Guiding systemic change with a futures-led approach

A case study from the voluntary sector in Wales


  • Eloise Smith-Foster Futurice
  • Tom Castle Futurice


system-change practice, participatory futures, strategic foresight, cross-sector collaboration, voluntary sector


This practice oriented talk will share the theory, process and contribution to system change resulting from a nationwide ‘Voluntary Sector Futures’ 2030 visioning initiative in Wales. The project was co-led by Futurice, an international design, strategy and technology agency, alongside a national body for the voluntary sector, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA). An innovative collaboration, over 80 representatives from the voluntary sector, Third Sector Support Wales (TSSW), Future Generations Commissioner, the public and private sector and the Welsh Government participated.

The project will be used as a case study to explore Futurice’s work and collaborative leadership in this space: Designing and facilitating rigorous processes related to systemic challenges, design, participatory futures and strategic foresight.

In 2021 WCVA wanted to identify how voluntary organisations in Wales could shape a thriving future through the COVID-19 recovery. The intent was for a 5 month collaboration to inform WCVA and TSSW’s 5 year strategic review, as well as support strategic direction setting for the wider voluntary sector.

The application of a mixed methodology including systems science was an appropriate fit due to the complex, interconnected socio-political challenges being considered, the long-term timeline and ambitions for a large-scale, cross-sector collaboration. Additionally, the intent to create space to imagine truly paradigm-shifting visions with the wellbeing of future generations in mind.

Futurice applied their open-source, Lean Futures Creation toolkit and methodology to frame the approach. Horizon-scanning research, surveys, in-depth interviews and participatory workshops were some of the methods used to explore, understand and map out the system, stakeholders and problem space. Secondary research for weak signals through the lens of the PESTLE model (political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental) supported expansive thinking about issues and possible futures. Collaborative methods such as sensemaking, affinity mapping, ideation and futures wheels were conducted to co-design multiple, plausible positive futures. These were refined into one guiding vision that represented participants’ ideal society in 2030 - a just, green and community-oriented Wales. Collective action ideas to bring the vision to life were initiated. 

Impact exceeded expectations. The initiative successfully directed WCVA and TSSW’s 5-year strategic reviews, for instance leading to diversity and equity being integral in their new strategy. A national public report was launched in 2022 which is being used to inform politicians and officials at all levels within Welsh Government, as well as benefiting the UK Government, local authorities, the Future Generations Commissioner, the public sector, the entire voluntary and charitable sector in Wales and internationally. It has drawn international attention as a system change and participatory futures practice benchmark to learn from.

The process strengthened and diversified networks, ideas and partnerships for action. There have been cultural shifts within WCVA and TSSW, such as greater integration of members’ wishes, more democratic processes, listening, creativity and mutual learning. All 20 County Voluntary Councils across Wales agreed on the new 5 year strategy more rapidly due to the process. To summarise, there’s been a positive impact in and beyond the organisation.

Author Biographies

Eloise Smith-Foster, Futurice

Eloise Smith-Foster is a Senior Service Designer at Futurice and a Climate Justice Activist. She is a D&AD Winner and Service Design Award Finalist for futures work and previously lectured on system change and future foresight for various organisations such as System Change Finland and Hyper Island University. She holds a MEDes from the Glasgow School of Art, Aalto University and KISD University. Eloise is experienced in co-creating more resilient futures with international partners across industries, from finance, retail and agriculture to public healthcare, social housing and volunteering.

Tom Castle, Futurice

Tom Castle is a Strategy Principal at Futurice, he has more than 18 years experience of business and service design covering a wide range of digital transformation and strategy engagements. He holds an MBA from Warwick Business School and also lectures at Hyper Island.