By Robert Hickson 26/03/2020


It will pass. What happens next? Not immediately, but longer term. There are many opinions, fewer certainties. Will it “change everything!” as many confidently, and contradictorily predict?

In this post I look at how foresight can help bound some of the uncertainties so you can more objectively consider the future.

 

Opinions and uncertainties

Some current headlines are hyperbolic. Such as Politico’s “Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How.”  Followed by a random selection of people pontificating, largely based on books or articles that they have previously published.

Many of those ideas seem to have been trotted out following other calamities. “It will bring us together”, “we’ll become more insular”, “we’ll move on from capitalism”, “we’ll trust experts more”, etc, etc, etc. To someone with a single opinion, every crisis is a nail that you can hammer it with.

The Washington Post also sought opinions from a range of people. Some of these were slightly more fact based and interesting. The 1918 flu changed some habits over the short term, but the US (and many other) health system wasn’t reformed, nor economic and social inequalities addressed.

But there were other speculations too.

More babies? Netflix and chill indeed.

Fewer of the middle class living in bigger cities?

A tipping point for tele-medicine, and tele-working?

One point of view suggested that if politicians had to abandon face-to-face meetings, and grab & grin events, then there is likely to be a shift toward “more interesting” (aka outlandish) politicians as they seek to gain attention.

Elsewhere, demand on vets may grow as some dogs injure themselves due to all the additional company and consequent tail-wagging.

More reasoned analyses explore whether China will capitalise on a narrative of effective governance that it is pushing to strengthen its global leadership position.

Others warn of greater political power for far-right wing parties in Europe, brought about by increasing distrust from the public. This is due to political failings in managing the pandemic, the public viewing the austerity measures imposed following the global financial crisis as having undermined public health, and seeing the tsunami of spending by governments now as giving lie to previous declarations that there isn’t money to spare.

While some consider whether we’ll see changes in outsourcing and just-in-time supply chains so that economies become less vulnerable.

In the weeks to come, we’ll also see further consideration about whether the pandemic will help or hinder reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Has the pain of pandemic debilitated economic resources and political will to make further difficult decisions? Or will it energise societal impetus to “go hard” against climate change too?

So many options and opinions.

 

More structure, less speculation

We like “tipping points” – clearly defined events that “change everything”. But expecting dramatic changes from a single pandemic event can seem unreasonable. Historically, several factors usually combine to drive dramatic changes. As I noted in my last blog post featuring “black jellyfish”, we can be mistaken in our understanding of how systems work.

Good foresight practices help work through these quandaries and uncertainties. Not because they will necessarily tell you what will happen, but because they help you think about, and structure, assumptions, interdependencies, stabilities and uncertainties. That provides the foundation for better decision-making.

A common, and often true, criticism of foresight exercises and reports is that they only describe how uncertain everything is. What’s the use of that? Minimal.

Pierre Wack, one of the leaders of scenario development in the 1970’s and 80’s, realised that

“… simply combining obvious uncertainties did not help much with decision making. That exercise brought us only to a set of obvious, simplistic, and conflicting strategic solutions.”

 

Predetermined elements

What’s as important as exploring uncertainty is recognizing what Wack called “predetermined elements” – events already in train, but the consequences not yet felt. This is the old adage of “focus on what you know.”

His example was the arrival of a Monsoon, where the rivers further have not yet risen. Other examples, with different time scales (and uncertainties about consequence), are the impacts of climate change, demographic changes, and country lockdowns.

First, these elements need to be identified, which often isn’t obvious. Then look at them more closely to understand how they influence or drive the system. Are we sure about what will or can happen next? Are there interconnections and subtle complexities that we aren’t aware of?

Obvious predetermined elements in the current situation are the economic declines, restrictions on travel and global trade, and existing inequalities in social and economic circumstances. But also that global trade and connections will continue. There is no magical economic rebound in the short term, so those types of scenarios shouldn’t be taken seriously.

For a “Wackian” scenario planner though, such scenarios can have their uses. This is by illustrating how out of touch with reality decision makers may be.

 

Prepare the mind, not just the narrative

Wack cautions against focusing just on producing scenarios. What can be as important as scenarios is creating the institutional environment to face uncertainty and understand the forces influencing it.

To actually enable change foresight needs to first challenge “… decision makers´ assumptions about how the world works and compel them to reorganize their mental model of reality.” This has been re-emphasised more recently by others such as Ramirez & Wilkinson, who call it strategic re-framing.

 

Weights of the past

As well as identifying predetermined elements that may drive change, it’s also necessary to consider what’s holding change back. Sohail Inayatullah’s “Futures triangle” prompts you to think about the dynamics of different forces influencing the future, including what he calls the “weights of the past.”

These are institutions, policies, culture, practices, power structures, mental models, etc that can make changes difficult, will affect the consequences of trends and events, or need to be overcome if they block a preferred future.   Others have called these weights system “stabilities.”

Such weights or instabilities aren’t necessarily negative. We depend on some of them to make our societies liveable, desirable and equitable.

Societies and cultures have a lot of inertia built into them. The global financial crisis didn’t change most countries economic practices and policies in the longer term. Responses were designed to get “back to normal” as soon as possible.

However, during some crises stabilities can quickly change. The era of “Rogernomics”, for example. The fall of the Berlin wall and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Leaders who feel unconstrained by conventions.

As with predetermined elements, the point isn’t to just list them but to identify and explore the ones relevant to the circumstance. Examples of “weights” or “stabilities” when considering the post-COVID world are:

  • Mindset – Are pandemics seen as unavoidable, we just need to prepare for them; or do those in power see them as events whose likelihood of emerging can be reduced?

  • Mindset – Reactive rather than proactive? Tactical more than strategic?

  • Culture – “She’ll be right”? Individualistic or community minded?

  • Political & economic institutions – How adaptable are they in crises? Are they already over-stressed?

  • Trust in political and economic institutions – How trusted are they now, and what would cause large shifts (increase or decline) in trust?

  • Geopolitical power – What are the chances that the current balances/imbalances remain, or shift significantly, and what could bring this about?

  • Economic – How reliant is the economy on just a few sectors?

  • Economic/Political – To what extent do economic factors dominate political decision-making?

  • Infrastructure – Is the infrastructure we have sufficient, robust and resilient enough to support and protect communities, economies, and the environment?

  • Skills – Do we have ready access to the skills we need, or do we need to import them?

  • Geographic – Are you a small island nation, thousands of kilometres from other countries?

In this list, some of the more interesting ones to watch at the moment are:

  • Geopolitical power. This is something that will play out over the next decade, not the next year

  • Mindset. Do mindsets change post pandemic, and if so in what ways? Will the predominant desire be to get back to “normal”? Or to see the need, and opportunities, for broader change?

  • Trust in institutions. Which are strengthened and which weakened?

 

 

It’s not just about the virus

This pandemic isn’t the end of everything, nor will it change everything. But it will change somethings. What and how is yet to be determined. However, it will be a mistake if we focus just on the pandemic. The major issue isn’t a virus, it is the systems it affects.

George Thomson et al have already pointed out that COVID-19 is just highlighting existing pressures on the health system

The “Great Plague of Athens” in the 5th Century B.C. didn’t destroy Athenian democracy. However, combined with the Peloponnesian War and other events, it exposed and increased the weaknesses of that society.

SARS-Cov-2 highlights the weaknesses and strengths of a highly connected world, along with the advantages of good preparation for and management of crises. One of the things I think we are likely to see is more highly charged debates about the need to act more proactively about reducing climate change impacts versus arguments in favour of let’s just recover from this first.

Now’s a good time for us to start looking more closely at forces of change and forces of stability (locally and globally) affecting our lives more generally. Then we can better consider the societal and economic strengths and weaknesses that we need to pay more attention to. This helps us both avoid or reduce the shocks of other crises, as well as identify fields of opportunity.

In reality there are two issues usually at play in futures thinking – what do people think will change, and what do they think needs to change. Having good processes to examine both of these, and then act, is essential.

 

Featured photo by Danijela Froki on Unsplash