On the surface, it may seem strange to be thinking about the long term during the COVID-19 pandemic. Understandably, this crisis heightens policymakers’ tendency to focus on the short term, i.e. the immediate effects of the COVID-19 response on people’s health and the impact of the pandemic on our society in the immediate weeks and months ahead. However, strategic foresight – the process of looking beyond the present in order to better anticipate and plan for the future – can provide valuable insights for us today in several ways:
- An interlinked time horizon: Crisis managers need to look ahead during a crisis. This may be done informally, or formally by forward-looking units embedded within crisis-management teams. While this is not foresight in the strict sense of the term, it shares with foresight the mindset to move beyond reaction to proactively anticipating issues and the ordered approach that accompanies this process. This can prove essential for the longer-term preparedness efforts required during a crisis, and this cross-fertilisation of short- and longer-term perceptions should be encouraged.
- A reminder of surprise and shock: The human toll and global breadth of impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been startling. In early April more than half of the world’s population was under some form of confinement, curfew or quarantine (more than 3.9 billion people). Large-scale, high impact events are rare, and many people alive today have not been directly or indirectly touched by one. Previous generations experienced the two world wars, including the use of nuclear weapons, or more localised events that disrupted daily lives such as the oil crisis of the 1970s. The COVID-19 crisis may make today’s policymakers more open to the possibility of other large-scale changes beyond the immediate issue of global health, such as those caused by the impact of climate change, conflict between major powers or – on a more positive note – innovations that will benefit future societies. We can start to prepare today for some of these, while efforts can made to prevent others from happening.
- A structured approach: The uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic’s duration and ultimate impact is a reminder of the general uncertainty as to how the future will unfold. Managing uncertainty is an essential feature of foresight. This relates to the structured processes and methods that guide one through an exploration of possible future developments. It should be stressed that foresight is a conversation about alternatives or options for possible future scenarios (plural) rather than an attempt to decide how the future (singular) will develop. Foresight not only helps us to manage uncertainty, but also to design relevant processes for our institutions that orientates the entire effort for action today.
- A world of blurred boundaries: International security threats do not remain conveniently within geographical borders or the boundaries between academic disciplines. The rapid world-wide spread of the COVID-19 virus and the spillover of impact to other areas is a reminder of this. A strategic foresight approach emphasises the need to gather insights from a diverse range of sources and perspectives, from the broad contextual environment beyond local dynamics, past the interests of individual actors, outside our own biases, and from areas (most commonly social, technological, environmental, economic and political) beyond the immediate issue at hand. It seeks to understand how those many factors may interact.
However, exploring how the future may unfold remains a luxury for many, for whom pressing, short-term issues take precedence again and again. This is demonstrated by the number of times in the recent past that the possible outbreak of a pandemic was identified as a possibility in reports and analyses, and how little subsequent action followed to address it. To more effectively prevent and prepare for crises, this short-sighted approach needs to change. Policymakers need to shift from an overemphasis on day-to-day management to anticipatory and adaptable planning, together with the hard implications of this planning for priority setting and resource allocation. At the same time, strategic foresight processes need to put even more effort into both creatively exploring alternative futures and connecting these futures to policy action that can be taken today, whatever its nature and extent (small, large etc.).
The COVID-19 pandemic is still in the early stages for many countries, and in time we will no doubt learn more about how strategic foresight can contribute. For now, we should use the energy provided by our emphasis on the short-term manifestations of the crisis to draw our vision out toward the more distant horizon, to reflect on what we can learn from this pandemic to strengthen us in the future, and to understand how strategic foresight can be one of the avenues to help us do this.
Discover more about this topic in our upcoming virtual course on “Strategic Foresight: Tools and Techniques for Planning in Uncertain Times” this September 2020