This is the first in a series of posts examining public debates over prediction, crisis diagnoses, and social transformation stemming from COVID-19. I am drawing on the insights from my book-in-progress on the role of scenario thinking and foresight methods in social change efforts focused on democracy, development, peacebuilding, and climate change.
Ann Mische is associate professor of sociology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
We are currently living through a moment of dramatic protest over racial injustice, on the heels of a profoundly destabilizing global pandemic that has undermined our routines and exposed deep social fissures. The pandemic, in turn, has emerged in the context of broader interlocking crises, from climate change to economic precarity to the global rise of autocracy. Most of us are reeling, with a sense that the future has never felt so unmoored.
In the midst of this upheaval, the futurists have been busy. I have spent the past few weeks scanning the blogs, tweets, and webinars of a sprawling international network of people who consider themselves experts in foresight. Some are linked to think tanks, consultancies, and academic research institutes, while others write as free-floating intellectuals in online forums. These blogs and forums offer advice on how to “future-proof” our organizations and develop more resilient strategies for dealing with uncertainties. They also offer scenarios for the post-pandemic world-to-come, ranging from technological innovations to growing conflict and inequality to the reorganization of global capitalism.
The media has also been busy, with features in major outlets discussing the multiple ways in which the Covid-19 crisis will transform the world. These include the reorganization of supply chains, workplaces, and higher education; shifts in relationships, family life and gender roles; and effects on political conflict, racial and class divisions, and climate change. The intense disruption of daily life and the up-ending of expected futures has generated a dizzying array of conversations in which experts, pundits, and ordinary people express contending views on the all-consuming question: what the hell is happening to us?
Given this flurry of conversation and debates, the work of trained futurists now feels oddly redundant. In effect, the pandemic has moved foresight efforts out of the domain of experts and into the popular vernacular — we are all futurists now. Everyone is caught up in diagnosing the crisis and speculating about how the pandemic will change our lives, although we draw on different kinds of cultural and symbolic capital (knowledge bases, access to audiences, legitimizing authority), and we place different emphases on the short, medium or long term futures.
There are at least three distinct angles to these conversations. The first circles around questions of prediction: what did or didn’t we know? What should we have known? Why were predictions not made or heeded? The second presents diagnoses of our current “crisis” situation, along with analysis of what the pandemic reveals about underlying system precarities and dysfunctions. The third focuses on possible transformations that will emerge from the crisis, presenting scenarios for how the pandemic may be reshaping our world.
While these may seem like separate questions, futurists would tell us that they are interrelated. No one can predict the future, foresight practitioners say like a mantra, highlighting the radical uncertainties and ambiguities of our times, and casting doubt on claims about what we “should have known.” At the same time, they are not ready to abandon the foresight endeavour. Futurists claim that by understanding the complex interplay between multiple systems (political, economic, social, cultural, technological, environmental), we will be better able to decipher the tumultuous times in which we are living. Perhaps more provocatively, we will also be able to spin the systems forward, so to speak, and imagine possible future interactions, recombinations, and emergent effects.
Such imaginative thinking, they tell us, can in turn allow us to pry the future open and perceive transformative possibilities embedded in what currently appear as “weak signals” on a faint horizon. Creative recombinations in response to problem situations can lead to the emergence of new organizational forms, according to management scholars and historically-oriented social scientists. Framed this way, the future sounds, well, exciting. Perhaps there will be a silver lining; something new and positive may come from the disruption, suffering, uncertainty, and boredom of the coronavirus “situation.” That is, of course, unless it veers off into catastrophe.
Lest I fall too easily into the cheerful, alarmist pragmatism of consultant-speak, let’s take a step back and note the difficulty of this endeavor. The systemic analysis and recombinatorial thinking involved in foresight work is really hard. It is cognitively and emotionally taxing to disrupt the routine, simplifying heuristics of our day-to-day expectations, and instead embrace ontological uncertainty, systemic complexity, and imaginative multiplicity. For these reasons, foresight work is often delegated to experts trained in specialized techniques, such as horizon scanning, scenario planning and visioning exercises. These exercises frequently involve consultation with other experts (although they sometimes engage broader groups of stakeholders, citizens, and ordinary people).
However, in “interrupted times” like the present, leaving futures to the experts no longer works. We have all been forced to live with multiple futures on the horizon, developing contingency plans for the coming months. What will we do if schools and workplaces do or do not re-open? Will it be safe or unsafe to hold the planned-for family or community gathering? How will we need to adjust things if family members become sick? These daily queries are indeed taxing, leaving us stressed and exhausted, whether from over-consumption of news and social media or from worries about the health, safety, sanity, education and livelihood of our loved ones.
We co-exist with multiple futures in our institutions as well as in our daily lives. My university, for example, has multiple task forces of people developing contingency plans for the coming academic year, each plan constituting an alternative future with implications for thousands of people via effects on cash flow, employment, football games, building upkeep, research agendas, and class schedules. While we are still waiting to hear the results of this planning, we have been told that “flexibility” and “resilience” will be the watchwords for fall as we confront “whatever happens.”
This generalized immersion in the quandaries of foresight work is generating excitement among those who do this for a living, along with some raised eyebrows. In a recent public webinar hosted by the Institute for the Future (a think tank specializing in foresight work), the “experiential futurist” Stuart Candy was asked about the shift in general mindset generated by the pandemic. The host noted that futurists usually spend a lot of their time trying to persuade people “that the world might be radically different than it is,” but that “suddenly now we’re being provoked by that concept every day.”
Host: I’m curious how your work as an educator, as a futurist, as a provocateur is changing right now, given the fact that we are constantly being provoked by possible futures?
Stuart Candy: Yeah, one of the really striking things is that maybe the single hardest prerequisite to doing futures work, the single hardest thing to communicate to someone who isn’t already doing it...is the reality of the unpredictability of change. I mean, if you are living in a context that seems relatively sedate and predictable…then the idea that you should think about the future and challenge your imagination to grapple with what might occur is not self-evident. But I think the experience that we are collectively having as a society, as a species, right now is a lived experience of that uncertainty. Many of us already do or did experience that anyhow, but the fact that it is an undeniable presence and a predominating emotional reality day in day out, is really helpful to the cause of encouraging a higher quality engagement with futures thinking, because that first hurdle of why should I bother has been cleared for us by external circumstances.
As these practitioners note, previously (i.e, in more “sedate” times), they needed specialized techniques to startle us into embracing uncertainty as the launching pad for engagement with futures thinking. Now we have all gotten an unexpected and unwanted crash course. How do we steer our way through this uncertainty amidst the spinning chaos of contending narratives and control efforts? How do we try to grasp, shape, and adapt to “whatever happens” on the not-yet-visible “other side”? These are not just academic questions, or topics of playful imaginative workshops. Rather, as the pandemic and protests over threats to black lives have shown us, they are quite literally questions of life and death.
Upcoming posts in this series will address different dimensions of this puzzle: the management of contingency, the limits of prediction, the problematics of crisis narration, and the ambiguities of the transformative imagination.