#19 Futures Thinking in a Covid-19 World

This global pandemic is striking families and loved ones, and experts are saying this situation might be as transformative for the future as a global war. So this is not a post about what brands can learn about virality or national quarantine, or how marketers can grow their business in the context of a global pandemic.

I’m anxiously thinking about the future more than ever. From the hashtag #canceleverything which was trending in the UK yesterday, and the potential timeline of 13-15 weeks of disruption ahead, it seems we’re all in our heads playing different scenarios of what the future might look like, completely clueless of what our lives will look like in a few weeks’ time.

In this context, futures thinking and foresight specialists can offer us some valuable perspectives. Their job is to help plan for tomorrow by discovering or inventing possible, probable, and preferable futures. Their assumptions are based on past and present images of what the future may be like - it’s the discipline of anticipation.

Right now we’re living what Victoria Buchanan, one of my favourite futurists, says is a future paradox.

We all need to sacrifice our way of living to prevent the ‘bad future’, but we will never actually know if we avoided a worse scenario. This is about collectively avoiding systemic risk, which goes against the capitalist, individualistic Western way of life.

Wealthy Western societies are built on the premise of abundance - everything available whenever you want or need it. Trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort (who I also quoted a few weeks ago) said to Dezeen that this global pandemic will lead to a quarantine of consumption of profound cultural and economic impact, making us ‘kick all our habits off as if we are going off drugs’. Rewiring our brain from abundance to scarcity will be a major change and our ability to be fine with less will be ‘crucial to building an alternative and profoundly different world’.

But it turns out we’re pretty bad at imagining the future, because our present bias (a release of dopamine that favours short-term payoffs over long-term rewards) has narrowed our assumptions. We live as if we were dissociated with the future. Philosopher Roman Krznaric says ‘We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk, nuclear waste and public debt, and that we feel at liberty to plunder as we please’.

So when we’re living in a paradox, facing profound systemic change and being held back by present bias, finding clarity under the constant stream of news is almost impossible. If there is someone who knows how to deal with uncertainty, that is Amy Webb, founder of the Futures Today Institute, and she is clear of our current situation:

'Our goal right now isn’t predictions. It’s preparation for what comes next. We must shift our mindset from making predictions to being prepared.’

She points towards The Axes of Uncertainty, a tool that futurists use to think of possible, alternative futures and avoid cognitive biases or exaggerated views. The Axes are based on what can be observed in the economy, society, politics and technology in the past and present to come up with different scenarios. At the end of the exercise, there are short but detailed narratives describing plausible outcomes and impacts.

But at the core of it, our ability to plot out possible futures requires imagination. This ability is what the Copenhaguen Futures Institute calls ‘futures literacy’, the capacity to know how to imagine the future.

Nicklas Larsen, director at the CFI, says that by being aware of the source of our hopes and fears we can harness the power of images of the future, and fully embrace the diversity of both the world around us and the choices we make.

Futures literacy rests on the human mental faculty that enables us to imagine. It is a broad competency for understanding how and why humans make use of their capacity to imagine the future, it can be used in many ways, and it pre-exists our ability to walk or talk.

We need to fight our confirmation and present biases and embrace imagination to gain clarity. So here are three valuable perspectives from Futures Thinking:

  • As Larsen says, we need to establish familiarity with the unfamiliar. If we can make assumptions about the future, we can see uncertainty as a resource.

  • In this context, resourcefulness is a key skill. We need to be able to adapt and get rid of the structures that are not functional for this moment in time. A friend of mine texted me “I don’t even know what to buy at the supermarket. How long will fresh veg even stay fresh? I’m not a good panic shopper.” Making the most out of what is at hand will become an invaluable skill.

  • Things don’t just happen to us, we also shape our future. Our human agency and ability to come up with assumptions will make us more prepared. What we do today will be part of our legacy.

Take care of yourself (your physical and mental health are equally important) and others, and wash your hands.