I am a futurist, and it is my job to help people anticipate the future. That typically means spending many professional hours helping others strengthen their ability to recognize uncertainty.
That was true until a month ago. Now there is so much uncertainty around all of us that the challenge is no longer recognizing it but dealing with it.
Scientists and futurists
Scientists toil hard in their laboratories to predict the future because they control all of the variables. Or at least they try to control them.
Beyond the laboratory, there are too many variables interacting in complex ways for anyone to know exactly what will happen. That’s where futurists enter into the equation.
One of the key principles of strategic foresight is that it isn’t possible to predict precisely what the future holds. In the face of so much complexity, the task of anticipation is difficult.
The power of imagination
Daunting as it is, this is where the futurist’s work begins, and in a very simple way – with the power of imagination.
In the absence of hard data — which the future never releases — the only way to uncover novel scenarios is to imagine them. Letting our imaginations run wild is play, but it is critically important play.
Our pre- vs. post-COVID 19 futures
In the pre-COVID 19 world, getting companies and people to use this power could be an uphill battle. Some prime questions centered around topics such as: What will global trade look like in 2100? What about governments?
To open up their imagination, I have cajoled plenty of business and government executives. I have offered them case studies of imagination-fueled breakthroughs and have quoted sage management gurus.
I did all this to encourage people to let themselves imagine the unimaginable. Ultimately, there is one simple rule: As long as a potential future event doesn’t violate the laws of gravity, it is always a possibility, even if it is a faint one.
Can adults “play”?
Yet, persuading serious grown-ups who make strategy for corporations, government agencies and military departments to “play” can be challenging.
It sounded so goofy to imagine the unimaginable. It seemed so unserious. That could never happen, I have often been told. Or: Maybe it could happen, but not here. Not to us.
Innovation and uncertainty
Business leaders often respond by saying they want more innovation. But dealing with massive uncertainty, such as now? That’s going to be hard. Many even resisted innovation, despite paying lip service to the concept: “Try something new? That’s not the way we do things around here.”
Above all, for rational professionals trained to think in the modern managerial style, truly inventive ideas were viewed as too “out there” to even bother imagining. It takes only one sentence to kick an idea out of consideration forever: “That is not realistic.”
Back to ancient times?
Acknowledging that we live on the edge of uncertainty, the way ancients lived on a flat world surrounded by a sea of untamed monsters, is terrifying for modern people.
The coronavirus episode reminds us not only that we do not know exactly what will happen, but that we cannot.
The pseudo-certainty of spreadsheets
Because this reminder is painful, government and corporate leaders have devised many ways of avoiding uncertainty. Spreadsheets, projections and shutting down conversations about what seems silly or unrealistic are the most common.
Refusal to let the most imaginative among us into the conversation is another.
But that was then, in pre-coronavirus times. Now, the unimaginable is everywhere. I turned on the TV the day I wrote this, and there was Anderson Cooper on CNN, calling what was happening in New York “unimaginable.”
Imagining the unimaginable
Now, like a tsunami, an ocean of uncertainty has washed up on the world’s shores, and we are all drowning it. Every day, headlines bring us situations we have never seen before.
There are no facts about what comes next. We have little in the way of prior experience to guide us. There is no country, no government and no sector able to retreat to high ground.
We need all of the tools that epidemiologists, data scientists and analysts can give us to make sense of the data emerging from the pandemic. Sure, statistical models, projections and simulations are indispensable for finding patterns in the data to understand what could happen next.
The real modern condition: No precedent, no data
But much of what is happening in our societies now has no precedent, and no data behind it.
In order to figure out how to plan, we need a different kind of tool. We need imagination, the most powerful instrument we have for lighting a way to the future when the path is dim.
The unimaginable has become imaginable. This fact has unfolded in a cruel but at least remarkably symmetric way across most of the world, independent of where we live and what our level of per capita GDP.
If there is a prospect for redemption, it might be this: The coronavirus has opened our eyes to the uses of imagination. What an opportunity. When the previously unimaginable becomes possible to see, great new vistas open before us.
Shedding cardinal inhibitions of the mind
Imagine these potential outcomes:
1. Families and communities are creating joyful new rituals that will keep them connected long after this moment has passed.
2. Business leaders are seizing this mother-of-all-disruptions to learn agility, reinvent, and transform their organizations to meet the future.
3. Politicians look forward to presiding over a country so healthy so resilient, so productive that we all stand fearless and united, whatever lies ahead.
Anticipate it. Create it.
The coronavirus episode is an existential throwback. It reminds us not only that we do not know exactly what will happen, but that we cannot.
In the absence of data, the only way to uncover novel scenarios is to imagine them. Letting our imaginations run wild is play, but it is critically important play.
In business and government, spreadsheets, projections and shutting down conversations have been regularly deployed as tools to avoid having to deal with uncertainty.
For professionals trained to think in the modern managerial style, truly inventive ideas have been viewed as too “out there.”
Before COVID 19, futurists helped others strengthen their ability to recognize uncertainty. Now the challenge is no longer recognizing it but dealing with it.