While it is de rigueur in the field of futures thinking to claim that we live in uncertain and volatile times, the COVID-19 pandemic—battering a world already rocked by seismic political, economic, technological and other shifts—has made it abundantly and appallingly clear just how dramatically these complex phenomena can change our way of life. A premise of foresight work is that we ignore this truth at our peril.
As Margaret Heffernan has argued in Wilful Blindness (2011), an examination of why people ignore obvious dangers within organisations, many challenges and dangers evident today have occurred not because of unanticipated threats, but because other pressures and circumstances caused them to be overlooked. In contrast, Heffernan’s most recent book, Uncharted (2020), approaches the challenge of how we can think about and navigate a future that is evidently volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
Many challenges and dangers evident today have occurred not because of unanticipated threats, but because other pressures and circumstances caused them to be overlooked.
Facing an Uncharted Future
Heffernan’s argument is that we must have the courage to work actively for the future(s) we want and not shy away from difficult conversations in order to do so. Indeed, such challenges have served to galvanised tremendous human endeavour. Her conception of “cathedral projects” is particularly striking. These are large ambitious projects of sprawling scope: so massive that large groups of people from different disciplines must come together to cooperate without professional rancour or ego at play.
One such project Heffernan points to is Gaudi’s Basilica Sagrada Família in Barcelona, which was started in 1882 and is still unfinished. The project has continued for over a century despite wars, funding delays, an anti-church dictatorship, economic turmoil and countless other challenges—kept going by a community that has defended it, and new technologies that have accelerated its construction.
Heffernan points out that the scientific community also has its cathedral projects, such as CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) which brings together scientists and engineers from across the world to collaborate on building, maintaining and analysing the results that come from unique facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider. The global nature of collaboration and respect for expertise means that other qualities—nationalities, disciplinary boundaries—are rendered secondary. The work from CERN has created many innovations of societal value, including the World Wide Web— a cornerstone of the modern internet. Another scientific cathedral project is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault project, which maintains an archive of humanity’s cultivated crops, and is designed to withstand catastrophes and last for more than a human generation.
The scientific community also has its cathedral projects… The global nature of collaboration and respect for expertise means that other qualities—nationalities, disciplinary boundaries—are rendered secondary.
The scientific community’s race to address COVID-19—by publishing the genome of SARS-CoV-2, the pivoting of several biomedical companies to use their own technological platforms (Biontech’s work in mRNA vaccines, for instance), the pooling together of resources and capabilities to fund and manufacture vaccines—also represents a cathedral project that has unfolded before our very eyes. Those of us who have received our COVID-19 vaccine shots should take a moment to reflect on the scientific, manufacturing and logistical achievement they represent.
Singapore too, might be characterised as an ongoing, unfinished “cathedral project”, for which Singaporeans from all walks of life should see themselves as stewards: each generation building it up in their time and passing it on to the next. There is no clear “end goal”: the project itself evolves and adapts to the times.
No great multigenerational project is without its grand challenges. In times of crisis, Heffernan argues that we must rely on deep reserves of trust and a sense of camaraderie and common purpose. In Singapore, the whole-of-society response to the COVID-19 crisis speaks to this. Beyond the coordinated government efforts to tackle the medical, economic, social and other myriad challenges of the pandemic everyday Singaporeans took it upon themselves to help fellow residents: delivering basic services to migrant workers and laptops for home-based learning to those without digital access, creating digital platforms for low-tech-literate hawkers to continue their business, and so on. Small groups of Singaporeans, including many strangers, came together of their own volition because they were able and willing to step up to help at a time of great national need.
In service of such massive, complex, collective endeavours, Uncharted describes and discusses scenarios-planning exercises: not just the scenario products, but the process that goes along with them. Scenarios are stories about how organisations might meet uncertainties beyond one’s control. For Heffernan, “scenarios bridge inside and out, immediate and future.” For the energy firm Shell, a known “champion” of scenarios, such exercises have been credited with helping executives see options and alternatives that might otherwise have been obscure.
These scenario planning exercises can also be emotionally intense. In Mexico, a businessman-turned-governance activist brought together representatives from groups diametrically opposed to each other, to share their stories and to build scenarios for Mexico. Criminals and law enforcement and victims of crimes shared a common space together. In Slovenia, Betty Sue Flowers convened individuals with different backgrounds (anti-Communist, and anti-Fascist groups) to create possible futures for Slovenia together. Most famously, in South Africa, executive-turned-facilitator Adam Kahane used a scenario-planning process to bring together different groups in South Africa to imagine possible futures in the post-apartheid era.
Bringing diverse groups together and deeply listening to each other may not always throw up immediate solutions—but new possibilities may be teased out where none existed before. Even the establishment of common ground and mutual acknowledgement may be a remarkable basis from which to begin imagining a different, more desirable future, particularly if the community has seemed irrevocably locked in conflict in the past.
Singapore too, might be characterised as an ongoing, unfinished “cathedral project”, for which Singaporeans from all walks of life should see themselves as stewards: each generation building it up in their time and passing it on to the next.
From Thinking to Doing
For those in the business of working to explore scenarios and possibilities in a constructive way, How to Future, by Scott Smith with Madeline Ashby, offers a thorough, practical perspective distilled from years of consulting on futures project.
Smith and Ashby have put together a detailed and thorough explanation of the scenarios process, from understanding the context of the organisation, horizon scanning, sensemaking, scenarios to communications and evaluating results. The book’s approach—not just in the “what to do” sense, but “what to think about when you are doing”—is informed by the operational realities of painstaking engagement with clients about strategic foresight and futures work—including questions about what it is, and what it can and cannot do. This distinguishes it from other introductory works, such as Peter Schwartz’s Art of the Long View (1991), which still serves as an important introductory reference.
The book’s approach—not just in the “what to do” sense, but “what to think about when you are doing”—is informed by the operational realities of painstaking engagement with clients about strategic foresight and futures work.
For Singapore’s public sector foresight community, particularly teams that are just embarking on foresight work, How To Future offers an invaluable, practice-based introduction. Smith and Ashby provide additional context to the scenario planning and related foresight projects that they do, which might be helpful to anyone instigating change within their organisations. Apart from detailing the scenario planning process, they also consider contextual questions: Is the organisation ready for the future? What is their “future culture”? People starting in the foresight teams might find this book familiar, but also refreshing—Smith and Ashby’s gritty layout of the terrain could provide comfort when things in the foresight process become difficult.
How to Future also frames foresight concepts in ways that even veteran foresight practitioners may find elegant. There is the “Anticipate–Envision–Discover–Shape” spectrum, describing the degree to which we want to act in possible futures. While “Discover” (“probing for possibilities—obstacles, surprises and opportunities”) is a primary theme of futures work, “Shape” (to immersing in or test-driving new possibilities) could prove more pertinent than ever in the post-COVID environment. The book’s concept of a “Scenario Canvas” is a neat and refreshing way to gather and frame the drivers, impacts, personas, emerging expectations and opportunities within scenarios.
Practitioners might also find the book’s discussion of assessment useful. The “Scenario Readiness Canvas” offers a way for practitioners to engage organisations on how prepared they are for the futures they might find themselves in or wish to shape. It is worth noting that such measurements are intended for specific foresight exercises, and not so much about the indicators for entire teams.
A significant difference between How to Future and other foresight books is the way in which Smith and Ashby go beyond the bounds of the workshop to discuss techniques for growing and cultivating a “futures culture” within organisations. They offer practical tips that can be helpful beyond talking about the foresight domain. For instance, to help frame the future as “a place where questions are asked and possibilities explored”, they suggest practitioners prepare to discuss some implications, impacts and alternative approaches whenever they raise a future-focused question. They also advocate adopting an entrepreneurial approach to foresight work, by always looking out for good opportunities to discuss long term implications in current work.
Unchartered and How to Future intersect on a number of insights relevant to the work of thinking about and being ready for the future.
First, both accounts highlight the weaknesses of making definitively-sounding, eye-popping statements based on quantitative forecasts, which only provide a “feeling of certainty”. As seductive as numbers might be, both books remind us that events and trends have often unfolded in ways different from what was predicted. Stories remain an important way for us to communicate to each other the various possibilities of how the future might unfold.
Second, both look to scenarios not just as a way of being prepared for the future. Instead, scenarios are regarded as a means to bring together a range of people, so they may enter a realm of possibilities together.
Scenarios are a means to bring together a range of people, so they may enter a realm of possibilities together.
Third, both books are striking in their emphasis on possibilities: the future is not closed to us; we might not know about it, but we can enter it with courage.
Unchartered and How to Future are not just for the foresight practitioners, but for any group of people wanting to steer their organisations towards being more nimble in the way they perceive possible future(s). As the authors so rightfully point out, there is not just one single future to plan for, but a whole range of possibilities to think about. Opening collective minds in organisations and communities to possibilities—acting nimbly, responding to them, and even to shape them—will require a different set of paradigms than the ones that many of us are exposed to in our organisations.
For Singapore, Uncharted and How to Future explore tools that may come in handy as we seek to thrive in the uncertain post-COVID era to come, and as the next crisis (climate change?) looms. In the face of these challenging circumstances, we are not helpless. We can, as we have always done, look ahead with the foresight tools that we have, continue to adapt to changing circumstances, have the readiness to discover things anew, and to have the courage to shape things where we can. That the future is uncertain should give us courage and hope that we can shape the outcomes in our favour, in big or small ways and—as Smith and Ashby put it—“to make the world better, and lead others to do the same.”
Uncharted and How to Future explore tools that may come in handy as we seek to thrive in the uncertain post-COVID era to come, and as the next crisis (climate change?) looms.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eddie Choo is Research Associate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He has experience working and writing case studies in the Singapore Public Service. His case writing covers topics ranging from the environment to governance and corruption. He also teaches futures thinking and scenario planning at the School. Eddie has a Bachelor of Social Science degree and Master of Social Science degree in Sociology from the National University of Singapore. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.