There cannot be a crisis today; my schedule is already full
– Henry Kissinger
The 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak in Africa is a well-documented crisis whose impacts will continue to play out over generations. The UN and WHO now face criticism about the inadequate response to this virulent outbreak, despite early warning signs and assertions about the general lack of preparedness. Not surprisingly, it also took a while for the rest of the world to recognize the scale and severity of the crisis manifesting right before their eyes. Was this unimagined? Despite historic occurrences, organizational mandates, and statistical likelihoods, the early signals were largely ignored or not taken seriously until it was too late.
Virulent outbreaks are not the only type of crisis we face: Climate change has displaced record numbers of people from their homes and continues to cause immeasurable suffering. A global healthcare crisis is becoming exasperated by economic circumstances, increasing rates of chronic illness, and the demands of aging populations on systems. Latent crises loom on the edge of flipping from good to bad in an instant as drug resistant bacteria grow stronger and faster, and humans empowered with powerful synthetic biology tools conceive, design, and deploy malicious and unimagined life forms. Over-confident reliance upon modern day communications technology, fail safe systems, and institutions could mean catastrophe if they were suddenly switched off.
Strangely, we consume an abundance of movies, news, games, statistics, and media that depict a world in some form of crisis or another. We love indulging in the existential fantasy of virulent outbreaks, alien invasions, zombie apocalypses, terrorism, corruption, economic collapse, and natural disasters – the scenarios, facts, and fictions of how different types of crisis might unfold. Yet we are often and legitimately surprised by their actual manifestation and impact; we loathe the reality of a crisis when faced by it. Even though we train our imaginations for these events, we do not take them seriously enough to dedicate the time, energy, and resources required to be adequately prepared.
The next crisis is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.
As futurists, we share the responsibility to help individuals, organizations, and society become more resilient by sensing, imagining, anticipating, and preparing for the future. By helping avoid surprises, we reduce the negative impacts of a crisis by distributing the awareness, meaning, and future potential more evenly. Here is how it works:
1/ Scanning and synthesizing the weak signals, trends, and drivers that are shaping conditions for a crisis. By practicing foresight, we improve our sensitivity and ability to listen, learn, and anticipate crisis.
2/ Mapping the changes taking place – how signals, trends, drivers, and larger forces are interacting, and how they might evolve to shape and influence the conditions of crisis.
3/ Building possible, plausible worlds, and exploring wild cards and what-if situations that help us understand how the pre-conditions of crisis may unfold.
4/ Leveraging narrative, scenarios, and storytelling to bring future crises to life, allowing us to test choices and rehearse our actions within them.
5/ Identifying critical gaps and uncertainties related to our existing strategy, solutions, or capabilities in relation to crisis models and finding areas for improvement.
6/ Taking action by leveraging knowledge and insights about how we might experience a future crisis into new or refined strategies, solutions, and capacities.
7/ Starting over by refreshing our assumptions and approaches to future crises.
Foresight – or futures thinking – and crisis are quite compatible. To prepare and become more resilient in the face of crisis, we take a systematic approach to building high quality and functional forward views, developing and testing hypotheses about how different future crises might unfold so we can plan, rehearse, and prepare ourselves accordingly. Or at least that is the aspiration.
What crisis are we ignoring and what can foresight do about it?
Mathew Lincez is the co-head of foresight at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.