Become proactive instead of reactive with Future Designs
It’s not a zombie apocalypse quite yet, but supermarkets from New York to Sydney are already out of toilet paper — and that’s the least of it. How should we best act, react or ever prepare for such situations?
What is a Collapse Scenario?
Let’s take a step back and dig a little deeper into the theory behind Futures Studies and Futures Design in order to contextualize “scenario” and “collapse”.
Scenarios are one of the backbones of Strategic Foresight and Futures Studies. Methodologies may vary, but one of the things almost all of them have in common is that they base their strategies by building different future scenarios, with different uncertainties and variables.
Scenarios are stories about society, technology, and issues emerging in a specific future setting.
They are narrative descriptions of what that future is like, including it’s social, technological, economical, environmental and political aspects, what we refer to as the STEEP framework. We might also add to the recipe a few extra flavors in the form of culture, behavior and values. As well as some more subjective aspects.
One of the bases of Futures Studies theory and methodology is Jim Dator’s work on future archetypes, also known as the four futures.
In 1979, Jim Dator, director of the newly-established U. Hawaii foresight Ph.D. program, published a brilliant model of social change stories in an obscure journal, Perspectives on Cross-Cultural Psychology. He revisited this model in Advancing Futures (2002). Dator’s model observes that all our narratives (stories, scenarios) on issues of social change can be classified into four recurring groups:
- Continuation — business as usual, more of the same status quo growth
- Limits and Discipline — behaviors to adapt to growing internal or environmental limits
- Decline and Collapse — system degradation or failure modes as crisis emerges
- Transformation — new technology, business, or social factors that change the game”
By definition, Collapse Scenarios are ones where “the economy can not–or possibly should not– keep growing in our finite world”. It should be emphasized here that possible futures in “collapse” are not and should not be portrayed as “worse case scenarios”. Besides, as Andy Hines comments, “a key point is that this does not suggest the apocalypse, but that the system regresses or dips into a level of dysfunction”.
The Current State of Affairs
With that definition of systemic dysfunction in mind, let’s have a look into the current state of things, by selecting some specific events:
- On Monday, March 9th, several stock markets, from all the corners of the world, tripped the “Circuit Breaker”, a safety mechanism to “prevent extreme volatility”, according to the Financial Times. Such mechanisms function by temporarily halting trading when prices hit predefined low levels. On “Circuit Breaker Monday”, according to the Wall Street Journal, the New York stock exchange tripped the mechanism for the first time since 1997, after hitting a concerning 10% drop.
- 3 days prior, on Friday, March 6th, Austin’s mayor Steve Adler declared a local state of emergency in the city and canceled the 2020 SXSW event. SXSW is one of the biggest innovation events in the world and the cancellation was very last minute – only a one week notice leaving thousands of participants to deal with ticket and travel reimbursement procedures. In fact, a good friend of mine was at the airport, about to board when he was made aware of the news like I’m sure many others were too.
Many other international events, such as the music and arts festival Coachella were at the time facing the same dilemma: postpone, cancel or roll the dice on the chance of something going terribly wrong? However, it poses a larger issue that no one really knows what is best practice in situations like this. Coachella is postponing, while E3, the biggest game design fair in the world, is going virtual.
- As for work, many multinational companies are applying zero-travel policies and are canceling all international meetings, as well as implementing home-office policies. Furthermore, countries themselves are applying travel bans. Moreover, just the other morning, I read an article stating that the Maldive Islands have quarantined two islands, with tourists not allowed to leave their resorts, and with all expenses being paid by the government during their quarantine period. Is it just me, or does this sound just like a science fiction/ thriller movie script?!
(Update: since I started writing this article, the situation has worsened significantly. Major events are now out of the question, restaurants and gathering places are closing down in many cities/countries, social distancing is the new etiquette and legal measures have been made to reduce the spreading of the virus in several countries.)
“Circuit Breaker Monday” was trigger by a chess-like exchange between Saudi Arabia and Russia regarding their oil-production agreement. A correlation (not causation) to the ripple effect of situations being caused by the spread of COVID-19. The absurdity of these facts matches the severity of the outcome.
Everyone involved, whether it be people, businesses or countries, are reacting as they can. Some are agile and regulated such as China, others are disciplined and have learned from previous experiences such as Singapore and Hong Hong. And some are stock-piling toilet paper?! Response methods are as diverse as they are debatable. Nevertheless, they are urgent.
Circling back to the definition of Collapse Scenarios, the moment we are currently living in is not the apocalypse, but the system did indeed regress and is in a state of dysfunction. So, yes, if you’re currently living on planet Earth, welcome, you’ve got front-row seats to a Collapse Scenario – AGAIN, not the apocalypse!
But the question remains, how should we best act, react or ever prepare for situations like this?
How can we prepare for the next one?
“Most people don’t believe something can happen until it already has.That’s not stupidity or weakness, that’s just human nature.”
Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
I’m reluctant, whilst also a little proud when quoting World War Z in an article about global markets, businesses, and people’s lives. But the apparent out-of-place quote from a zombie movie helps me to make a point: we usually don’t see things coming until they are already here, and thus, we usually don’t prepare for extreme situations.
Many businesses do not have strategies for collapse scenarios.
Futures Studies and Futures Design are still considered cosmetic by many — that is until something like this happens, and then we are pushed, as companies, individuals, and as a society to rethink our strategy (or lack thereof).
- But we can do better.
- We can prepare better.
- We can react faster and foresee risks.
- Maybe not for this specific crisis, but certainly for the next – and there will be a next.
That’s exactly what we, Futures Studies and Design professionals do. Rather than predict things or events or catastrophes, what we do is look at plausible, probable and possible (even if unlikely) scenarios and build strategies that are effective across multiple ones.
People tend to see Futures Design as only an innovation-related discipline, focused more on novelty than on survival. It is, of course, extremely related to innovation, but that is only one half of it.
The other half is dedicated to the creation of shields: risk prevention, resilience, and antifragility strategies.
It’s a “private health insurance” analogy. We pay for it and hope we never have to use it. Preparing for collapse scenarios is very similar, we design a strategy and hope we never have to use it, but if the day ever comes that we have to go into the emergency room, we are eternally grateful to have it.
- COVID-19 might just have given us a hint of what the future of work looks like. It looks remote and high-tech.
- It might have also taught us how unprepared our health systems are for mass health needs.
- It has shown us how important it is to know how to respond and act fast.
- It has already shown us the power of collective action and solidarity — as well as the destructiveness of selfishness.
I hope we’ve learned the lesson.
Who knows what the next Collapse Scenario could be? Climate disruption is already knocking on the door, for one…
It’s about time we stop reacting to situations of emergency and start preparing for them.
We – society, countries, and businesses – need to start acting proactively and start building strategies to survive the cold winters, wild viruses pandemics or stockmarket “Circuit Breakers”.