At the time of writing Europe is the epicentre of the Coronavirus pandemic with daily death rate climbing in Italy, Spain and the UK. Based on the news from China, the death rate should start to fall within a few weeks, and policies of social distancing and lock-down begin to be relaxed. There is still a long time before a vaccine will be made available and there are forecasts of a resurgence and second wave to come. Much is still unknown about the virus that causes Covid-19, but the economic impact of isolation and quarantine will be severe. The world will be different on the other side.
Disruption will herald big changes in the way we live, work and interact. As someone who works in the field of risk and uncertainty, I am used to helping organisations separate their ‘known unknowns’ from their ‘unknown knowns’ to reduce uncertainty and ultimately better understand risks they face. The coronavirus throws up enormous uncertainty – political, economic, social and technical – so it seems the best way to look at future scenarios is to examine where each of these determinants might lead. The four scenarios set out below use the political-social and economic-technical axes.
Out of the four scenarios, two are optimistic and two are pessimistic. The optimistic ones show us where humanity can benefit from this upheaval and become more resilient for future shocks. A more evolved species if you wish. The pessimistic ones show us a more regressive world where we fall back on bad habits and behaviours that have got us to where we are. These will not equip us for future shocks but will be attractive to states and institutions currently enjoying wealth and power. I have chosen to set out the pessimistic ones first:
Named after the Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, who has suspended parliament, and intends to rule by decree indefinitely. His name serves as a label for any drift towards draconian powers seized to enforce social distancing, whether by totalitarian or democratic government. Human rights groups fear that governments who suspend democracy or remove citizens’ rights in time of crisis are often reluctant to restore them when normality returns. Whistle-blowers are not thanked but imprisoned, authorities are intolerant of criticism and will find ways to censure or restrict voices of dissent.
Within this envisioned future we can expect a retrenched nationalism with more border controls and a surge in xenophobia. Trading blocs like the EU will retreat from the Schengen agreement of open borders and tariffs will be used as barriers for protectionism. We have already seen this between the US and China, where trade becomes a weapon of power. There will be health checks at the border and points of entry with strict quarantine at airports and ports. The virus will be portrayed as foreign and foreigners unwelcome.
Under this scenario the wealth disparity between rich and poor is exacerbated post virus. Many businesses will be forced to close by the global recession and many people will never work again. The world of work will be much more polarised between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have-nots’. Those who have wealth will invest it for profit and will find opportunities to gain from adversity. Those who have no wealth will find it hard to secure state support as jobs disappear to be replaced by AI or other new technology.
This could be seen as a form of wealth Darwinism where the fittest survive. In a sense this is a continuation of a system that is exploitative and uncaring, a small few do very well through harnessing technology and adapting to a new world of work. There is very little incentive to share wealth, unless one choses to live in a high tax culture like Denmark, where the state redistributes the wealth to create a more equal society.
- New humanity
This is an optimistic scenario where the future is brighter because humanity has recognised that exploitation in unsustainable. The epidemic reminds us that the people who are paid least are actually valued by society the most: the vast army of nurses, carers, cleaners and delivery drivers and army of workers who keep society working and grease the wheels to keep in on the road. These people are finally recognised for the work they do in terms societal value, what the investment firm Blackrock would call TSI – Total Societal Impact.
The virus lockdown prompts a rebalancing of values and a questioning of obscene salaries paid to football players, TV celebrities and ineffective corporate leaders. This doesn’t have to be a new form of socialism but there are examples of countries like Finland experimenting with a standard basic wage so that the absence of work doesn’t cause people to starve. The world of work will be different and states will need to find a new way of providing economic support that are constructive, educational and humane.
This scenario envisions a future with an international community not unlike that found on the fictional USS Enterprise. Full global co-operation to deal with global problems: resource management and environmental protection, never mind extra-terrestrial threats and aliens. Before we can ‘boldly go’ in to space we need to heal the planet and ensure that is fit for future generations. For the past fifty years scientists have warned that we cannot go on at the current rate and the Extinction Rebellion movement today shows how urgent this has become.
The fragmented way in which to world has responded to the virus shows not only how ineffective the World Health Organisation is, but also how badly we need a species-level response and global leaders capable of marshalling effort. The upheaval of the Second World War prompted creation of the United Nations and World Bank, the corona virus prompts a similar leap in co-operation for planetary stewardship. Climate change needs more than conferences it needs action.
From these four alternative futures the more optimistic ones, New Humanity and Star Trek, both offer hope for mankind in that they envision constructive change. The challenge for politicians and world leaders is to find ways to make these achievable against a mind-set that all too easily slips back into the pessimistic and regressive alternative futures of Orbanisation and Hyper- capitalism.
Written by Garry Honey, SAMI Associate and founder of Chiron Risk
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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