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Hot Take v2.0: Covid-19 both “is & is not” a Black Swan (& that’s ok), futures/foresight in Postnormal Times, and (updated with) reflections from a scenarios workshop with the Italian Red Cross (circa 2017)

john a. sweeney
Mar 23 · 19 min read
Saturday, March 21, 2020 at the IFEAM Convention Centre in Madrid, Spain where some intensive care units are already near capacity. Photo from Comunidad de Madrid. Available at: https://globegazette.com/news/national/scramble-to-prepare-hospitals-pop

It is quite difficult to process the above image. Unless, of course, you are one of world’s estimated 70 million forcibly displaced people. As with the refugee crisis that has been unfolding over the past decades, the impacts and implications of Covid-19 are difficult to imagine, and we (myself included) should all be attentive to the plight of the most vulnerable across all societies during this truly postnormal time.

To say that there has been a lot to take in recently would be a vast understatement. We are arguably suffering from dual crises at the moment: the virus itself as well as a veritable torrent of mis/disinformation, some of which is coming from governments themselves. As a means of combating the latter, many countries (the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, and some across the MENA region) are instituting harsh punishments, including fines and jail time, for spreading fake news related to the pandemic. As far as I know and can tell, none of this is mis/disinformation, but, let’s be honest, the situation is developing rapidly, and it is likely that some, if not a good deal, of what is written here about the pandemic will be outdated in the days and weeks to come.

As usual, I have been keeping up with things (as best as possible) via trusted channels, which includes a healthy (probably not healthy at all) dose of social media, particularly private groups on Facebook and the constant flow of Twitter. Of all the things being circulated, there was one thing emerging from futurists that caught my attention. Over the past few weeks, more than a few folks have highlighted how the Covid-19 pandemic was “not” a Black Swan. So, I did what many others on Twitter do: hastily threw together some arguments, peppered in some gifs/emojis, and tossed my ramblings out into the wild.

My original thread is available here.

I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the cast and crew of the “Black Swan” and Natalie Portman in particular. You should have never been dragged into this!

It was certainly not my intent to call anyone out or act as any sort of “futures/foresight police,” and my sincerest apologies if any of my grandstanding came across as such. My aim was to highlight a perennial issue within futures/foresight research/work/consulting that, perhaps now more than ever, demands that futurists (broadly defined) promote reasonable, rigorous, and responsible foresight. I will come back to this specific point a bit later.

So, what follows is a revised “hot take” that incorporates some of the amazing insights and inputs from a range of extraordinary people, including Leah Zaidi, Frank Spencer, Guy Yeomans, Jordi Serra del Pino, Andrew Curry, Tim Dolan, Wendy Schultz, and many others who retweeted and shared. I am truly thankful for your engagement, especially during a time of crisis.

It is impossible for any of us to know how the pandemic will effect our all-too-modern lives, and while futurists deal with uncertainty for a living, it is important to practice self-care, relish in the warmth of community, and, as much as possible, contribute toward helping us all realize a more preferred future. My hope is that this “hot take” and subsequent reflection does just that (asking a lot, I realize), and this (fingers crossed) is why it felt necessary to give a bit more context to what was (and was not) said in my original thread.

One thing that I did not mention at the outset of my “hot take” is that I am a card-carrying member of the “Manoa School of Futures Studies,” which references the illustrious valley where the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa resides; points toward a global group of alumni who followed the “Alternative Futures” track in the Department of Political Science during the tenure of Jim Dator; and, perhaps most importantly, speaks to an approach to “futures” pioneered and championed by Jim, who led the Hawai'i Research Center for Futures Studies for over four decades.

I will not go so far as to say that the “Mānoa School” is a cult, but the community of people that have come into the orbit of Jim Dator over the years is absolutely unbelievable. I am both thrilled and humbled to be a part of it.

The above is important as my “hot take” on black swans was born from time spent learning emerging issues analysis with Jim, whose approach draws from the seminal work of Graham T.T. Molitor, specifically 1977’s “How to anticipate public-policy changes.” As Dator notes, emerging issues analysis aims to “identify things in their earliest emergence that, depending on if and how they develop, might prove beneficial or harmful to the preferred futures of the persons or institutions doing or requesting the analysis.”

In his reflection on Molitor’s work, Jim makes an explicit linkage between the origins of emerging issues analysis and the rise of “horizon scanning,” which has become a core method and key activity of foresight. While horizon scanning is widely practiced, it remains more an art than science, which is to say that it requires a practice-driven approach. As Dator explains:

“Scanning is looking for novelties — new ideas or developments that have not been mentioned before — and patterns — ideas or developments that are mentioned widely across disciplines, cultures, and languages. To identify novelties requires that the scanner have a great deal of knowledge of what is already known and what is not. That takes discipline and extensive training. And yet scanning for patterns also necessitates the ability to ‘put your mind in neutral’ and not focus too much on what is before you — to just let patterns and webs of connections emerge almost unconsciously in your mind.”

As a backdrop for my thread, I think the above offers a clear sense as to my personal and professional bias when it comes to looking ahead and specifically for and at “emerging issues.” Furthermore, I think this also provides a sub-text as to why I took a somewhat allergic position with positioning the pandemic as “NOT a black swan event,” but first it would be worth revisiting a few of the key points of the original thread.

  1. Futures/Foresight actually works!

There are numerous examples of individuals and organizations pointing toward the risks and threats of a pandemic, including some that specifically highlighted a coronavirus spreading from East Asia.

In particular, I flagged the following:

March 7, 2020: Although I find the title unfortunate (more on that later), “We Predicted a Coronavirus Pandemic. Here’s What Policymakers Could Have Seen Coming” is an extraordinary tale of an October 2019 scenario exercise centered on a global pandemic.

March 10, 2020: Bryan Alexander pooled together an impressive list of global resources and cases highlighting “how futurists have been working on this kind of things for years.” And, in a later post (March 20), Bryan recounts a passage in a recent article that imagines a future academy after a major pandemic has struck the world.”

March 19, 2020: Philip Tetlock, who co-founded the IARPA-funded Good Judgment forecasting tournament project, retweeted this image:

March 18, 2020: A phenomenal thread that was turned into a write-up of 2009’s “Coral Cross” by Stuart Candy. This project was one of my first forays into futures as I was part of the team of people who spent part of a weekend hanging posters around Oʻahu.

And, of course, just before hitting “tweet,” I added this: “We Were Warned.” Friedman reports:

“We were warned in 2017, a week before inauguration day, when Lisa Monaco, Barack Obama’s outgoing homeland-security adviser, gathered with Donald Trump’s incoming national-security officials and conducted an exercise modeled on the administration’s experiences with outbreaks of swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. The simulation explored how the U.S. government should respond to a flu pandemic that halts international travel, upends global supply chains, tanks the stock market, and burdens health-care systems — all with a vaccine many months from materializing.”

In addition to those listed, I would also like to note:

March 20, 2020: Amol Rajan tweeted an article by Peter Frankopan from the January/February 2020 issue of Prospect magazine entitled: Planning for Pandemics. The online version is available here as: “We live in the age of the pandemic. This is what we need to do about it.”

There are perhaps too many examples of individuals and organizations flagging this potentiality, and in searching for what links them together, I came to the following conclusion:

2. Complexity is the tie that binds.

None of the aforementioned examples predicted “the” future, but each attempted to help people think through and engage with a complex potentiality for what might lie ahead. This is how futurists “use the future” and also demonstrates that futures/foresight is not about “prediction” but can be useful for spotting emerging issues and anticipating some possible impacts (things that require action to create/avert) and implications (things that require further analysis and understanding).

From this perspective, futures/foresight is a means by which to understand complex phenomena, challenge our assumptions, and, perhaps most importantly, help us make better decisions and take action to create a more preferred future, even if that means keeping the future(s) plural. This last point is essential as futures/foresight should also be a process by which we come to realize that we do not and cannot have control over “the” future, as “the” future does not exist.

In recent memory, it has perhaps never been more clear that actions now shape what is possible. As many countries scramble to implement measures aimed at “flattening the curve” and stemming a tidal wave of infections that will overwhelm healthcare systems, we are all hoping for a preferred outcome, although it should be clear by now that hope alone will not get us there.

If we are able to achieve even moderate success, it will be because people — from those quarantining to limit further spread to the extraordinary dedication of healthcare workers to the countless people keeping food and supplies on shelves — understood what was possible, took action, and create a better future. To call this a complex process would be an absolute understatement.

In my original thread, I defined complexity as “all about the components, behaviors, and patterns of systems.” From food to transport to support systems, we will surely see more on the functioning and disruptions of many such “networks” in the days and weeks to come. I stand by this framing as well as my contention that: foresight begins in/with complexity.

What I meant by this was that the process by which come to understand possibilities for the future(s)— whether we are scoping out an area/sector/issue to explore or doing our daily scanning (see above) — is one that requires us to engage with not a single thing but rather to consider how things are connected, the forces that shape these connections, and the potential for these connections to malfunction and mutate.

Beginning in complexity is an affirmation that even our best models are mere representations of a world whose dynamics continuously thwart even our most creative imaginings. Truth, as the saying goes, is often far stranger than fiction. And, if we look at the modes of inquiry (namely quantum mechanics) that brought us “complexity” as a concept, we will find more questions than answers, which can seem unsatisfying at first but is actually better for us in the long run.

Take the “Double-Slit Experiment.” This shows us that light and matter can have the properties of both waves and particles. The famed, and award-winning, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman referred to this “the only mystery of [Quantum Mechanics].”

At the start of the above lecture, Feynman notes: “But, as we try to widen, and make more consistent our description of what we see, and as it gets wider and wider and we see a greater range of phenomena, the explanations become laws instead of simple explanations. But, the one important and odd characteristic is that they often seem to become more and more unreasonable. And, more and more intuitively far from obvious.”

One of the key aspects of futures/foresight work is to call into question what is obvious (normal as well, but more on that later), to test the limits of what is (and is not) reasonable, and to widen one’s scope of possibility such that we see a greater range of phenomena.

In my original thread, I also referenced “Observer Effect,” which is a theory in physics that the act of observation alters what it being observed. The aim in invoking both the Double-Slit Experiment and the Observer Effect was to highlight the importance of context (what we see) and perspective (how we see it) in futures/foresight, which brings us to the Black Swan.

3. The Black Swan

Taleb’s infamous notion has (as Andrew Curry rightly pointed out) evolved over time. In my original thread, I defined Black Swans as: outliers (abnormal and/or rare), extremely impactful, and ultimately [things that] defy “prediction.” This is a nearly verbatim take from The Black Swan, and the concept has been summarized here:

In 2013, Taleb and Tetlock, who seem to be in a bit of a tiff at the moment, co-authored this piece: “On the Difference between Binary Prediction and True Exposure: With Implications For Forecasting Tournaments and Prediction Markets.” It is quite technical, but worth a look, specifically in relation to forecasting. More on that in just a minute.

One critical aspect of Black Swans that I did not emphasize earlier is “the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight,” which, in my view, really hits on the critical role of perspective as well as the challenges of using this framing as a universal category, or “Platonic form” (as I rather bombastically noted).

The above point is essential as my primary critique of the Covid-19 pandemic is “not a black swan” take centers on 1) the false assumption that everyone not only sees the same thing but sees it in the same way, and 2) an indirect framing of futures/foresight as an activity centered on predicting/forecasting “the” future.

In my original thread, I picked on prediction, which is a familiar but also easy target, but I have intentionally included “forecasting” here and now. Earlier today, I shared on Twitter a video of a 1986 lecture given by Pierre Wack, who famously led the Royal Dutch Shell scenarios team for many years. This is absolutely worth watching in full:

Wack begins with a brilliant provocation:

“It is impossible to forecast the future, and it is foolish to try to do so. Most of the time, forecasts are quite good, and this is what makes forecasts so dangerous. […] The danger of forecasts is that usually they are right. Forecasts fail you just when you would need them most. Forecasts fail to anticipate major changes and major shifts […]. Shifts that make whole strategies obsolete.”

What I like most about Wack’s opening is that highlights the crisis of perspective that haunts some, perhaps even most, futures/foresight work, which, again, was my main issue with labeling Covid-19 as “not” a black swan .

As I highlighted in my original thread, many saw this pandemic coming (see above). But, it would be irresponsible to assume that even a majority of people, to say nothing of linguistic and other barriers, would have anticipated and prepared for such a crisis.

Furthermore, conceptual framings that reduce complexity should be avoided, especially now. At this critical moment with many communities at the precipice of absolute chaos, futurists should continue to hold open what Riel Miller calls a “possibility-space” where probability and desirability are not the main determinants. One of the greatest threats now would be a call for things to go “back to normal,” although some have been quick to suggest that this might not happen.

An even more radical perspective would be to assert that there is “no normal future.” As Jim Dator argues: “Declarations about The Future are full of references to ‘most likely futures,’ ‘least likely futures,’ ‘probable futures,’ ‘worst case scenarios,’ ‘wild cards,’ ‘black swans,’ and a myriad of other metaphors, all of which are based on the assumption that there is a ‘normal future’ compared to which all other futures are deviations.”

I share Jim’s absolute distaste for our collective “normalcy contagion,” and, in my view, even the concept of a “new normal” fails to confront the complex, contradictory, and chaotic nature of our all-too-postnormal times.

4. Enter the Menagerie of Postnormal Potentialities.

I was fortunate to spend almost four years working as the Deputy Director of the Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies (CPPFS) alongside some stellar colleagues and friends. During my time at CPPFS, there were many sessions dedicated to theory-building, which led to the development and inclusion of concepts such as the Black Elephant and Black Jellyfish.

As I noted in my original thread, I collaborated with Zia Sardar to write “The Three Tomorrows of Postnormal Times” (hereafter 3T). It should be noted that this piece, as with any and all works of its kind, was the result of collective thought, which was tested not only by the academic futures community (looking at you Reviewer #2) but also through numerous workshop engagements around the world.

Although I left CPPFS in December 2017, I continue to use various aspects of this approach in my work, specifically the Menagerie, which I have found to have efficacy in bringing to light the diverse ways with which organizations and communities identify and imagine possibilities for what might lie ahead. As noted in my thread, Wendy Schultz was instrumental in reifying the Menagerie into question form.

The aim of applying the Menagerie is not to use this as a tool for establishing “consensus” but precisely to map the inevitable divergences and differences that an organization and/or community will have and take with regards to a particular issue or topic.

As I have written elsewhere: “The aim of differentiating between black elephants and black swans has little to do with getting the ‘right’ answer; rather, it has everything to do with reflecting on how we normalize and perceive impactful events and phenomena. Our individual (and collective) manufactured normalcy field filters our view of the world and often leaves us with shallow justifications for seemingly inexplicable phenomenon. This is what can make one person’s black elephant another person’s black swan; and yet, neither concept provides a means to explain the bursts of awareness and chaos that characterize our experience of postnormal times. To bridge this gap, I developed the concept of the black jellyfish — a metaphor to describe the sensational weirding of our complex world; the accelerating chaos of disparate forces coming together to disrupt various systems; the escalating events and phenomena that thrive off positive feedback to become inescapable facets of our daily life.”

Just as there is a danger in getting swept away by forecasts, there is a danger in reducing down the complexities of what we see and how we see it. This, in my view, also points toward the problem with using “wild cards” as a synonym for “emerging issues.” In a passage from the 3T article worth quoting in full, Zia and I argue:

While we believe that modeling postnormal potentialities are crucial to robust, and ultimately useful, foresight, we shy away from using ‘wild card’ as this designation situates one squarely within the confines of risk management. If anything is true in PNT, it is that our command-and-control impulses will only serve to heighten our ignorance and entrench uncertainty, and we cannot manage risk but rather our perceptions of risks — from ‘inevitable surprises’ (Schwartz, 2001) to things that remain unthought. In PNT, the rules of the game have changed such that all cards have the potentiality to be wild.

In my haste to tweet, I had forgotten to include Peter Schwartz’s lovely turn of phrase: Inevitable Surprises. A short time after the 2008 Financial Crisis, Schwartz gave a lecture in Singapore, which is available here:

What I like about 2001's “Inevitable Surprises” is the emphasis on “signals” of change. As the book was written following the SARS outbreak of the early 2000’s, this passage certainly shows the importance of seeking out “weak signals.” Schwartz observes:

“A number of conditions are leading to new and virulent diseases emerging from dense human societies interacting with the environment in new ways, and these diseases can spread nearly instantaneously around the world via the airline system. Until we find a way to counteract them they will continue to arise and continue to disrupt the global and regional economy.”

In my original thread, I briefly referenced the work of Elina Hiltunen on weak signals, who in addition to completing her PhD on this topic also has written a series of articles starting with: The secret weapon for seeing the future: weak signals (part 1). It might have seemed, or could have been construed, that I was conflating black swans, wild cards, weak signals, and emerging issues, and this was not my intent. As noted above, I take issue with the assumptions underlying “wild cards” as a metaphor.

With regards to weak signals, I like Elina’s positioning of them as potential evidence for an “emerging issue,” which supports the earlier contention that “emerging issues analysis” is not just an act of pure “sensing” but one that involves “creating,” if only by cultivating an awareness of things to identify and anticipate potentialities for what might lie ahead.

Andy Hines, who leads the University of Houston foresight program, has a great piece on the possible “desensitization” to issues such as pandemics, which refers to the potentiality for researchers and practitioners to keep various issues in play regardless of the topic/client/focus. Although I would refrain from using “wild cards” as a metaphor, he raises a fantastic point with regards to the absolutely critical nature of how issues such as pandemics, which, as noted above, have been on the radar for many for a long time, play into engagements.

As the title of this piece suggests, the Covid-19 pandemic both “is and is not” a Black Swan, and I find this to be the most reasonable, rigorous, and responsible view.

  • Reasonable in the sense that it is simply impossible to universalize this conceptual framing.
  • Rigorous in that avoiding a one-or-the-other take allows for a more complex, and arguably more useful, framing.
  • Responsible in the sense that futurists must do all they can to keep the future(s) plural, even and perhaps especially during times of crisis.

While it has been great to see a proliferation of concepts that can be used to make sense of future possibilities, we must always be careful to avoid limits on diversifying both context (what we see) and perspective (how we see it).

ISS has some great metaphors, which have immense value, as long as they are not seen as discreet and universal categories by which one simplifies or reifies the complexity of the future(s).

5. Reflections on a scenarios workshop with the Italian Red Cross (circa 2017)

I was extremely fortunate to work as the Futures and Foresight Coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) for a good bit of 2017. Starting out as a member of the IFRC’s futures/foresight advisory board the year before, I moved into this position as the IFRC was beginning to socialize futures/foresight within the organization as part of its nexts 10-year strategy development process. This allowed for a lot of unique opportunities, including a futures game played entirely through WhatsApp that eventually reached 4,000 volunteers in 120 countries. I left before things really ramped up, and Strategy 2030 was adopted in December 2019.

My time with the IFRC was one of immense privilege. It took me to some amazing places, involved high-level engagements with senior leaders, and also led to a series of focused engagement with national societies, including a two-day scenarios workshop with the Croce Rossa Italiana (CRI) on May 27–28, 2017 that was held just outside Roma.

After identifying, prioritizing, and localizing national, regional, and global trends and working to identify some emerging issues, participants, who came from across the CRI, created scenarios in small groups. Mashing up the 2x2 matrix approach with the Menagerie, groups were then given time to create a “narrative” for their scenario that brought to their story to life.

Unedited rough cut report content. It was actually Andy’s blog about “desensitizing” that challenged me to look back over my past work with the IFRC.

While this scenario imagines a pandemia (Italian for pandemic), the driver for this more localized event was internal: terrorism. At the time of this event, concerns were shared that the “root causes of terrorism” were emerging, which was due in part to the worsening refugee crisis. Interestingly, “pandemic diseases” were framed as a Black Swan: “what do people think would never happen?”

Clearly, our collective sense as to what would never happen looks a lot different now than it did just a few months ago. And, I am certainly going to approach the coming days, weeks, and months with a sense of humility as communities come to grips with an invisible adversary. Volunteers from the Croce Rossa Italiana are on the frontlines of this crisis: delivering aid, providing care, driving ambulances, checking temperatures, and providing many other essential services.

Bringing together a range of issues, this scenario was certainly one of the most challenging created during the event. As with any scenarios process, there are some that people innately like and others that people dislike, and it is often the least liked scenarios that create the greatest learning. This, after all, is what they do.

Scenarios are stories about the future designed to challenge our thinking and help us learn.

In all the scenarios created during the event, it was decided that the organization was “viable” because at the end of the day nothing could defeat the spirit of those willing to serve. When, not if but when, Italy emerges from the crisis, it will be in part because of the enduring commitment and unimaginable heart of Croce Rossa Italiana volunteers.

Talking about the future(s) is one thing, taking action to create it is something else entirely.

So, what can and should futurists do now?

How can we meaningfully engage with the present crisis?

6. Dystopia

And, as Leah Zaidi, notes, there is a danger in dismissing dystopia. She observes: “Too often, our well-intentioned images of the future ignore the ugly side of humanity. When we fail to account the dark side of human nature, we design for an aspirational version of ourselves that doesn’t exist. As a result, our designs (products, systems, policies, etc.) fail to bring us closer to a sustainable future. We solve symptoms, not problems. When we account for the sinister and the unintended consequences, we stand a better chance of creating sustainable futures.”

Indeed, solving symptoms will not help us now.

We need systemic imaginings that delve into the range of possibilities unfolding now and those that might lie ahead.

Sohail Inayatullah and Peter Black have a phenomenal piece that covers a lot of ground, including wading into the “is and is not a black swan” debate, but, most importantly, they offer a handful of scenarios.

Take a look: Neither A Black Swan Nor A Zombie Apocalypse: The Futures Of A World With The Covid-19 Coronavirus

At the end of their piece, they outline some logical steps needed to prevent the worst case scenario while enlivening the conditions of possibility for a preferred future to emerge.

I would, however, add one more next step that draws directly from a rich repository of resources and cases on the impact and efficacy of narrative foresight.

As Sohail Inayatullah and Ivana Milojevic explain: “Given that it is symbolic and figurative rather than literal, metaphors facilitate the connection between images and conceptual thought.”

With the rising popularity of the “war time” metaphor in our current crisis and the imaginings, if not actions, that this conjures, I suggest that we take a different approach. As Jim Dator has advocated for decades, we have to first study and then learn to surf the tsunamis of change.

So, what am I going to do?

I will focus on shifting the metaphor from “war” to “surfing tsunamis.”

With a new guiding metaphor, new framings emerge.

With a new guiding metaphor, different things become possible.

My hope is that this enlivens new options for collective thought and action aimed at realizing a more preferred future for us all.

Surf’s up!

john a. sweeney

Written by

Director, Qazaq Research Institute for Futures Studies

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