Prepare or Prevent: causes and events in futures thinking

Prepare or Prevent: causes and events in futures thinking

There’s been a lot of discussion about the origin of the Covid-19 virus in Wuhan – did it appear in an animal market or did it escape from a laboratory?  Arguably it doesn’t matter.

First, it DID happen. The effects would have been pretty much  the same whatever the origin. Pandemics were high on government national risk registers. The UK Government had asked “what-if” a pandemic happens and had a plan for pandemic flu. It had run exercises to test the plan. So we should have been ready.

Elements of the plan would need to be tailored to the particular characteristics of the virus (symptom-free transmission was a big issue). But there would be enough commonality to develop a general approach. This principle is widely recognised – NHS hospitals have “major incident plans”, which generally call for the suspension or diversion of routine consultations but also have a check-list of how to tailor plans to the situation.

Sir Oliver Letwin, who was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster under the Coalition Government in effect holding resilience portfolio  told the Covid-19 inquiry that “If they had been focused on impact rather than on cause, they might have observed that it was very likely that, whatever particular virus it was that attacked us, it would require to be tested, to be traced, to have PPE associated with it, to have vaccines developed for it and so on”.

In some circles this is becoming known as “cause-agnostic resilience”.  Letwin: “actually it’s the impacts that count and not the causes. Whether a biological agent is released by nature or by a state actor or a non-state actor, a terrorist, whether the whole of our critical national infrastructure goes down because there is space weather or because there is a cyber attack by a malicious party”.

This last point is a major area of concern for Letwin.  His book “Apocalypse How?” explores the implications of a complete loss of power and communications across the country. We are increasingly reliant on integrated and networked systems. Despite most hospitals having back-up generators for power, the latest communication technologies mean that within a few years there will be little or no old-fashioned methods of communication, like a walkie-talkie.

We discussed the different aspects of resilience in a previous Working Paper.

Second, it was preventable. Better regulation (or application of regulations) of animal markets would have prevented the virus leaping between several different hosts. Better systems and monitoring would have prevented leaks from a laboratory.

In other words, where identified risks have high impact and high probability, the appropriate strategy is reduce both.  Minimise the chance of the event happening by pre-emptively working out what to do to prevent it. But at the same time plan for what to do should the event nonetheless occur.

These two fundamentally contrasting philosophies reflect two different approaches to futures thinking – scenarios and visioning.

SAMI often approaches futures thinking using scenario analysis. We generate future possible worlds (either by a scenario cross approach or some other method) and ask “what-if” this were to occur. Which of your current policies would be challenged, what new opportunities might emerge, how would you need to build different policies?  We can move on from there to build an “adaptive plan” – a base case plan covering the current situation and most likely elements of the future, supported by several contingency plans that can be  brought into play when your monitoring identifies that a trigger point has been reached.  This is essentially a reactive methodology. The scenarios are generally  wider than  just one risk, allowing planning for opportunities as well as threats.

Visioning, combined with Backcasting and Roadmapping, is based on a totally different philosophy of the future – that rather than reacting to the slings and arrows, you take arms against the sea of troubles. It is essentially proactive – what do I want to the future to be and what do I need to do to make it happen?  In many ways this is more akin to standard strategic planning, with the view that I can act to shape the future.

There are limits to the Visioning approach however. Whilst we can minimise the chance of an event happening we probably cannot eliminate it entirely. Letwin criticises the probabilistic approach to planning: “events with huge impacts that are very unlikely [may] nevertheless have huge impacts….. can we, for a tiny amount of money, prepare properly to deal with it in advance?”. The Deepwater Horizon disaster was described by the then BP CEO as a “black swan” event because it was the result of a series of failures of elements of the system and so very unlikely. Clearly, though, envisaging a catastrophic failure should have been within the scope of any scenario-based approach.

As always, the right approach to adopt for your particular circumstances will depend on the context and will most likely be a combination of all the ideas above. . By leveraging both philosophies, we can hope to navigate the uncertainties of the future more effectively, ensuring a more robust and resilient world for the generations to come.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

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

Achieve more by understanding what the future may bring. We bring skills developed over thirty years of international and national projects to create actionable, transformative strategy. Futures, foresight and scenario planning to make robust decisions in uncertain times. Find out more at

If you enjoyed this blog from SAMI Consulting, the home of scenario planning, please sign up for our monthly newsletter at and/or browse our website at

Featured image by John Hain from Pixabay

  1. Interestingly, Matt Hancock takes the other side of the debate from Oliver Letwin. He said” The attitude, the doctrine of the UK was to plan for
    the consequences of a disaster: can we buy enough body bags? Where are we going to bury the dead? And that was completely wrong. Of course it’s important to have that in case you fail to stop a pandemic, but central to pandemic planning needs to be: how do you stop the disaster from happening in the first place? How do you suppress the virus?”

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *