. Not everyone enjoyed the game (Cassie, 1999:8).

The draft target outcomes were charged by some as being too vague and insufficiently robust to drive the allocation process effectively. And the new consultation (rather than peer review) process for portfolios was seen as even more time consuming for researchers than the former bidding process, and it was open to expensive lobbying tactics (Cassie, 1999).

Brian Easton (1999b) in a discussion of Foresight and the New Zealand science reforms points out that with the tight controls (through contestability) over what research will be done, and this is especially so in the new negotiation (rather than peer review) process, any research putting forth other than neo-liberal economic views as expressed in Foundation (Winsley, 1998) will be unlikely to be funded and such researchers will be unlikely to be motivated to apply for funding. Such a system effectively disallows a whole body of knowledge and alternative view to be available to New Zealand. Easton (1999b) makes the further point that this kind of controlling of knowledge will favour the status quo rather than innovation, which the government is so keen to promote.

Consultation continued through 1999 with the release of the document Blueprint (sic) for Change. Blueprint sets out four high level goals, two of which relate directly to financial, wealth-creating activities: The Innovation Goal and the Economic Goal. The other two are: The Environmental Goal and, lastly, The Social Goal. The draft target outcomes were reduced to fourteen and were underpinned with the more detailed Strategic Portfolio Outlines (SPOs) of which there were twenty six, more or less aligning with New Zealand's key industries and interests. These were released on 15 November 1999.

Hijacking Foresight?

In an election year, Foresight was, according to some, hijacked by a new Tertiary Education Minister, Max Bradford, eager to put together an appealing package for business. One talk-foresight participant wrote: "...exactly why (did) Bradford and/or Cabinet ... very hastily decide to shortcut the whole Foresight process and (just before the election) turn it into something else much more appealing to New Zealand's Business Community" (talk-foresight@netlink.co.nz, 22/8/99). With an obviously counter-productive and heavily criticised 1998 Tertiary Review White Paper to jettison, Bradford as leader of the team for innovation and enterprise, launched Bright Future (Ministry of Commerce, 1999) in August 1999. The Herald called the new scheme, "...National's road-to-Dublin conversion, courtesy of the Irish and Finnish economic miracles" (Small, 1999: A16). The package brought together a range of strategies designed to demonstrate greater government commitment to economic development, science and technology education and "innovation" amidst accusations of lack of government leadership (Vaughn, 1999) (Easton, 1999a) in these areas. The launch of the package, closely associated with the National Party rather than the government as a whole, followed on from Max Bradford's Five Steps Ahead 25 cross-sectoral fora across the country earlier in the year. Small (1999:A16) acerbically commented "...'five steps ahead' is as much a pre-election plug to an increasingly sceptical business sector as it is a long term shift by National. But after one small step towards the centre-right, there may be no going back".

While the Foresight project had largely sidelined the universities in its vision of a futurised knowledge society, the National party had moved to the next step and further integrated tertiary education with Science and Technology in its plan for a knowledge economy. As one commentator noted though: "Universities' principal mission is nurturing intellectual ability and not aiding economic development" (Cassie, 1999: 2). In Bright Future the cultural and social fields are studiously ignored. Education, science and technology exist to service the needs of a knowledge economy. Slippage between knowledge society (an expanded version of which may have some merit) and knowledge economy occurs with ease. Significantly, the decision to use the singular future rather than plural futures reinforces the notion of one New Zealand working together as a corporate body for one outcome, an outmoded modernist concept in a country as diverse as New Zealand.

The launch of Bright Future quickly prompted defensive questions and answers on the MoRST? website. Questions like the following suggested unease in the Science community and the Ministry itself over the new package:

How does the Bright Future announcement relate to the Foresight Project and Blueprint for Change?

How will research that does not have a commercial application be affected by these initiatives?

By shifting investment from the Public Good Science Fund to fund other science initiatives isn't the Government robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Does this mean the Government is reducing its investment in research related to our commodity exports (MoRST?, 1999b)?

Foresight forever

Despite being somewhat eclipsed by Bright Future in the short term, the Foresight project, like its British counterpart is ongoing. That is the point of foresight. Its current timetable stretches out to 2004 when existing Public Good Science Fund contracts finish. Enthusiasm within the Ministry seems as strong and unreflexive as ever. In the latest Sci-Tech James Buwalda, wrote another well-worn, ideological commentary linking technology, science, the knowledge society and wealth:

This is a world in which communications technology creates global competition - not just for sports shoes and hamburgers, but also for entertainment, banking and other services that can't be packed into a crate and shipped.

Investment in science and technology buys new concepts or the means to create them, rather than new machines. The ability to create and apply knowledge is becoming more important for competitive advantage, wealth creation and solutions to many social and environmental challenges (Buwalda, 1999: 1)

A change that is discernible from ideological treatises from the Ministry earlier in the decade is the need for government involvement in coordination, planning and (financial) support:

A vital role for Government is to act as a facilitator, helping New Zealanders reach their goals and enabling them to adapt to the new demands of a knowledge society (ibid).

Brian Easton (1999b) believes that the changes to the science regime instituted under Foresight, despite a continual reliance on commercialised language, have retreated to processes resembling those in place under the old DSIR. He writes: "In many ways this is a moving back to the old DSIR, with FoRST? as the head office and the CRIs as the divisions, albeit with greater transparency and public input" (Easton, 1999: 171). There are differences, however, FoRST? bureaucrats tend not to be as well qualified as the old DSIR chiefs and staff turnover in FoRST? is considerably more frequent than it was in the DSIR.

The Foresight process, then, has presupposed a role for government intervention; coordination and planning in the science area which had been less obvious in the earlier restructuring. It has also attempted relatively wide-ranging consultation (which nevertheless failed to bring in many relevant groups, not least the universities). Foresight promoted sometimes diverse thinking and discussion over future directions, which was well characterised in its lively and informative internet chat group, talk-foresight@netlink.co.nz. One participant articulated the feelings of many when he noted that the whole premise of New Zealand Foresight was that of economic growth driven by science and technology, which in turn carried no promise except to facilitate the perpetual invention of new and better products to sell to others. He wrote: "...it left me with an image of our society as a sort of Titan rocket lifting off the launch pad and then gradually accelerating into outer space until it disappeared altogether" (talk-foresight@netlink.co.nz, 23/8/99).

Despite these more hopeful signs, the Foresight project remains firmly embedded in the neo-liberal tradition (perhaps a more "advanced" and sophisticated version). Its refusal to consider versions of globalisation beyond a fiercely competitive world market is unimaginative at best and dangerous at worst. While the shark roaming alone scenario is put forward as a nightmare, that is how New Zealand is constantly constructed in the discourse. Where once we had trading partners we now have competitors as we all fight in the world battle for economic survival.

An Advanced Form of Neo-Liberalism?

In her 1999 book, Reclaiming the Future: New Zealand and the Global Economy, Jane Kelsey sees globalisation as a reworked version of neo-liberalism, extending the power of capital to every facet of the spatial and temporal world. Ironically, neoliberalism is nowhere as strong as on the extreme edges of the Anglo-American periphery. As in the Foresight project, globalisation in New Zealand is almost always presented as inevitable (There Is No Alternative - TINA) and desirable (if we can just sell more, the treasures of the world will be ours for the buying). Writing of the status of globalisation in the mid nineties Kelsey states:

Globalisation assumed an aura of virtual omnipotence. It was unfashionable, almost unpatriotic, for New Zealanders to question the benefits it might bring. Its advocacy by corporate leaders, politicians and officials went largely unchallenged, despite a paucity of empirical evidence to support their arguments. Dissenting voices struggled to be heard. Critics drew parallels between the economic and social consequences of the global agenda, and the New Zealand experiment, both of which sacrificed the well-being of poor people (and poor countries) to the self interest of big business and wealthy elites (Kelsey, 1999:11).

Drawing a parallel with the economic self-interest of the late nineteenth century, its demise through the Great Depression and the subsequent development of social democratic governments throughout the Western world, Kelsey (1999) documents the emergence of other narratives in New Zealand, such as the opposition to and stymieing of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), and internal opposition to the hosting of APEC in Auckland in 1999. Kelsey believes globalisation (as a neoliberal construction) has had its day. Her analysis makes a nonsense of deterministic programmes like Foresight and sends a tantalising message especially on the eve of a national election.

It is time to cast the myths of globalisation aside. The tide is turning against the global free market in New Zealand, and around the world. The lessons of history and the lessons of the book are that nothing is inevitable. The state of the future still rests largely in our hands (ibid: 385).

Looking Elsewhere for Ideas

Finland is frequently held up in New Zealand as a very successful economy of comparable size and population, a country that we should emulate along with Ireland if we are to improve our economic "performance". Interestingly, in contrast to the singularity of arguments and explanations in the New Zealand Foresight project, the Finnish Report by the Committee for the Future (1997) suggests different questions and constructions of the future. They warn: "Knowledge itself is not what matters most, but rather the way in which it is used. Like any other instrument it can be abused" (Committee for the Future, 1997: 5). The report goes on to enumerate the current problems of the world which need urgently to be addressed, including the global environmental crisis and the need to help and support burgeoning populations in developing countries; it states that national governments need to assume more responsibility for their citizens' well-being; it discusses the need for authentic global democracy in order to give weight to decisions around global problems and for this to develop alongside an invigorated national democracy; it talks about the moral responsibility people bear for the effects of their choices on the rest of the world. The report notes that success in a globalised market assumes "...tough - downright merciless - work and competition". The authors go on to define success in an alternative way:

...success must be seen as a concept that is considerably broader ... than economic success. Success on the part of the individual or of a community is the achievement of the goals that they themselves have consciously, and in part unconsciously, set. Success by a society means providing the preconditions for a good life for citizens. Improving opportunities for citizens to participate and increasing equality, environmental sustainability and fairness are characteristics of a successful society (Committee for the Future, 1997:7)

And finally…

By inscribing a grand narrative of progress, conceptualised as monetary wealth based on the globalised commodification of knowledge, the Foresight project may have done more to foreclose our future than provide insight in to a better one. Its determined reliance on marketised concepts of the future fuelled by Science and Technology have closed down thinking to other ways of imagining futures for ourselves and country. The Bright Future package, at least partly spawned by Foresight, is strong evidence of the malaise. In this hollowed out package there is no room for diversity, different languages, culture, the arts, history, society and most importantly, people.


ACT - Association of Citizens and Taxpayers

APEC - Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation

CRI - Crown Research Institute

DSIR - Department of Science, Research and Technology

FoRST? - Foundation of Research, Science and Technology

MAI - Multilateral Agreement on Investment

MoRST? - Ministry of Research, Science and Technology

SPO - Strategic Portfolio Outline

SPRU - Social Policy Research Unit

TINA - There Is No Alternative


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