‘Future-proofing’ the transition to sustainability: focus on policy assumptions and foresight

Briefing Published 04 Jul 2024 Last modified 04 Jul 2024
Photo: © Angelina Volkova, Sustainably Yours /EEA
To become sustainable, Europe must change some of the ways people live, work, produce and consume. Using policy to achieve such complex and large-scale transformations is not easy. This briefing explores how to future-proof sustainability policies and avoid blind spots through a foresight-based framework, which includes several participatory exercises involving a multidisciplinary group of experts. Assessing future risks and their potential impacts can identify mitigation measures and safeguard strategies to encourage the transition to sustainability and feed future policy.

Key messages

  • Policies and decisions typically address multiple challenges and operate amid uncertainty. They must therefore work with assumptions. ‘Weak’, partial or invalid assumptions may be short-sighted, cause inadequate decisions and hamper policy objectives. 
  • Strengthening and future-proofing sustainability policies in the face of future risks requires a forward-looking assumption check. 
  • The consistent use of foresight to future-proof assumptions can improve the implementation of the Commission’s policy-driven sustainability agenda.
  • To support the European Green Deal (EGD) beyond its initial mandate of 2019-2024, the EEA proposes a collaborative approach for assumption checking, which builds on an iterative framework adapted to policy cycles. An assumption check on key policy strategies for the circular economy, air quality, the bioeconomy and transport identified possible future-proofing measures.

Why assumptions matter for sustainability transitions

Designing policies to support sustainability transitions – complex systemic transformations to address sustainability challenges – is a multi-layered task. It requires approaches based on holistic thinking, long-term vision, multi-level governance and participatory decision-making. To reach the targets set by the EGD's initial mandate of 2019-2024 and beyond, we need strategies and policies that transform rather than optimise systems. This means shifting from incremental improvements within existing systems to fundamental and structural changes that reshape their underlying structures, dynamics and behaviours (Gersick, 1991). The potential to arrive at more sustainable production-consumption systems is greatly increased by the implementation of well-designed and functioning pathways of transition (Laakso et al., 2021). 

To make these policies effective and operational (even with careful planning), a host of assumptions about the future must be factored in at the policy-planning stage. By assumptions, we mean underlying beliefs or hypotheses about how a system works or will work and react. These assumptions influence the design, implementation and evaluation of policies, as well as their expected outcomes. Most of the assumptions concern developments directly related to the specifics of a policy: for example the assumption that land and sea suitable for renewable energy generation can be used for these purposes. However, due to the systemic and complex nature of sustainability challenges, many factors may appear outside of the scope and objectives of that policy and therefore may not be considered in full. 

Such factors include global climate and environmental trends, shifts in political ideologies framing policy responses, research and development, institutional constraints and economic considerations, societal developments and behavioural trends, social inequalities and differentiated impacts, technology and innovation — and increasingly, geopolitical and security trends (EEA, 2019; EC, 2023; ESPAS, 2024). In such a complex and uncertain environment, informing policy makers about this broad range of risks is key to understanding strategic assumptions underpinning policy formation (EC, 2021b). Similarly, inconsistencies of assumptions, limited scope or unintended biases may result in the unintended outcomes and impacts of a policy not being properly assessed (Van Woensel, 2020). 

The prevailing assumption is often that the future will be similar to, or an extrapolation of, the present (Friedrichs, 2013; Heijden et al., 2009). Commonly referred to as the ‘status quo’ bias, it ignores discontinuities and underestimates uncertainty, black swan events[1], structural shifts and neglected feedback loops. Global policy analysis and decision-making processes face difficulties when incorporating and reflecting on the inevitable fact that the world will change over the next few years. As in most cases where assumptions are needed, questions arise as to whether some of the assumptions that underpin EU strategies need to be revised in the context of risks that may not have been fully quantified, or could not be, when policies were being developed (EUISS, 2022). 

The recent EEA report European climate risk assessment highlighted that Europe is now the fastest-warming continent, with climate change multiplying and exacerbating various risks and crises (EEA, 2024b). It is all the more important that the assumptions acting as cognitive guidelines for policy implementation are more future-proofed. Collaboration and forward thinking across fields is needed, as it offers a way to better anticipate risks and lower uncertainties associated with today’s assumptions about tomorrow (EEA, 2021). Factors like technological optimism, economic growth dependency, a lack of systems thinking or a linear transition assumption may influence the effective implementation of the Commission’s policy-driven sustainability agenda. 

In this context of acceleration and complexity, this briefing is primarily concerned with qualitative foresight methods. It explores the contribution of foresight in testing the robustness of future-proofing policy assumptions. The proposed approach does so with the participation of a group of experts spanning multiple policy areas, by identifying potential risks towards the realisation of policy strategies and their supporting assumptions. Identifying those risks and their potential impacts enables the group of experts to identify possible measures to mitigate them, while safeguarding strategies and their objectives.


A foresight approach for assumption checking — implementation on four key areas of the European Green Deal 

Foresight – the discipline of exploring, anticipating and shaping the future  — lends itself as a method for assumption checking and future-proofing policies (EC, 2020). It probes ahead into the potential risks of not delivering on desired targets, as well as the unforeseen impacts of delivering targets that possibly lack coherence with other policy areas or are based on too narrowly-defined assumptions (EP, 2021). Using foresight to check assumptions can be a valuable tool to support the sustainability transition. Foresight methodologies enable policymakers and stakeholders to focus on anticipating future trends, uncertainties and potential disruptions, helping them challenge and validate policy assumptions effectively. 

The implementation of the EGD’s initial and 2024-2029 mandates cannot be reduced to attaining individual targets, sector per sector. Success in sustainability transitions — as the EGD’s targets strive for — is about the aggregate level of systemic transformation in key systems of production and consumption, enabling them to develop in harmony with the natural environment (EEA, 2022c). Similarly, the EGD intends to strive for policy coherence in implementing its thematic objectives (EC, 2019). 

An assumption-check exercise is adapted to such complex policy frameworks. It can be conducted not just at the start of policy design (when various policy options are being weighed against each other) but also during its implementation. Most importantly, it can be used in an iterative manner at the start of a new policy cycle when a new set of targets is being discussed (EP, 2021). By conducting assumption-check exercises throughout the policy lifecycle, policymakers can enhance the robustness, responsiveness and adaptive capacity of policies, ultimately improving their ability to address complex societal challenges and achieve desired outcomes. 

To support the implementation of the Commission’s policy-driven sustainability transition, the EEA has developed a collaborative approach to check the robustness of assumptions behind policy strategies. The approach is built on the iterative framework ‘1-understanding assumptions > 2-potential risks > 3-safeguarding measures’ and is intended as a regular tool throughout policy cycles (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Iterative assumption-check process

Source: EEA

The three steps are further described and elaborated below. We illustrate the application of this iterative framework with results, additional information and early outputs from its implementation as a collaborative exercise at the EEA. 

Identifying potential trade-offs and benefits across policy areas supports the objective of checking the robustness of assumptions supporting key EGD policy strategies. This project was designed with a large collaborative dimension, ensuring there was space for discussions across those policy areas. Experts working in distinct but complementary and cross-impacting fields were brought together to test the method and help develop the framework. The selected fields — bioeconomy, transport and mobility, air quality and circular economy — represent several of the key components of the EGD’s initial mandate (EC, 2021a).

Step 1 — Understanding assumptions

Identifying assumptions is essential to designing a robust policy strategy. To provide context for policy strategy, numerous analyses carried out by policy analysts, think tanks, researchers or agencies such as the EEA are regularly made available to the public. These foster a more systemic understanding of policy strategies, including how they are developed, what they are aiming for and the parallel developments that are inherent to their realisation. 

Insights from the test implementation of step 1 

The groundwork of this assumption-check approach consists in identifying the assumptions inherent to the selected EGD-policy strategies, namely on the circular economy, the bioeconomy, air quality and decarbonisation of cars and light commercial vehicles (LCVs). 

Key assumptions were identified by a team of independent experts external to the EEA and with extensive experience in the selected policy fields. 

Step 1 produced four reports describing policy context during the development of the four policy strategies, including the assumptions made as part of the strategy development.

Step 2 — Exploring potential risks

Exploring potential policy risks involves identifying and examining the underlying beliefs or hypotheses about risks, uncertainties and vulnerabilities that shape policy decisions and interventions. To appraise policy strategies and their supporting assumptions, current and potential upcoming uncertainties need to be assessed for risks they might present. 

A broad range of factors and risks can directly and indirectly impact future policy strategies. One way to select which risks should be explored further in the context of such an exercise is to base the selection on the perceived severity of likely impacts. However, since such a selection process may be influenced by various cognitive biases or ‘mental inclination or disposition in a certain direction’ (Van Woensel, 2020; EEA, 2023), the application of a systematic framework can help identify risks in a more systemic manner, thus limiting potential biases and blind spots. The STEEP[2] framework is a popular option that can be tailored to the specific exercise, for example by adding dimensions such as governance, education, law, ethics, demography and so on (Chermack, 2011). 

The potential impacts of risks can be explored in a ‘Futures Wheel’ (see example in Figure 2), a common and useful feature of foresight workshops that allows participants to gradually start expanding their forward-exploration of potential risk impacts (EP, 2021). It is used to explore potential future scenarios, developments and consequences stemming from a central event or trend. It helps individuals or groups to systematically analyse the cascading impacts and implications of a particular change or decision. This is particularly useful for participants less accustomed to such future-thinking practices.

The exercise centres on a potential risk or uncertainty that might occur in the near future, with participants reflecting individually on what some of the first level impacts might be. Such a systematic framework can be useful to remind participants to think broadly and across societal fields. The exercise is then repeated, with participants this time considering the different first-level impacts just proposed by the group. The exercise is then repeated a third time for third-level impacts.

The main objective of this exercise is to develop a shared understanding of how identified risks could evolve and impact our society as we know it today. Participants might not agree and disagreements are often voiced. Nevertheless, they are encouraged to think in a more ‘forward’ way than normal.

Figure 2. Example of a Futures Wheel exercise for the decarbonisation of car

Source: EEA

Insights from the test implementation of step 2 

The project team selected risks explored during the test implementation to develop an acceptable (if limited) representation of the uncertainties surrounding the current European landscape for sustainability transitions. During a future implementation of the process, this step would need to be conducted following a better-defined systematic framework and in a more collaborative way. Table 1 shows the selected risks applied to each of the four thematic workshops. 

Table 1. Potential risks used to challenge the policy strategies and assumptions

Source: EEA

The output of step 2 consisted in 12 futures wheels corresponding to three risks explored during each of the four thematic workshops. Each futures wheel contained three levels of potential developments, identified by the participants as potential impacts of the selected risks they were exploring as listed in Table 1.

Step 3 — Identifying safeguarding measures

Step 3 redirects the focus back to the assumptions identified in step 1. The activity is articulated in two parts: a) reflect on how the potential impacts identified in step 2 could influence the assumptions from step 1; b) identify measures that could help safeguard policy strategies and related assumptions in the context of those impacts. 

Participants are invited to select the potential impacts most likely to have consequences on a given assumption. Once again, participants are encouraged to think broadly, for example using the STEEP framework. They are then asked to reflect on the measures they think could help mitigate the impacts and safeguard the assumptions and policy strategies. Once the proposed ‘safeguarding measures’ have been added to the board, the facilitator starts processing the different proposals, identifying any similarities or conflicting measures. 

The list of safeguarding measures constitutes the concrete outcome of the exercise. The intention is that these measures comprehensively address the policy strategies, their assumptions and the potential risks that shaped the exercise. These measures are not seen as missing pieces of legislation but as guiding elements for the next cycle in the policy-making iterative process, as discussed in the section below. 

Insights from the test implementation of step 3 —Identifying safeguarding measures 

Activities in step 3 were structured around a diagram (see Figure 3). Impacts perceived by participants as most serious for the selected policy strategy were placed in the left part of the diagram. Safeguarding measures proposed as ways to mitigate those impacts were placed on the right.

Figure 3. Diagram supporting step 3 or the identification of safeguarding measures

Source: EEA

The output of step 3 consisted in 12 such diagrams addressing three assumptions for each of the four policy strategies. Participants proposed a total of 64 safeguarding measures to mitigate risk impacts on the four policy strategies studied here.

Main take-aways

This EEA collaborative approach for an assumption-check, building on the iterative framework ‘understanding assumptions > potential risks > assumption check’, was developed with the intention of supporting the successful implementation of the EGD and subsequent policy-driven sustainability strategies. 

By inviting participants to reflect on the perceived impacts of potential risks, they had to reflect on the content and validity of the assumptions themselves. This makes the conditionality of assumptions more apparent. It also illustrates that the conditions required for assumptions to succeed should be assessed more systematically. 

It can be argued that considering assumptions systematically increases the level of complexity, which may lead to less decisive decision-making and therefore become counter-productive. It also requires additional resources. However, ignoring a strategy’s supporting assumptions — and most importantly threats to their actual development — significantly increases the risk for strategies to fail. A balance should therefore be found to check (at least) the most significant supportive assumptions for risks and threats, much in the same way as the main strategy itself. 

Furthermore, a collaborative assumption check — with contribution from experts in distinct topics as was tested here — can strongly support the identification of risks, along with assumptions with improperly considered impacts. Combining expertise in different topics can fill in knowledge gaps, either from involuntary cognitive biases or simply a lack of evidence when the policy strategy was developed. 

Additionally, the identification and recommendation of similar safeguarding measures by experts working in different fields can highlight areas they see unanimously as in need of greater exploration within policy strategies. Three such topics were identified in the context of this implementation: acknowledging the increasing impacts of climate change; cross-sectoral policy strategy development; and principles for a just transition. The following paragraphs give an overview of those over-arching measures highlighted by all participants during this exercise. 

Figure 4. Topics unanimously identified as requiring more focus in policy strategy development

Source: EEA

Considering the increasing impacts of climate change 

Testing the iterative model revealed a problem: that policy strategies and their supporting assumptions tend to overlook the increasing effects of climate change, especially the occurrence of droughts, flooding and forest fires. Participants felt that a common over-arching assumption is that the effects of climate change are not harmful enough to derail given policy strategies and that the future will be an extrapolation of the present. 

One proposed safeguarding measure was to increase investments in those regions most at risk from the impacts of climate change, to create and maintain sustainable living spaces, promote green infrastructure and help to maintain a healthy environment for residents. A second complementary measure is to promote the adaptation of ecosystems to drought-resistant crops and species. This would also see further investment in sustainable agriculture techniques, including the establishment of urban gardens and support for local food production. 

The risk of an increase in the severity and longevity of droughts is severe. This raises the concern that certain energy sources such as hydropower may become less reliable. The related recommendation includes supporting the use of multiple energy sources to reduce reliance on a single dominant fuel technology; this would improve energy security and promote a more sustainable and resilient energy system. 

A just transition 

Most of the safeguarding measures relating to climate change also address the disparity of impacts across countries and regions, thus linking to the principle of a just transition among EU citizens. This topic — along with the need to proactively address the social and financial inequalities resulting from climate change and sustainable transition policies — was also clearly identified during the implementation test. It presents particular challenges to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, which research has shown often have a lower share of responsibility for creating environmental problems. In addition to addressing this discrepancy, the recent EEA briefing Delivering justice in sustainability transitions highlighted that several dimensions of justice — distributional, procedural, recognitional and restorative — should be considered by policies supporting a just sustainability transition (EEA, 2024a). Upcoming policy strategies shaping the sustainability transition will need to better articulate how they plan to address these various dimensions. 

Among the measures discussed supporting a just transition was a need to develop plans that support workers who will be most heavily affected by the transition to a circular economy. These included subsidies for lower socioeconomic groups to encourage the purchase of more sustainable products, for example with a greater recycled content and better traceability. Another recommendation was for the transportation sector to ensure a fair transition towards sustainable transportation, including addressing social and economic impacts. This was highlighted as vital for the overall success of sustainability efforts and the achievement of EGD targets beyond the initial mandate of 2019-2024. 

Intensifying cross-sectoral policy strategies 

The third topic concerns the need to intensify efforts in developing cross-sectoral policy strategies. The recommendations stem from repeated observations that policy strategies are often not considered in conjunction with others within the same policy cycle. 

Such cross-pollinations across policy fields prove difficult for obvious reasons, mainly because policies are often developed simultaneously within the same policy cycle and by distinct teams, possibly operating in different locations. However, many collaborative efforts and consultation channels already exist among EU institutions. Hence there is hope that by expanding such efforts and synchronising cross-pollination among topics and policy fields, policy strategy can more proactively integrate the principles being developed in parallel and with similar over-arching ambitions.



Leveraging foresight methodologies for assumption checking can empower policymakers and stakeholders to better anticipate and shape future policy strategies. The iterative framework we applied here provides opportunities to challenge and validate policy assumptions in light of future uncertainties and disruptions. This will lead to  more robust and resilient policies, which advance sustainability goals and promote long-term societal well-being. 

The few examples of measures mentioned here require deeper consideration before implementation. Yet the unanimous concerns demonstrated by experts across topics highlight how incorporating such a systemic assumption-check into the policy-making cycle is crucial for the development of a just and sustainable transition, where various policy objectives can conflict with each other. 

An iterative, systematic and collaborative process for checking assumptions would greatly help ensure that policymakers consider the interconnectedness of different sectors and incorporate risk assessment into all stages of policy development. 

To gain further insight into the topics explored during this process, you can find in-depth assessments of current policy landscapes by EEA teams specialised in these topics.

Our iterative framework may help with the implementation of the policy-driven sustainability agenda by making it more responsive, adaptive and resilient when addressing complex sustainability challenges. Regular evaluation and refinement of policy assumptions can ensure that the Commission’s strategic policy agenda 2024-2029 remains aligned with emerging trends, stakeholder needs and evolving societal priorities, ultimately advancing the transition towards a more sustainable and resilient future.


[1] Events that seem impossible until they occur, are extremely rare and have severe consequences that cannot be predicted.

[2] A STEEP analysis includes the assessment of societal, technological, economic, environmental and political variables, which combine to form the overall contextual environment (Heijden et al., 2009).


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Briefing no. 27/2023
Title: ‘Future-proofing’ the transition to sustainability: focus on policy assumptions and foresight
EN HTML: TH-AM-24-013-EN-Q - ISBN: 978-92-9480-670-3 - ISSN: 2467-3196 - doi: 10.2800/19057
EN PDF: TH-AM-24-013-EN-N - ISBN: 978-92-9480-669-7 - ISSN: 2467-3196 - doi: 10.2800/30280


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