Thinking about the Future in Uncertain times

Reflecting on the role of long-term thinking in a crisis.

Santini Basra
May 7, 2020 · 7 min read

At this moment, the first and most important question should be: How might we each play a role in bringing this pandemic to an end? However, it’s also a moment to reflect on our ways of doing and thinking, and to think about how we as people, organisations, and societies can thrive as we emerge from this.

Much of our work at Andthen is about long-term thinking, and over the past few weeks we’ve been reflecting on what that means in a time where there is so much uncertainty and so many short-term and critical challenges.

Though Slack is one of a handful of companies experiencing massive growth right now, Stewart Butterfield (Slack’s CEO) acknowledges the severe challenges of anticipating change in this moment.

During the last few weeks, some key thoughts about the role of futures in this moment have crossed my mind:

Back in mid-April, Anthony Seldon published a scathing article in the Guardian, arguing that the British State has long been unfit for purpose, something the pandemic has further exposed. He argues that there was poor coordination initially between different government departments, and the centralisation of power at No 10 left a vacuum of power when Johnson and Cummings were taken out by the virus, before going on to criticise other structural weaknesses in government. Interestingly, Seldon concludes by criticising the government’s inability to think beyond election cycles, and calls for a ‘Department for the Future’ which can put long-term thinking at the heart of government.

It took me a moment to connect Seldon’s conclusion, with his initial comments about the structural weaknesses in government, however, my interpretation hinges around the concept of resilience.

One of the main aims of futures thinking is to increase resilience (of an organisation, business, society, concept, etc.). Resilience comes from systems theory and is defined as ‘the ability for a system to withstand shocks, adapt, and bounce back to continue thriving.’ The human body is an excellent example of a resilient system: it can tolerate a wide range of environments, fend off attack via the immune system, heal damage and potentially adapt to new circumstance (grow stronger, smarter, etc).

It is common to mistake resilience for stability: stability seeks for things to remain the same rather than to adapt to the circumstances which can result in brittle systems that when pushed too far over the edge, quickly and drastically break apart.

We see this in complacent organisations that are comfortable in their success and seek stability and “business as usual” — only to be upended by a large scale change.

In reflecting on Seldon’s comments, I feel that the comment he is making is in essence about a lack of resilience and that through futures thinking, due to its ability to expand our ideas around what is possible, there is an ability to increase the resilience of a system (in this case government, although in reality, this is applicable to any kind of organisation or innovation).

On a human level, I feel that long-term thinking is important in times of crisis, or post-crisis more than ever. In times where all we are doing is living day-by-day, we need to (co-)create visions of the future as a way to empower people to take a proactive approach in shaping what comes next.

I recently (virtually) attended a great talk by Elliott P Montgomery (which you can watch here) that focussed on a 1991 essay by the sociologist and futurist Elise Boulding called “The Challenge of Imaging Peace in Wartime,” which reflects the role of futures work in moments of despair. Across the ’80s Boulding ran a series of workshops called ‘imagining a world without weapons workshops,’ which were designed to make people think about what disarmament might look like. Reflecting on these, she states that:

“We cannot work for a betterment that we can’t imagine.”

For me, this viewpoint speaks to the importance of both a) being able to create empowering, engaging and well-communicated visions of the future in this time, and b) doing this in a participatory way, which involves diverse groups of stakeholders, communities and societies in the co-creation of this vision, as a way to help people see a way forward.

It’s important to remember that futures is about anticipating change, and not predicting it. COVID-19 is massively disrupting society and all of the systems around it, but as Kevin McCullagh puts it in his recent post:

“When thinking about the impact of the pandemic, it is useful to think about DC and AC — During and After Corona. Most commentary on Covid-19’s impact can be filed under DC, much of which risks confusing temporary shifts with far-reaching permanent change.”

Some of the disruptions we’re seeing are likely to be temporary (DC) — the massive drop in public transport usage, the heightened interest in puzzles, breadmaking, and home haircuts, or the black mark placed on cruises (McCullagh notes that ‘global cruise bookings for 2021 already exceed those of 2019’). However, others are likely to change society permanently.

Source: Tortoise Media www.shorturl.at/fvwRY

It is still absolutely possible to anticipate change, and with such a huge shock to the system, we are already seeing plenty of new ways of thinking and doing. From local community groups forming to support those in need, to businesses like AirBnB quickly spinning up new services, and governments offering unprecedented levels of support, we’re seeing people innovate in response to short-term (DC) challenges caused by the new state of things.

However, many of the changes we will see are yet to mature, and with these changes, there will be plenty of risks to mitigate, but also opportunities to be seized. Already, we are starting to see some pre-emptive action which considers these longer-term risks and opportunities. For instance:

  • Zoom announced a feature freeze at the beginning of April, to help them focus on the privacy and security of a world which is likely to be spending a lot more time online.
  • Milan, one of the most polluted European cities, has announced a scheme to transform 35km of streets over the summer, with a citywide expansion of cycling and walking space, with a goal of reducing car usage. Beyond the clear benefits of such a scheme to protecting citizens as lockdown measures are relaxed, Milan has anticipated a long-term opportunity to adapt in a way that will be positive and impactful long after this pandemic.

Our work over the last few weeks…

Like all businesses, we’ve been impacted — beyond working from home, we’ve had to work out how to deliver our services online, conduct research remotely, and build new approaches to collaboration. Luckily, we have amazing clients, and every single one of our projects has continued — we’ve just had to be innovative about how we adapt to current circumstances.

Many of our reflections above have stemmed from futures work we’re doing now — this experience has been teaching us what the value is of futures in times of crisis. Among other projects, worth mentioning here is:

  • The work we’ve been doing with 2050 Climate Group, to help them engage the network of graduates from their Young Leader’s Development Programme in an online participatory visioning project, which we’ve been conducting over WhatsApp, with the goal of collaboratively building a vision of a climate future which represents the charity’s hopes for the future.
  • As part of a project with Argyll and Bute Council, helping build on previous research and develop a digital strategy for the Isle of Bute, we’ve been using an in house tool called ‘Unintended Consequences’ (a tool to anticipate the knock-on effects of change) to think about the knock-on impacts of COVID-19, and what risks and opportunities it may create for Bute and Bute’s economy.

While it’s important to recognise the short-term challenges created by the pandemic, we’re starting to move into a phase where we need to think about what’s next. Organisations need to understand how the world around us has changed, anticipate how it will continue to be impacted, and unite internally to agree on a vision for what to do next. All of these are challenging tasks, but from our reflections over the past few weeks, these are clear areas where we see futures and design coming together to create value and impact in these times of uncertainty.

Andthen

We’re designers researching the future — what it could be, and what people want it to be.

Andthen

We’re designers that research. In particular, we research the future — what it could look like, and what people want it to like.

Santini Basra

Written by

Futures dork, who runs a team of designers that are researching the future at Andthen. Gets excited about inclusive visioning, and applied futures thinking.

Andthen

We’re designers that research. In particular, we research the future — what it could look like, and what people want it to like.