Designing the Future of Health: Blue Shield of California Foundation’s Strategic Foresight

This blog was previously published on Southern California Grantmakers Back to the Future Blog Series.

Two years ago, Blue Shield of California Foundation launched Designing the Future of Health to create space for leaders to explore new ideas that could improve health, end domestic violence, and expand their approach to social change. This initiative was born in the midst of unprecedented changes – technological, demographic, social, political, and more – and the Foundation felt determined to find new ways to prevent what ails their communities and make California the healthiest state in the nation with the lowest rates of domestic violence.

To design and reach that future, the Foundation knew they needed to take a new approach – one centered on future-focused thinking and innovation. By imagining radical alternatives for the future, the Foundation hoped to find new ways to solve systemic problems and generate breakthrough ideas for healthier populations, strong families, and empowered communities.

We spoke with Rachel Wick, Senior Program Officer, to discuss what prompted the Foundation to adopt the tools of foresight and the steps they are taking to create a more equitable tomorrow.

Q: What drove the Blue Shield of California Foundation to adopt a future-focused approach?

Although some consider future-focused work to be the latest philanthropic trend, we think it’s an essential and critical lens in our contemporary cultural moment. We are facing deep, historical inequities in both health and domestic violence, and we need tools to confront the social and economic factors underpinning them. Business, science, and technology sectors have been utilizing future thinking and design for some time, and their innovations are having a profound impact on our communities, often without considerations of equity. If we in the philanthropic sector are to understand and influence the forces that shape our future, we have to keep pace. A focus on the future isn’t simply an intellectual exercise for the privileged — it is an imperative for problem-solving, innovation, and equity.

Q: How have you incorporated foresight into your philanthropic work?

Our new focus on prevention has helped us shift from an one-off solution mindset to a long-term focus on creating healthy relationships and communities. One way we do this is by monitoring future trends. We invested in the Foresight Project which identified 50 emerging threats and opportunities — such as an evolving job market, climate refugees, and the zero waste movement — that have the potential to dramatically impact our way of life, including our health and well-being. Also, through a partnership with Institute for the Future, we are learning about the different ways our health and family life may be impacted by workforce developments. The Institute has prompted us to support public health professionals taking action on new occupational hazards, as well as develop partnerships with workers advocating for better conditions and benefit models. In addition, once the California Commission on the Future of Work releases their policy recommendations, we will take them to our communities and help them design and implement policy solutions.

Q: How does the Foundation ensure that the future you’re working towards is equitable?

In all of our future-focused projects, we prioritize listening to the communities we’re supporting in order to help them imagine and shape their own futures for health. It’s incredible how excited people get when asked to contemplate their future, but how rarely they are invited to do so. However, while the future can be a fun and create space, it can also be a space where people see inequities continue to be perpetuated. For that reason, history, culture, and identity – especially histories that have been hidden or marginalized – need to be integrated into foresight to make the process itself more inclusive and accessible.

An example of this is the AfroFutures Festival we supported which was led and curated by Dr. Lonny Avi Brooks. The festival worked to integrate histories of trauma and colonization into conversations about the future in order to highlight the ways in which people of color have historically engaged in futurism as a form of cultural survival. They created a card game called “Afro-Rithms from the Future” where one festival participant envisioned the creation of a tattoo that would hold your family’s history and be used to determine your eligibility for reparations.

Additionally, a workshop we hosted on the future of gender norms is now informing our partnership in the Gender Justice Funders Network and our investment in the Culture Change Fund. Addressing norms and culture is a new approach for our Foundation and the futures workshop helped us generate new visions for gender equity and alerted us to policy issues on the horizon, such as the potential impact of ending data collection by gender.

Q: Why is it critical for other foundations to incorporate futurism into their work?

The lines between the past, present, and future are blurry. Future-focused work invites us to be playful and imaginative in our pursuit of social change. While speculating about the unknown can feel abstract or uncomfortable, foresight invites us to question our assumptions, name our deepest problems, and consider alternatives to create the kind of world we want to live in – one much bolder, more equitable, and freer than the one we have today. After all, our future depends on it.

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