The mental maps for 2020 that we all began the year with have been completely torn up. We all desperately want a new map of the landscape. We need to be very careful trying to build new ones.
If Ever there were a Year of Abandoned New Year’s Resolutions…
Like so many others, I began 2020 full of hope and excitement. New exciting projects starting up, a busy travel schedule filled out into the summer, conferences and presentations around the world, and a long-planned (and fully booked) vacation taking my kids to Disneyland. Then the pandemic swept the world, we quickly implemented new health policies, equipped and sent staff to work from home, and hurriedly reorganized our home and daily schedules to accommodate two parents working remotely and co-teaching children who had completely missed their Spring Break and were now confined within the walls of our home.
Even in those early days of the lock downs it was apparent that the pandemic was unlikely to end quickly or quietly. Infections and death tolls rose with alarming speed, unemployment skyrocketed, and each new day brought a raft of new uncertainties and emerging issues to further obscure our view of the future. And then, on top of this, outrage over systemic racial injustice sparked widespread civil unrest and a new set of societal disruptions. While the pandemic continues to have deep and wide-ranging impacts on our society, these disruptions are also interacting with other larger, long-run forces that have been steadily building towards historic, fundamental changes in our lives.
Together, these disruptions will prevent the landscape ahead of us from settling down into anything like a new, stable normal anytime soon. In order to make the best decisions possible during this time, we need to see this period in the proper context, and we need to employ more of the right type of foresight.
A Period of Major Transitions
For the past several years the world has been in the midst of multiple, simultaneous transitions. The Earth’s climate has been shifting for decades and, despite years of sometimes rancorous debate, some of its effects like sea level rise and habitat shifts are now impossible to ignore.1 The world order has also been undergoing significant realignment, a shift seen most obviously in the rise of China and one accelerated by the United States’ own withdrawal from its former role as a world leader.2 In terms of our built environment, machines – meaning here both “AI” and robotics – are rapidly forming their own digital ecologies. Machines are now woven throughout our daily lives and operate across a vast and evolving digital landscape that is increasingly critical for daily life, even as most of it is invisible to the human eye.3 Less well-known to many, though promising even more profound transformations than the rise of machines, advances in fields such as synthetic biology are allowing us to rewrite life at its most basic level, enabling us to design entirely synthetic creatures and environments.4
These shifts are not merely about who has the largest GDP or how well our smart phones understand spoken commands. They portend fundamental changes in many aspects of (future) daily life. These and other major transitions have been steadily eroding many of the assumptions that most of us learned early in our careers, “rules” about things such as governance, business, and identity.
For the natural environment, the shorelines of our country are changing, the frequency of extreme (and costly) weather is increasing, and the very stability of our biosphere is under question.5 Geopolitically, other countries increasingly look elsewhere for leadership and America is losing its recent role defining global standards and cultural trends.6 With automation, we are busily developing machines to take on a dizzying array of tasks, from running supply chains to fighting enemy forces to drafting their own code.7 And in biology we – and “we” sometimes means people too young to vote – are designing wholly synthetic lifeforms, working on biological chimeras, and experimenting with DIY genetic enhancements.8
Seldom in history have we confronted so many tectonic changes at the same time, and we have never faced the prospect of so many people having access to such powerful technologies or setting loose in the world so many novel, artificial, and autonomous creations. As the world approached the end of 2019 these were some of the deep and long-term transformations that were already well underway and which were already rendering moot many of the policy and ideological debates we had locked ourselves into, even if many of us didn’t yet fully realize it.
The Accelerating and Expanding Future
This entire set of transformations was struck by a global pandemic in the opening weeks of 2020. To the frustration of some and the hopefulness of others, the pandemic has accelerated transitions in things like automation while forcing us to deal with other long-simmering transformations we have been debating for years, such as in digital healthcare, distributed workforces, and online education.9 Geopolitically, actors such as China and Russia have tried to make use of the pandemic to advance their regional and global interests while so many of us have been preoccupied with stemming the first wave of the pandemic.10 The future, which some of us had been longing for and others had assumed was much farther off in the distance, suddenly accelerated towards us.
As the pandemic has accelerated some of these societal transitions, it has also acted to dramatically expand the number of uncertainties and possibilities we now face. Things we might have been confident in previously, such as the disruptive strength of “sharing economy” business models, are now genuine uncertainties. Whereas we might have been focused on which nanodegrees or micro credentials matter most for emerging technology jobs, today we are busy trying to redesign physical spaces for teaching, hurriedly experimenting with hybrid online/in-person learning models, and confronting systemic disparities within American education.11 The tens of millions who have lost their jobs and the thousands of businesses that have closed represent a dramatic new set of future uncertainties about the form and nature of employment, the structure of industries, and the economy as a whole.
Even as the first wave of the pandemic was unfolding, outrage over racial injustice sparked riots and social unrest across the country, introducing a massive new disruption into this turbulent confluence of change. The widespread and sustained unrest has pushed into view some of the systemic social inequities that have been present in the country since its founding. Communities, industries, and institutions are all now under significant pressure to enact unusually rapid change. The pandemic served to highlight patterns of inequity and injustice that were already present in our society, and now the possibility for a wide variety of social and political changes has been added to the uncertainties and emerging issues the country is facing.
And, if that weren’t enough, we are now into what has been set up to be one of the most contentious and divisive presidential elections in recent history. Aside from the basic uncertainty of who will win the various votes, this particular election carries an expanding range of follow-on uncertainties, from how the supporters of the losing candidate will react to what stable domestic governance will be to the impact on relations with China.
Given the number of systems and assumptions that have been stressed and given the breadth of changes now occurring across society, the amount of change that is now possible has grown dramatically. Framed in a different way, the number of different possible futures we now face has expanded, even as the divergence between those possibilities has grown.
Between the several long-term transitions reshaping fundamental aspects of society, the current pandemic (which, barring some dramatic breakthroughs in healthcare and political cooperation, promises to be a long-term issue), and the social and racial injustice issues that will take years to begin to address properly, the emerging landscape of the future will be in flux for a prolonged period of time. In other words, it won’t be possible to redraw our map of the emerging future anytime soon. We are in for a volatile and turbulent time ahead, and our attempts to use foresight to see the landscape needs to adapt to this reality.
Insight Amidst Crisis and Confusion
The notion of “foresight” has received increasing interest from businesses and government agencies in the past several years. The reason for this is not terribly hard to fathom, as our society has gone through a series of dramatic changes over the last thirty or so years: the end of the Cold War and achievement of “hyper power” status; the blossoming of the computer age and the rapid emergence of the internet era; 9/11; the financial crisis and the Great Recession; the rise of China and the contestation of an American-led world order. In the midst of all this deeply disruptive and fast-moving change, people have naturally sought information about “what comes next.”
Foresight is best thought of as insight into how and why the future might be different from the present. It is not prediction; it is not foreknowledge. The future does not exist; we all, and the rest of the universe, have not brought it into existence yet, and so we can’t study it or measure it. We can, however, get much better at thinking critically about how and why the future might be different. The insight we produce can in turn be used to reframe not only our expectations for what could happen, it can also reframe our preferences for what we want to make happen. What is critical here is recognizing something we will call requisite foresight: how we develop this insight – how we create good foresight – changes depending on our situation.
In our current context of successive acute disruptions amidst a set of long-term transformations, foresight can be extremely valuable for organizations of all types; we just need to take the right approach. Rather than trying to use foresight to narrow down the possibilities of what the “post-COVID” world will look like, we should be identifying more of the uncertainties and possibilities that are defining the emerging future landscape. The landscape is in such flux, and promises to be for a long enough time, that we need approaches to foresight and planning that are nimble and expansive. We need to cover more ground, faster, mapping more of the threats and opportunities proliferating across the landscape, linking this foresight to plans that are more flexible and based on fewer assumptions than we’ve traditionally used.
Requisite foresight has a number of implications for how we should approach developing insight into how the world might change in the near- to mid-term. Aside from the ones that many organizations have already intuited, such as shortening time frames and widening their lenses, three guidelines are particularly valuable right now.
Defining Uncertainty Rather than Quantifying Risk: there are so many things in flux right now, on so many levels, that trying to bound risk seems like a problematic task, at best. Instead, this is a time of multiplying uncertainties. For so many issues, from how college education will shake out this academic year to what economic dominoes fall as we contemplate a second round of lock downs, we now face genuine uncertainties over how things will evolve. If applying probability or frequency to complex issues before COVID-19 was challenging, it can be downright laughable right now. Instead, this is a time for recognizing the growing number of uncertainties and for exploring how those uncertainties are undermining key assumptions.
More Emerging Issues, Fewer Trendlines: a great deal of foresight in the United States has traditionally relied on trends to define what the future will look like. Trends are best thought of as descriptions of history; they illustrate how things have been changing up until now. Presently, we are seeing enough of a break with recent history, with the previous momentum of history, that many trends are no longer useful as strong indicators of the future. Instead, we are seeing a proliferation of emerging issues, signals of future technologies, policies, and ideas that are experimental or fringe today, and which might mature to become mainstream in the months and years ahead. Our foresight efforts should be focused on identifying emerging issues, exploring the threats they present and the opportunities they suggest.
More Explorations, Few Predictions: In our present context, we want to think of foresight activities not as long-term predictions so much as quick forays out into a rapidly and constantly shifting landscape. These are quick, light scouting missions; nimble and quick little projects, lasting hours or days, not months or years. Whether we are concerned about the evolution of college business models or how competing changes in healthcare will play out, we want to run a series of conversations, exploring a variety of angles. Given the multi-dimensional nature of the expanding future, we want to do several little missions, branching out in different directions to cover more ground. And as we have seen above, we want to use our foresight efforts to identify uncertainties and emerging issues, not to reach comprehensive or in-depth conclusions about what the future might look like.
Taking this approach to foresight will generate more material rather than less. Done well, it will map a great many uncertainties and emerging issues as they shift across the landscape. To make best use of this type of foresight, organizations should also connect it with flexible plans that enable leaders to continually rebalance hedging and shaping strategies. As a basic consideration for doing foresight well, we want to align our foresight efforts with our planning efforts. In this case, our foresight is shifting to a more, lighter, faster approach that emphasizes identifying possibilities over developing strong conclusions. With that in mind, our other decision-making processes should have complimentary viewpoints.
Finally, and particular to our present historical moment, our foresight efforts should try to account for not just the surface-level implications of recent disruptions like the pandemic, but also how these recent events are interacting with the long-run transformations that were already underway. Foresight work that just thinks about COVID-19 as a stand-alone health crisis or only looks at the immediate responses to racial injustice conversations will fail to explore how these sudden shocks will interact with the several, deeper and longer-run changes that are stressing fundamental assumptions about society. Placing our current crises in their larger historical context enables us to map the full range of critical changes that are occurring and to highlight the opportunities we now have to exercise some unexpected leverage over the shape of the future.
Using Foresight to See the Opportunity in the Present
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a global shock, stressing societies and highlighting vulnerabilities in our social and economic systems. The widespread social unrest over racial injustice has added a domestic shock on top of the pandemic. For just about everyone, the mental maps of 2020 and beyond that we began the year with have been thoroughly shredded. These disruptions, occurring in the midst of major, long-term transitions such as climate change and the rise of machine ecosystems, have both accelerated and expanded the future. Amidst such crisis and confusion, it is only natural that many of us are desperate to redraw our maps; to know with confidence and comfort what comes next.
Unfortunately, given the cross-cutting forces buffeting society today, we just can’t get a firm handle on what that will look like. We won’t be able to redraw our maps right now. This however, doesn’t mean we can’t use foresight; it just means we have to use it in different ways, to support different decisions. And it doesn’t mean we have no choice but to wait things out. Precisely because the rules and assumptions of yesterday are being rewritten right now, there is an opportunity today to shape how our communities and industries emerge from this period of prolonged disruption and turbulence. The first step in taking advantage of this opportunity will require changing how we approach thinking about the future.
Richard Kaipo Lum is chief executive officer of Vision Foresight Strategy LLC, a foresight and strategic analysis firm headquartered in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. He is the author of 4 Steps to the Future: A Quick and Clean Guide to Creating Foresight.
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