Looking to the future from an uncertain present

Looking to the future from an uncertain present

I was in a meeting a little while ago when someone asked “can we really make scenarios of the future when the present is so uncertain?” It’s a question I’ve kept coming back to.

The obvious answer is that the present is always uncertain. When one is going through a strange period, the present seems more uncertain than when it is life as usual, but the idea that we are ever in a “certain now” seems to me to be a comfort rather than a fact. We know what is within our immediate range – what we can touch, hear, see, smell or feel. Everything else is a report, and reports are subject to bias. Worse, we never get all the reports – so we know what we read or what we are told, but not what we are not. The absence of information is something that we parse within ourselves to make what we regard as certainty out of what is, in fact, an absence of information. It’s just that we are primed to live within that uncertainty and turn it into the bubble in which we live.

The present seems uncertain, then, when the reports that reach us are uncertain. But it is only because we get them. The fact that we get them does not lessen the fact that uncertainties are always there, but in most cases unreported to us.

The present is always uncertain, and the fact that that uncertainty has become evident to us does not alter the fact that the future is going to come regardless.

Then what of that future? It has been impossible to avoid the numerous op-ed pieces saying that “Covid-19 changes everything.” That in itself is contentious – humanity has faced pandemics before, of one type or another, overcome them and continued. Whilst it is hard to believe it when one is in the middle of it, a crisis is often not a transformational point, but simply a disruption to the world as we understand it.

Now we are achieving some sort of distance from the shock of the outbreak, the op-eds are becoming more thoughtful. Two that deserve more attention have come out in the last few days.

Samanth Subramanian’s article in Politico is one. Our addiction to predictions will be the end of us: https://www.politico.eu/article/prediction-addiction-coronavirus-new-normal/  is an informed, thoughtful warning that “This may not be the time to sketch out, with great confidence, what 2021 will look like.” Drawing on Orrell’s “The Future of Everything”, and Margaret Heffernan’s “Uncharted”. Subramanian argues that “this compulsive need to map out every inch of the future, at a time when we’re still at sea, suggests that our civilization has gotten itself hooked on that promise of knowability.” This will be familiar ground to futurists, who eschew forecasts in favour of scenarios – looking at possible futures rather than one future target – and it is strange that Subramanian does not include futures thinking in his piece but, as a warning against confident projections, his piece  is certainly welcome.

The leader in the Economist of 25 June 2020 does explicitly engage with futures thinking. “Preparedness,” as the title says, “is one of things that governments are for”. In a plea to think out of the box and, to mix metaphors, over the horizon, the editors argue “Scanning the future for risks and taking proper note of what you see is a mark of prudent maturity. It is also a salutary expansion of the imagination. Governments which take seriously ways the near future could be quite unlike the recent past might find new avenues to explore and a new interest in sustaining their achievements well beyond a few turns of the electoral cycle.”

Again, we agree. And this is where the answer to the question in my first paragraph is found. “Humanity, at least as represented by the world’s governments, reveals instead a preference to ignore [risks] until forced to react—even when foresight’s price-tag is small,” they say. “It is an abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of the future.”

The future will happen. We need to have a view of what its possibilities are – not, as Subramanian makes clear, as predictions; rather, as the Economist says, not to do so is a betrayal of that future. And, in answer to the question, we must do it now, because now is where we are. The future is going to happen to us, however uncertain our present. And we must be ready for it.

SAMI Consulting helps governments and companies prepare for the complexities of the future. Get in touch.

Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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