A simple tool for sketching possible futures — in a crisis.
These are crazy times. The good news is, right now we’re seeing multiple spontaneous efforts sprouting in parallel, all trying to make sense of and map out the longer-term impacts of COVID-19. The scale and scope of its reach — into society, the economy, infrastructure and systems, politics and policy — is unprecedented. Many folks are organizing on Twitter and Skype in an effort to brainstorm and hack possible future measures by identifying risks, and clarifying opportunities for positive impacts now, and down the road, which will help improve the situation over the longer term. Their goal is to pick up the timeline where epidemiology leaves off and the recovery stage begins.
Many of these brainstorms are freeform and unstructured, as is natural. However, there are some simple tools we use every day at Changeist, which might help bring some structure and logic to these bursts of distributed group ideation. One such tool goes by several names: Futures Wheel, Impact Wheel or Implications Wheel (depending on which school of practice or practitioner you picked it up from). This simple tool requires only a large sheet of paper, whiteboard or other writable surfaces, and a few round objects of various sizes to help sketch with.
An Impact wheel is a straightforward, practical tool to help map out future possibilities. It simply helps you think about and carefully unpack orders of impact of significant change. We talk about this process in our upcoming book, How to Future, (available July 2020). Initially conceived by Jerome Glenn as Futures Wheels, this tool helps illuminate pathways of change, by starting with an initial major change at the center, then working outward in steps of immediate first-order impacts, then from each of these, branching to second-order impacts, then third, or until you run out of space. For practical reasons, we suggest going as far as the third order. To find a good range of implications it’s useful to carefully consider a broad set of categories for each change or impact across a range of possibilities (for example: social, technological, economic, environmental, political, values) to ensure you aren’t only considering, say, financial disruptions or social deviations.
Firstly, identify an important starting change to work from — something substantial. Under usual conditions, this is a hypothetical future change, such as “Most vehicles are self-driving,” but unfortunately the present has served us up a heaping load of major disruptive changes that may, or may not be long-lasting. Current examples might include: “Most long-haul flights canceled,” or “Majority of professionals work from home,” or “Most elderly are sequestered,” each of which is happening in some countries today. Selecting a good starting change is hit-and-miss at first under normal conditions, but we could probably find a dozen major ones to work from as tests right now.
Write this change in a large circle in the center of your writing surface, then, using the categories listed above (STEEP+V), consider a range of near impacts from this central change. For example, if a majority of professionals work from home, there are some immediate first-order impacts which we’re already seeing: “Bandwidth becomes scarce 9–5” (technological) and “Conflicts with home child care” (social) and “Difficulties managing workflows” (economic/social). From each of these emerges a range of second-order impacts. Using the example of “Bandwidth becomes scarce 9–5” (technological) you might see further impacts such as “Prices spike for business connectivity” (economic) or “Traffic caps initiated by network providers” (technological), “New forms of shift work or staggered schedules” (economic/social), “Network price gouging regulations” (political), and so on.
Carrying on to the third order, you can begin to see more clearly the edge impacts of a range of factors unfolding. This effectively moves forward in time as you work your way through the impact orders. When you begin to see the outside edge more clearly and look across the second- and particularly third-order impacts, you might start to see where some impacts conflict with each other, some present unseen synergies, and some open up interesting opportunities for change that weren’t immediately apparent.
You might also weight the various branches as broadly positive or negative, and start to think about which impacts you want to steer toward, and which to steer away from. This kind of sequential structure helps keep you from generating an unstructured list of impacts that might be difficult to reconnect later. An appropriate, small overlay of logic goes a long way toward helping to clarify and qualify your thinking as a group.
Some foresight practitioners, such as Dr. Wendy Schultz, have developed ways to combine the edges of different impact wheels to generate scenarios. I won’t go into this here, but I’m sure Wendy would explain further to those interested.
Above is an example Wheel template to guide you, and there’s a downloadable template which we describe in more detail in our forthcoming book. You can work horizontally if that helps you think about time ranges, or start from middle and branch outward, as in the template. Again, this process is trial-and-error, and getting the balance of impacts and the sequencing of what is first order, what is second, etc. often takes a few passes. Remember, IMPACTS AREN’T SOLUTIONS. You aren’t looking to present a rosy, successful sequence of problems then solutions. Stay neutral and try to think objectively at this point. Forget money and interests, and stick to “if/then” considerations.
Also, be sure to include a DIVERSITY OF VOICES AND EXPERIENCES in your effort. What those with power or resources might describe, could look very different for those with very little protection from risks. If you work in government, include citizens. If you’re an employer, include employees. If you’re all under forty, bring in someone older, and vice versa. If you’re a group of men sitting around a table or Zoom, stop right now and build a coalition of people with different lived experiences.
I’m writing this late on a Sunday morning as people continue to dig in, and will refine later today. There are certainly other ways of describing this tool, and other practices around it, and this is in no way an attempt to present Impact Wheels in a comprehensive and technical fashion, but I’m sharing this from our POV. There will be time for more in-depth seminars later, to dig into more nuanced or philosophical approaches.
If anyone is interested in helping to translate this into other languages where it may be useful, contact me on @changeist, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck out there. This too shall pass, and we’ll make things better on the other side. REMEMBER SOCIAL DISTANCING AND WASH YOUR HANDS!
- Futures Wheel documentation from the Millennium Project.
About the Author: Scott Smith is a futurist, strategist, adviser, author of How to Future: Leading and Sense-making in an Age of Hyperchange, and founder of Changeist. Follow on Twitter @changeist.