On pandemic foresight

These are tumultuous times, as I am now closing out my second month of working form home in a Covid19-driven lockdown. Times during which the pandemic has already upended our individual and collective anticipation for what a good life holds in store and one in which global warming continues to cast a darkening shadow over the planet we are leaving our future selves.  

The amplification and acceleration of pre-existing trends by Covid19 reveals a number of paradoxes, of which I find the following particularly relevant, given my current work on the value of futures and foresight. It is shortening our time horizons and bringing the here-and-now into immediate focus: respond to the crisis, find a way through. At the same time Covid19 has amplified the importance of longer-term thinking in our ability to be prepared for, respond to and recover from such shocks.

Indeed, its impact is – in the UK, at least – compounded by historical short-sightedness. The myopic and ideologically-driven dogma of austerity significantly weakened the ability of our public systems and more at-risk communities to weather the Covid19 storm. Slack in the system is not an efficiency gain waiting to be found. It offers a little flex in times of stress, a bend-but-don’t-break functionality we ignore at our peril. The removal of preventative investment has left many people in a position more vulnerable to Covid19 than ever before and services ill resourced, if they even remain, to respond. 

We see now the answer to the short-term political dilemma of whether to invest in the preparatory steps that would enable our society to be resilient on the face of such a pandemic, or do we simply hope that it won’t occur ‘on our watch’, and thus gamble our careers and reputations on the roll of a dice? For to do the latter is simply to defer the risk and responsibility to future generations whilst leaving them with a weakened social and public infrastructure from which to respond and rebuild. And so here we are, in 2020, ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle a pandemic – despite the existence of a pandemic preparedness plan – undermined by a failure of political will to build up resources accordingly and respond swiftly. 

Foresight can do more than just help us prepare for known events and therefore support our attempts at managing risk. It can also help us imagine the unimaginable, and thereby support our wider efforts at system resilience and working with uncertainty, equipping us with the mental models and mindsets to act when we can’t know what’s likely to happen next. It can open up a space into which we think differently and have different conversations about the importance of the future as well as the different scales about which we should be concerned.  It can support us to make better decisions today for a better world tomorrow. 

It can be easy to dismiss foresight as ‘just another tool’, another approach, to be added to a heritage including systems thinking, design thinking, complexity, agile and lean and all sorts of other mechanisms different strategists, management consultants and CEOs will advocate. Our dominant incentive structures militate against long-term thinking, driven by shareholder returns, the next election, by promotions and bonuses and pensions, by consumption and reputation… and ultimately by the idea that many things won’t impact us because we’ll be long gone: from our job role, our company, our community, and ultimately from our life. 

How we think about and view the future is vitally important to how we think about and act in the present, and our present context is vitally important to how we think about the future. The value of foresight is not in predicting when a global pandemic would strike, but in the knowledge that it would, and in recognising that there was, at any point in time, for political leaders, a choice to be made. 

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