Interview: President Ricardo Lagos on the value of participation and foresight

Participation is critical to effective foresight and a central pillar of the School of International Futures’ guest week on openDemocracy in April, which explored how foresight, participation and long-term thinking can help national development, humanitarian aid, education, democracy and more.

Following on from the week we wanted to showcase more of the excellent work being down by government leaders to pioneer and advance the use of participation.  One such leader is President Ricardo Lagos. Mr. Lagos holds many titles including Former President of Chile 2000-2006, lawyer, economist, activist and president of the Foundation of Democracy and Development. He was a key proponent of the movement to restore democracy to Chile in the 1980s and he continues to champion democracy, participation and long-term thinking today.

In this interview with President Lagos, conducted by Allie Bobak, we were delighted to hear how Chile has used participation and foresight to build accountability into its constitution, to connect its citizens at a municipal level, as well as Ricardo’s insights into the future of participation.

Why is the use of participation and foresight important, generally, in Chile, and in the region?

Chile, the region, and the world need to increase the amount of participation and long-term thinking they have, and do, leveraging rapid advances in Internet and connectivity. In Latin America and Chile, for example, we have an emerging middle class who demand more and want to participate more. They are more educated than in the past and have access to more technology.  In Chile, you have 25 million phones for only 16-17 million citizens–access and connectivity at these levels allows for more participation from citizens than have seen before.

You want to make sure that this participation aids with foresight and planning.  It is easier now to think about what people may want in the next 10 or 15 years because you can just ask, using technology.   I think that today there are clear aspirations around the kind of future people want. Where the issues arise is how we arrive at this future.

How can governments use participation and foresight? 

Participation is both easier to do, and stronger, at a community level because it is closer to home.  In local government you have many areas where people can, and want to participate, because is is more focused on the day-to-day; this raises the urgency of governments having to, and being able to, listen and react.  Citizen participation is central to the ethos of local governments.

On a national level I think governments will soon understand that participation is necessary, but it is also more difficult.  There are some good examples, though.  In Uruguay, if Parliament approves a law and one person is against it, that person can go out and get signatures to start a plebiscite (a direct vote of the entire electorate on the issue).  More people vote in these plebiscites than in general elections.  This is an example of how on the federal level there are new opportunities and levers to drive participation.  People want to participate on this level.

Another part of this is that the politicians need to connect better with the citizens.  When the Gutenberg press was invented, it took 130 years until we w the first daily paper and this helped drive the rise of democracy in the West.  Before then, there was no real connection between the government and its citizens. It was not a true democracy.  Technology today needs to do the same, it needs to function as a tool that supports participation and democracy for governments.

Can you give examples of how the use of participation and foresight, has helped drive change?

Recently Chile has been in the process of a constitutional debate.  During this process, we used citizen participation to make sure the result is what the people want. We invited constitutionalists to present questions, and citizens to write opinions of what they wanted in the new constitution online. This was a way to use technology and citizen participation to build the future.  Over 300,000 Chileans participated this process. You can see it at “”.

You can use participation not only to imagine a future, but also to create a better future for citizens. For example my government partnered with the Gates Foundation to make sure there was Internet access in all of the libraries in Chile. We worked with librarians to help them educate others on how to use Internet, and talked to them about what problems it could solve looking forward.  They said, one place this internet connectivity could help with was tourism, and another was to help with youth pregnancy (information).  Now people are more connected and using the internet to help with these issues and more.  So this connectivity and participation helped us improve the future of many citizens.

Finally another example is “neighbors connected.”  We have created software which neighbors in a community can download, and it connects them to their municipality.  They can report if lights are out, crimes occur, etc. directly to the city.  There is a live map of the status of reported comments.  This is a prime example of participation that can be scaled up to help communities make a better future for themselves.

How do you get government to increase participation to promote long term thinking?

The way the system is now it is hard to incentivize politicians to take big steps or think too long term in their first term because they are thinking about getting re-elected.  You have topics like infrastructure that are never at the top of a politicians list because it won’t be done in the next few years.  One solution is finding a way to assure it will be done at a certain time through more communication and participation of citizens.  An example is the Metro in Santiago Chile; when it is finished  22% of people will be able to arrive to a metro stop in 5 minutes. But in 15 years 50% of people in Santiago will get to a metro in 5 minutes.  So you have to make sure you communicate and guarantee the future, in order to push the project forward.  Technology can help.

In my book “En Vez de Pesimismo- Una Mirada a Chile a 2040” I write about how to imagine Chile in 2040.  I present many ideas; one is that we can use participation mechanisms so that longer-term proposals are made reality. You can put them online and see how Chileans react and help them imagine themselves in the future that you trying to create.

Speaking of imagining the future, what do you think about the future of Education in Chile?

There are two key parts of education that we need to work on in Chile to secure the future.  The first is that quality basic education is available to all Chileans.  We have been able to address the challenge of coverage, but today the challenge is quality.

The other big question of the future of education is higher education. Specifically how you finance it and maintain quality.  Ten years ago there were 200 thousand youth in higher education, today we have 1.2 million. It is truly a revolution. Of every ten kids in the University system, seven are first generation. The state has to think longer-term about quality while still letting growth occur.  Also, with the growth comes the need to answer questions of how to finance higher education and what are the long-term consequences of this? We will think more about technical education versus professional education.  There is much to do in technical education.

The Sustainable Development Goals’s (SDG’s) are helping with these challenges.  We completed the Millennium Development Goals in Chile.  The Sustainable Development Goals in education help push us forward and think about education of the future- it is a tool to avoid short-term thinking.

What is the future of participation? 

There is a temptation to just increase participation. It is the right conversation to have, but you have to think about what the consequences are.  You can’t run a country where everyone has a say and participates in answering every question everyday.  But at the same time, democracy is representative and needs to be representative to continue.

So you have to think what is going to be the space in the future for participation?  How much participation will citizens be able to partake in, and how much participation will be required to satisfy the increasing demands of these citizens?  How much participation will you need in order to solve the problems of the future? What are the institutions of the future that will be able to handle this higher level of participation? So far, no one has the answer to these questions. One thought, is that it may have to be the press.

We need to think about these questions, especially since in the SDG’s, participation is an important pillar.  As we define priorities, think about financing new ideas, and balance actions we need to think strategically on how we will include a growing level of participation in the future.

This interview was conducted by Allie Bobak, Coordinator at the School of International Futures.  SOIF is an independent, not-for-profit organisation based in the UK and operating around the world, where government officials, business leaders, and activists imagine the future together. In an increasingly uncertain and volatile world, the School of International Futures exists to support communities and organisations who use foresight to impact decision-making today.