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Policy, game-changers and how change happens: Reflections from Aaron Maniam

by Forum for the Future, Dec 2
16 minutes read

The latest in Forum’s Future of Sustainability series sees Forum’s Senior Sustainability Strategist, Madhumitha Ardhanari, in conversation with Aaron Maniam. As a civil servant, academic and futurist, Singaporean Aaron Maniam spans the worlds of government, teaching and research, with a strong personal interest in progress towards a sustainable future.

Here he explores some of the emerging trends that are shaping the prospects for such a future. He highlights two potential levers for progress, in the form of sub-national units such as cities, and digital technology. While acknowledging some of the challenges around the latter, he asserts his belief that technology itself is neutral, but can and should be harnessed more dynamically to achieve game-changing progress in areas such as climate mitigation and the potential for carbon taxes.

He sees government as playing a key role in providing technological infrastructure, but other actors – including business and the academic world – taking the lead in exploiting it to maximum benefit. As someone who pioneered participatory policy-making in Singapore, Maniam is a strong believer in collaborative government to tackle complex challenges, and in the potential of distributed models of leadership.

He argues for an appreciation that change can occur at different speeds, and that faster doesn’t necessarily mean better. Similarly, there is value in a diversity of change strategies, from tightly structured, to ones that embrace openness, even “potential disorder”.

As a futurist, he rejects the idea that futures work should be limited to analysis, arguing in favour of it having an activist and normative bent – creating a world we want to live in. Progress may come in fits and starts, he says, but believes that, to quote Martin Luther King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. Meanwhile, we should “work as if we live in the early days of a better nation. to paraphrase Scottish writer and artist Alasdair Gray. 

Please note: All opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Forum for the Future. 


Madhumitha: Looking back over the last 25 years or so, what for you are some of the most significant developments in the sustainability movement?

Aaron: Well, I wouldn’t consider myself a sustainability expert: I play in the policies space, although of course that has some connections to the sustainability domain. We’ve obviously seen climate change take centre stage over that time, and the scientific evidence around it really firm up.

But for me what’s really interesting has been the increasing inclusion of a broader range of actors [beyond just government] in this space. I don’t just mean civil society groups, either. The two that really come to mind are cities and technology firms.

On the first, I think we’re realising that a lot of the biggest game-changers can come from sub-national units such as cities, [and also] provinces and municipalities, because that’s where some of the most needle-moving progress can happen in terms of traffic congestion and greenhouse gas consumption.

I hope we’ll see a lot more activity among cities, and greater complementarity between them and national governments. That will be very helpful.

On taming tech:

When it comes to tech firms, we’re realising that a broad range of digital technology is going to help us on the sustainability front. A friend of mine and I were talking about the Singapore Green Plan, and they said, ‘Oh, but I guess you don’t have to do very much on that because you’re in the Ministry of Comms and Info?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, we’re in charge of digitalisation technology, and that’s one of the greatest enablers of more green-related progress, so actually we have a lot to do with sustainability!’

I think that we – and when I say ‘we’, I mean the international community – really haven’t harnessed technology enough.

The discussions around things like carbon abatement and mitigation, or even issues like carbon taxes, have not taken into account the fact that we can change the path we’re on if we use technology in a more sophisticated way. A lot of our existing assumptions could get overturned if we do so.

black flat screen tv turned on near green plant

We’ve seen it [with the pandemic]. There were assumptions about how much travel people needed to do in a normal life, and therefore how much carbon emissions [were inevitable]. And none of that has proved to be a given. I’ve only travelled once in the last two years, and I don’t think my international network has suffered for it. I don’t think social capital [more widely] has suffered, yet the environmental effects have been quite profound. So I’d love to see us use technology in more creative ways. That said, there are aspects of tech which are still highly carbon-intensive, so we will have to get better at managing those.

Madhumitha: I was born into a world where I think the internet was just coming about, and it was so exciting to grow up in! It felt there was once upon a time when the internet was nice – you know, all trees and dinosaurs! Now it’s become a much more complex ecosystem, with concerns about everything from the dark web to what we used to call the digital divide, but which has expanded to a whole other set of inequity and access issues. There’s quite a conundrum around questions like where technology goes, who controls it, who uses it, how it’s used and for what purpose. What’s your take on this? 

Aaron: Any technology is always going to have its hopeful as well as dysfunctional elements.

Wheels helped plough fields but also moved cannons into war. Technology itself will always be neutral: it’s a question of how we end up using it.

So in government, we need to figure out what we regulate to minimise the harm, while at the same time not stymying the innovative potential. And part of the challenge is that stuff happens so fast that nobody can fully keep up. It took time for the full effect of things like wheels and fires to be realised. But when it comes to digital tech, the development cycle is a lot more compressed than it ever has been.

People yearn for simple answers on all this. But the reality is that we can’t have them. There will be no single watermark that is applicable to all technology.

Madhumitha: So given the sheer pace of change, what do you think are some of the principles for ensuring we have a ‘net positive’ outcome for technology? 

Aaron: I think you have to start from the [premise] that governments have a responsibility to provide at least some basic infrastructure for public goods, and [that extends to] the digital sphere. Because no entity [other than government] is going to have [sufficient] incentives to provide [things like] 4G, fibre or 5G.

Government has to adopt things in an agile and evolutionary manner, and realise that today’s standards may not apply to tomorrow’s technology.

woman in blue and white plaid shirt

And you want to make sure government doesn’t micro-manage. You want to create space for enterprises to undertake the most interesting applications of a particular technology. You want others involved, too, because I don’t think these decisions should ever be purely about businesses. You want universities to do new research and try new things, and you want local governments to do some of this work as well.

On the pleasures of partnership:

Madhumitha: What would you say has shifted in terms of your own worldview over the last 25 years?

Aaron: I’d always wanted to join the public sector, because I believed that governments have the power to do a world of good if they want to, and [if they] can exercise their power well. I still believe that, but where my worldview has shifted is that I have realised you can’t do everything on your own. And that’s a hard realisation! It’s always easier to say, ‘Oh, I’ll just do this by myself.’

Given the complexities of the tasks we face, we can’t achieve the richest outcomes we want on our own, and we shouldn’t even try. We need one another. And that is where agency lies.

We have to approach these [tasks] as communities and as networks and as composites of individuals, rather than operating in a siloed way.

We’ve got a more educated population now than we’ve ever had. We should be tapping into that for ideas and insights, rather than assuming that government must do everything on its own.

So we need partners, we need businesses, we need civil society organisations, we need researchers and academics. It’s part of why I teach, just to stay connected to that world.

Personally, I started to see where I could create more participatory policy-making structures here in 2012, with the Singapore Conversation [which involved 47,000 Singaporeans participating in over 660 dialogue sessions island-wide]. And since then, it’s grown. The faith in government in these sorts of process has, I think, evolved over time. Governments are saying, yes, we can’t do this by ourselves, we need new ways of operating. And there are all sorts of academic names for this movement like ‘collaborative government’ or ‘networked government’, but the core theme in all of it is much greater interlinkage amongst actors, [to tackle] the complexity of the work which we all have to do.

So I think all governments, even the most powerful, will end up needing other entities. Even in China, I suspect if we dig deep we will find really interesting collaborative arrangements between government – not just at the centre, but at the provincial and city level – and other entities, whether it’s community groups or businesses.

On analysis to action:

A second shift in my own worldview has been from the purely analytical perspective to a more activist one. By analytical, I mean one that says, ‘the information is out there; how do I understand and process it?’ And you need some of that. But I also think we need to decide for ourselves what we want to achieve.

No great change happens when people just analyse information. It happens when people decide what they want, within the realm of the plausible, and then start taking concrete action to deal with it.

I think that’s really important, and not just around sustainability. Those of us who do futures work, in general, need to know what are the things we want to create.

If we just take the world as it is and assume that we have to adjust to it or adapt to it, then we end up with a very impoverished set of solutions.

On pacing change:

Madhumitha: But there is another conversation, isn’t there, about the pace of change? Because sometimes the faster we go, the less we actually get things accomplished. I personally grapple with the question of what is the right speed to move at in order to achieve the kind of world we want…

Aaron: We always assume that everything tends to move at the same speed, and so if I want to move stuff faster I just accelerate.

But there are naturally different clock speeds for stuff that we want to do. Tech development cycles move at one speed, while healing moves at quite another. When an individual is wounded, you can’t pour on twice as much antiseptic and expect it to get better twice as fast.

And when a society has been through a massive dislocation [as with the pandemic], healing takes time. It’s not linear, either. There are certain things which will just take a certain amount of time. Take education. If you teach a child twice as fast, they’re not going to learn twice as much. Yes, you can probably speed up teaching of things like maths, technical stuff, but you can’t teach the humanities much faster. This is why you have child prodigies in maths in universities, but you never have a history or a literature prodigy, because those things work at a different clock speed.

Three people meeting with their Microsoft devices at work

I think it’s not just about [the pace of] change, it’s also about how you structure [the change process] as well.  Some things benefit from having a clear blueprint or template as to how to take action, while others benefit from keeping an openness to serendipity and to potential disorder. Sometimes you can have a very structured process within which there can be openness. I was chatting with a friend the other day who researches what he calls temporal rhythms in organisations. Among the things he studied were video game producers. And he found that they had very agile processes, but they applied them in a very routine fashion. For example, every day without fail there would be a 15-minute scrum meeting. That’s the structure bit. But what you do in the 15-minute scrum is open, and what you do after that also changes because you’re evolving in response to the task at hand.

Organisational time is not uniform, in other words. Sometimes you want to speed it up and structure it, and other times you want to slow it down and leave it unstructured, or speed it up, but keep it unstructured. And sometimes it will be slow and very structured. So [when it comes to achieving change], that combination of speed and structure will be a very interesting one to explore.

On hope and inspiration:

Madhumitha: A final question, Aaron: what brings you most hope and what connects you to that hope?

Aaron: I’ll go back to the comments I made earlier about governments not being able to do everything. Everywhere in the world we’ve seen examples [during the pandemic] of communities taking on vital work, whether it’s neighbours helping neighbours, or people organising food runs to help some of our migrant workers here in Singapore, or people coming along and saying, ‘I notice that more and more of us need mental health help. We can’t meet but I’m here, I’m going to always be here on Zoom, from 2pm to 4pm on Fridays, please come talk with me if you need to’.

It’s about people saying, ‘I’m not going to wait for the structure to be created for me – I’m going to get on and do stuff that I know is ethical. And sure, it’ll be untidy, but it’s there. Later on, if the public sector wants to organise it a bit more, fine, but it’s there as an option.’

For me, those sorts of distributed models of leadership – agency-driven, from the ground up – are the greatest source of inspiration, because they remind me that we’re not always going to be reliant on brittle and overly structured solutions.

That, I think, is super critical. And the more we can harness that for sustainability, both individual, planetary and organisational, then the stronger we will become.

There will be fits and starts, sure, but there are fits and starts in everything. Governments have fits and starts, businesses go through cycles. So civil society and community groups will do that as well. The fits and starts will sometimes come from hitting natural setbacks, such as not finding funding, or from discovering, for example, that leaders who were inspiring and charismatic turn out to be abusive. There can be all sorts of setbacks, but if you look at a longer time horizon, you’ll find there will be recoveries as well.

This is where I go back to two quotations that always keep me going. One is from Martin Luther King, who said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. It bends towards the right sorts of outcomes, in other words, even if it doesn’t move there in a neat and linear way, and we have to accept that.

The other line that always gives me great comfort is from the Jewish Ethics Of The Fathers, in which Rabbi Tarfon says that it’s not for us to complete the task, but neither are we at liberty to desist from it. We have to accept that we will, we hope, leave the world a little bit better than it was, and then someone else will take the task and carry it on.

It conveys a sense of stewardship, rather than trying to do everything ourselves. And sorry, I said it was two but it’s actually three.

The third one that gives me a lot of inspiration is the line [popularised by] Scottish [writer and nationalist] Alasdair Grey: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”

[Editor’s note: Originally coined by Canadian poet Dennis Lee, this line was engraved in the wall of the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh when it opened in 2004. 

This chimes with the Rabbi Tarfon quote. If I try to do everything [myself], that won’t work. But if I believe that I’m working in the early days of a better nation then I [will lay] foundations, I will steward, and I will put in place structures that others will come and build on, and hopefully stand on the shoulders of multiple giants. And if we put all those things together, then actually time becomes less of an obstacle. It becomes a friend and an ally.

Watch this space

The next in our Future of Sustainability: Looking Back to Go The latest in Forum’s Future of Sustainability series sees Forum’s Associate Director – Americas, Samantha Veide, in conversation with Stephanie Lamma Ewi. Based in Cameroon, Lamma works with youth, women and community groups on climate adaptation and advocacy.


About the Future of Sustainability: Looking Back to Go Forward

Produced by international sustainability non-profit, Forum for the Future, the Future of Sustainability: Looking Back to Go Forward is a unique opinion and commentary series set to explore lessons learned from the last 25 years in the sustainability movement and what they mean for the future.

Based on new and exclusive insights from diverse voices across the sustainability movement, we’ll examine where we have succeeded and where we have failed in creating real change. We’ll consider how the world is responding to today’s multifaceted challenges and opportunities, and what pivots might be needed if we’re to deliver at scale and pace. Lastly, we’ll look forward – exploring how we can reframe the goals of the system, reset our ambition, and encourage the adoption of new mindsets and approaches critical to creating what’s really needed: a truly just and regenerative future. 

With thanks to our partners
Looking Back to Go Forward was made possible thanks to the generous support from our partners: Laudes Foundation, GSK Consumer Healthcare, Target, M&S, Capgemini, Bupa, 3M, CTPA, Burberry, Olam Food Ingredients, and in particular our headline sponsor, SC Johnson

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