The Power of Country Visions

Vision on mountaintop“Vision without action is merely a dream.

Action without vision merely passes the time.

Vision with action can change the world.”

– Joel Barker, Futurist, Author

It is the year 2012 AD and we live in an age of radical change and rapid development. Perhaps more radical than is currently understood. The world has undergone a process of rapid transformation which started in the late 20th century. Quite often it seems to me that the implications of this are not yet grasped by our contemporary society.

This blog post aims to explain one radical shift that is currently taking place, and that is how nations, regions and cities can and do take the leadership in development of society that has been in a vacuum since the demise of the bipolar world of socialism and capitalism.

Below I present the argument for country (and other place) visions, I give examples of some and I explain what can be achieved when the whole society follows a strong visionary ambition. At the end of the blog post are some notes from a recent dialogue in Nairobi with Mugo Kibati, Director of Vision 2030 in Kenya.

The historic development

The Cold War ended in 1990 and since then globalization has profoundly affected countries, the international system of trade and not the least individual corporations and SME´s. As a result of the changing balance of power from politics to a global economy with less regulations for trade and finance, the foundation for a new world order has been laid.

Today, a country’s success is determined by its ability to adapt to these changing dynamics and utilize them to realize national goals. Successful states are those that specialize on their unique assets and develop rapidly and then benefit from the wealth and prosperity of the developed and in some cases knowledge based economy; whereas underdeveloped states without a clear direction are becoming increasingly marginalized. Therefore, it is very important on a country level to focus on policies in line with the rapidly changing conditions of the world and to determine the principles required to apply these policies successfully.

Since the industrial revolution in the 19th century and in the early 20th century, market economy driven countries used to grow largely through the initiatives of the private sector in the quest for profits and resources were allocated according to the invisible hand of the market. It was seemingly a natural process, requiring no real planning with limited government intervention. The government’s main role was the provision of law and the maintenance of order and the welfare and well-being of the people depended mostly on their own initiatives.

The thinkers, economists and philosophers of the time came up with ways and means to reduce the disparities between rich and poor. One of them was to give the government greater responsibility in determining the way and the course the development of the country should take. Social justice became a matter of prime concern for everyone. The political systems developed into two extremes, laissez-fair capitalism and planned economy socialism, with liberalism and social democratic policies of the northern European countries somewhere in-between.

Capitalism SocialismCapitalism, Socialism and Democracy, published in 1942 by Joseph A. Schumpeter, is one of the greatest works of social theory written in the 20th century. It is a landmark book, presenting an analysis of political and economical systems and sociology which was unparalleled at the time it was published. In the book Schumpeter predicts the sociopolitical disintegration of capitalism, which, he maintained, would be undermined eventually by its own success because it would create a class of intellectuals who would attack it. In addition, government controls would destroy the entrepreneur and innovation and would lead to a form of socialism.

According to Schumpeter, neither outcome was good, given the vital importance of the entrepreneur in business, where he emphasized the entrepreneur’s role in stimulating investment and innovation, thereby causing “creative destruction.” Creative destruction thus occurs when innovation makes old ideas and technologies obsolete

Why has the work endured so well? Schumpeter’s contention that the seeds of capitalism’s decline were internal, and his equal and opposite hostility to centralist socialism have perplexed, engaged and infuriated readers since the book’s publication. By refusing to become an advocate for either position Schumpeter was able both to make his own great and original contribution and to clear the way for a more balanced consideration of the most important political movements of his and our time.

In the socialist countries of the mid and late 20th century
, development  took the form of nationalisation and centralized economic planning. The plans not only focused on stimulating growth, but also equal distribution of the wealth of the nation. The five-year plans of the socialist countries had this objective, run by organizations such as Gosplan in the Soviet Union. It was believed that control of the means of production by the government would ensure the resultant profits would go completely to the government, which would then be equally distributed to all the people.
After years of adopting the strategy, it was found that the expected growth did not take place as hoped and that managing an economy as a linear programming exercise simply did not work. Nationalized industries failed to perform and could not contribute to the development of the nation as was happening to the free market economies. What instead happened was that managers and workers in nationalized industries had no incentive to grow their businesses because they stood to gain very little from the ideas and the work that they put in.
Cray-1-Supercomputer-1976I remember a lecture I attended at the Stockholm School of Economics in 1988, given by Professor Alec Nove of the University of Glasgow, where Professor Nove told us that his research had shown it would take the most capable computer in the world (the Cray computer) more than five years to solve the multiple linear equation system of the five year plans in the Soviet Union. As anyone can understand, it does not make sense to spend more time computing a plan than it will take to execute it…
In capitalist societies, the expectation of greater profits acted as great incentives in terms of good management, innovations, and initiatives. But the disparities between rich and poor could not be significantly reduced. In fact, they could increase. To conclude and paraphrase what a wise politician said: "The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries."
In the 1990s, many competent politicians in the developing countries saw the failure of both free market capitalism and planned socialism and were searching for a middle way, where the government could take leadership, interact with the market economy to steer development and find short-cuts. One government with foresight was the one in Malaysia.
Malaysia flag“After studying the socialist and the capitalist free market systems, Malaysian policy makers and planners decided that the best results would come from a combination of the best elements in the two systems – the socialists’ centrally-planned economy and the capitalists’ free market economy. The Malaysian government thus decided to adopt the capitalist free-market system but mitigate it with economic planning and a limited number of national enterprises.”
– Dr. Bin Mohammed, fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia until 2003.

The emergence of Visions

In the absence of the political struggle between socialism and capitalism, countries, and in the past and increasingly again cities and regions in need of development have taken to develop visions.

The emergence of visions are based on the assumption that when a government takes the lead in preparing and implementing its own strategy, development efforts are more likely to succeed.

An early experience was the New Deal in the 1930s. The New Deal was a series of economic programs enacted in the United States between 1933 and 1936. They involved presidential executive orders or laws passed by Congress during the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The programs were in response to the Great Depression, and focused on what historians call “the 3 Rs": Relief, Recovery, and Reform. That is, Relief for the unemployed and poor; Recovery of the economy to normal levels; and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression.

In the recent 20 years a number of developing countries have defined and implemented a country vision, many with good success a few with less good outcomes.

Some examples of country visions

Country visions

How to do it

Important success factors in developing a country vision is to start with an assessment of the country´s unique assets, a mobilization of  all actors in the quad helix model and a planning process involving frequent feedback loops, in order to mobilize and energize all stakeholders.Quad helix

It is also important to work with communication and international networking, to promote the interest of the place. In general, the building of international networks presupposes at least three things:

• A strong, high energy and focused drive.
• A vision with inbuilt milestones and precisely defined attractions.
• Language and intercultural competence.

All these efforts take time and energy to achieve and must be pursued beyond all those nicely written letters of intent or memorandums of understanding.

Such letters sometimes represent the sole milestone for the consumption by the local audience. After a year or so the letter is forgotten and the ambitious efforts could rather be defined as “sloganeering” – a too common approach in the world of place management. To overcome the hurdles an energetic management style is a must.

However a Vision by itself is not enough. To look at experience from cities, some of the world’s great cities have benefited from the vision of great place managers: Christopher Wren, London’s famous architect, Daniel Burnham, Chicago’s famous park designer, Napoleon Bonaparte in the case of Paris and France. Most cities bear the footprints of many “place managers”, who have who have added outstanding elements to the design of the place as it operates now.

milestonesAction Plan and Milestones

A meaningful Vision also presupposes a strategy with an action plan, including milestones and containing answers to the following questions:

  1. Who is responsible at each level and for each item?
  2. What exactly should be done for a successful implementation?
  3. Which basic financial resources are necessary and what stands on the income side?
  4. What is the timeline for the main attraction projects, including the expected
    completion dates?
  5. What are the most important milestones and what are they dependent on?

The strategy for accomplishing the vision is not an optional extra. Strategy formulation is an integral part of the vision itself.

There are four basic questions which the strategy formulation must answer:

  1. How do we break down our proposed unique selling points into strategies to
    reach our priority target groups and subgroups?
  2. Which overall resources and tools do we have to support our proposed unique
    selling points?
  3. How do we secure operational platforms to implement the visions?
  4. Who will be responsible for what and with what competence?


It is important to anchor the milestones and action points in feedback loops with the population. by doing so the vision can be described and the ambitions and goals of the country can be made clear in an understandable and tangible way.

How not to do it

Man shoutingOn the region and city level, we have often seen places having developed vision statements that are not clear or not effectively communicated and used as a guide to shaping policies and priorities, re-thinking investment programs or inducing various stakeholders to act.

Often visionary plans are written elegantly, using the latest buzzwords and printed in full color for the citizens to read. Quite often one then meet hordes of frustrated citizens  complaining about a complete lack of realized results which could give the necessary feedback stimulation in the place development process. A compensatory approach by the politicians is then to overbook the calendar with pointless meetings and events with no or little strategy behind them. To look occupied is one popular solution to tackling the frustration.

Some places are masters in developing new visions in the form of strategic documents. These are often elaborated in close cooperation with a strategy consultancy company living in a world of abstract concepts, stereotypes or even slogans, or worse, authored in cooperation with a marketing firm.

An interesting observation here is that many consultancy firms do not highlight any attraction points of relevance for the business community. They do not engage in detailed business facts and figures because they have very seldom done it before or they have limited local knowledge.

Instead they “import” various stereotypes and concepts to the place with only a very superficial character beyond the place relevance. When reading the resulting strategy documents one is often left with a sense of déjà vu: this text has been written before – just for another place! Often, a standardized SWOT analysis is introduced somewhere along the process and the latest buzzwords are normally inserted and reshuffled in a slightly changed order from place to place.

As a reader one is left in the infamous culture of sameness. One of the most commonly used dimensions in this culture is the message that the place is situated in the geographical middle of something or the capital of XYZ, e.g. “capital of Scandinavia” (Stockholm) or “capital of Europe” (Brussels), implying that the other places are acting in a more peripheral or even hidden world.

Another fashionable strategy position is that the place should be associated with something green or sustainable. It is amazing how almost all European cities nowadays argue that they are green or sustainable cities. Overall, this is of course positive. On the other hand, when it then comes to their implementation ability, there are often few practical results achieved. But the billboards outside the city walls send their standardized green messages.

The Capital Dilemma

Above we see two different “Capital” approaches and seven examples each. In the first category there is a business direction incorporated. In the second category there is no direction – only a geographical approach leaving the target audience in uncertainty about the real content.

A second problem is that the vision emerges without any details or concrete projects because there might be vested interest somewhere in the system. “Keep all doors open” might be the internal and informal unspoken thinking. On top of that, a place manager might not like to be measured too easily or concretely afterwards. Therefore, the strategy to “keep all doors open” might be a tempting solution. The problem is then that place managers are left with too many options and loose ends. This in turn often leads to requests for yet another planning team, another rethinking round or even a new vision.

A third problem, closely related to the second, is that visions have been worked out during a long process where delicate and internal negotiations have taken place all ending up in nice and full harmony. Striving towards consensus has killed off most surprises and innovations. The uniqueness and the brave outside-the-box thinking have disappeared in a diplomatic melting pot. This might be seen as an appropriate compromise since being a diplomat is normally understood as a positive personal characteristic and a positive strategic position. What is called for is somebody with the attitude to be the devils’ advocate and ask the unpleasant questions and challenge participants.

A fourth problem is that a living understanding of business climate and business development tends to be weak among place managers with one foot in the public sector. Especially in Europe, there has been a long established pattern of first and foremost relying on the public sector actors themselves in most place strategy missions. Thus, a mission might be interpreted as a well elaborated strategy, with a logical and “balanced” structure, but in fact have little or no business relevance or chance of long term survival in the real world.

The Kenya example and the successful practitioners advice

Having read the gloomy summary above of problems we have encountered in visions, it can be refreshing to read about a successful case. One country that seems to have got it right is Kenya, currently on the path to implement Vision 2030. When visiting Nairobi, one can feel the energy of the nation in making the Vision happen.

mugo kibatiTwo weeks ago, I had the opportunity to discuss Kenya Vision 2030 with the Director of the delivery team, Mugo Kibati. I have met him several times in more formal settings over the past few months and I was interested in hearing more about his experience.

Therefore, one Friday evening in August, my colleague Anders Riedenfalk and I got to spend some relaxed time with Mugo on a hotel terrace in a remote area of Nairobi, and we had a very interesting informal discussion. During our talk, Mugo Kibati told us his thoughts on the planning and implementation of the country vision in Kenya.

To provide the reader with the background and ambition, Kenya Vision 2030 aims to transform Kenya into an industrializing “middle-income country providing a high quality life to all its citizens by the year 2030”.  It was developed during a several year long process through an all-inclusive and participatory stakeholder consulting process, involving both local and international experts and Kenyans from all parts of the country. For the interested reader, the official documentation on the Vision can be found at the end of this blog post.

The Vision is based on three pillars of development; the economic, the social and the political. These are supported by a foundation of enablers, such as initiatives for macro economic stability, development of an innovation strategy, an inward investment strategy, governance reform, development of infrastructure and energy production, and so on.

Kenya Vision 2030 pyramid

The economic pillar aims to improve the prosperity of all Kenyans through an economic development programme, covering all the regions of Kenya, and aiming to achieve an average GDP growth rate of 10% per annum during an intense development period.

Implementation is being made in consecutive five-year medium-term plans. Prioritized Flagship projects are intended to take the lead in generating rapid growth, setting the pace for follow on projects behind them. They key flagship project in the economic pillar is the development of Konza Technology City, which we have written about in another recent blog post.

The social pillar rests on goals related to education and training, but also on ambitions to achieve social and gender equality. Flagship projects include construction of 560 new secondary schools and development of teacher recruitment programmes. Other initiatives are community health centers and a national health insurance scheme.

The political pillar envisions a country with a democratic system on both the national and a new regional government level, that is issue-based, people-centered, result-oriented and accountable to the public. Flagship projects include a new constitution, judicial and legal reforms and creating 40+ regional governments with local taxation rights, allowing for decentralization of local government issues from the capital.

When Vision 2030 was launched in 2008, the population of Kenya had come to a complete lack of faith with the government, due to mismanagement over decades by previous administrations. When people are cynical, how do you engage and energize them?

Talking through how a country vision can be implemented with Mugo Kibati, his advice is to not show fancy billboards to start with, instead show quick action. In Kenya this was made as some very rapid reforms, including reforming the judicial system and tangible projects, like the construction of the Tikka Super Highway.

According to Mr. Kibati, the fundamentally most important reform is to change the mindset of the population, making them understand that real reform and progress is actually possible.

Kenya - Vision 2030For Kenya, Vision 2030 is very comprehensive. To gain the peoples trust and change their mindset, quick delivery of political and juridical reforms have succeeded economic reforms, which take longer time to implement. By starting with constitution and rules of law, which are easy to implement, people will start to believe that also other areas of improvement that are more difficult to implement are possible.

Once tangible results have been experienced, then it is time to construct the big billboard at the interchange, to show what is coming next, to launch television commercials and to launch inclusive engagement in the development projects of the economic pillar.

According to Mugo Kibati, the biggest challenge with country visions is ensuring that the whole country buys in. Lack of faith can hinder implementation and it is difficult for public to understand reforms. Getting the people to believe it is even possible to become a middle income country is a huge mental leap.

When it comes to tangible projects, the current state of the railway in Kenya is a good example. it is too full and the tracks are worn and broken. The railway is something tangible for a large part of the population. Therefore this has been prioritized and a new commuter railway station is soon opening in Nairobi.

As Mugo Kibati says, make early changes where people are and pass through, so they can see the changes.

When it comes to implementing policy change, one foundation is macro economic stability. For this reason an important project is to make the Kenyan central bank independent. As in other countries, the Treasury should care about growth, and central bank about controlling inflation.

From this point, our discussion flowed on to the topic of country innovation systems and the importance of a country innovation strategy, which is an area where we in Bearing have the ambition to help Kenya in projects based on our experience from the successful innovation system in Sweden.

For more advice from Mugo Kibati, here is one official interview, available on YouTube:

Interview with Mugo Kibati

For the interested reader, the Kenya Vision 2030 can be downloaded from the links below:

Here is an article about Mugo Kibati from Think Business April 2012:

VisionTo end with a quote

Finally, a well known quote from Lewis Carrols Alice in Wonderland, a children’s book containing much adult wisdom.

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”


  1. I was enjoying reading this blog, very interesting and I think it describes the current situation in the world pretty accurate. A viable visionary plan is what I would like to hear from American politics. Instead I see only old economical stereotypes that might be useful under different circumstance but can’t help now.

  2. Thank you. I appreciate your comment, and indeed it is a disappointment to in recent days watch the political parties conventions in the United States with the same old arguments and the same old short term fishing of votes. Nothing bold, nothing ambitious and no messages more complicated than a few sentences at a time.

  3. Sadly, what we are witnessing is the fallacy of a democracy. And keep in mind the United States is the second largest democracy in the world, after India. (I was born and raised in one and now living in the other). So even with the largest economy, the democratic process being reduced to the least common denominator by definition, several needed things just don’t happen. Since a significant portion of any political capital (efforts to reach the common good for the majority ultimately) is spent on the democratic processes – whether we individually agree or not, like or not!

    BTW, I like the opening quote very much. Thanks as always for a nice, informative analysis.

  4. I am writing an article about the importance of future forecast in developing a country vision and I came across your blog. It is a useful blog to understand how counties develop vision however how do they forecast future. I am not interested in the model of forecasting but how to set up a department with right qualified people to forecast future. I would appreciate if you have something to read in this aspect.

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