No one knows what the world will look like when all this is over, but that doesn’t mean we can’t prepare.
Lots of interesting articles are starting to appear about how the pandemic could change the world we live in – our politics, our economies, our communities, our personal behaviours and much more. In every field, experts are considering how things might change and what businesses, public institutions and charities need to do as a result. A thought-provoking article last week by Nesta is amongst a growing number arguing that there can be no ‘return to normal’ once the dust settles.
For many people, especially those working at the frontline of the crisis, thinking about the future will feel like a luxury that can wait. But already, teams in the health service, local government and elsewhere are looking to the horizon and asking what it might need to do to prepare for a world that looks very different. For even whilst uncertainty and turmoil persists in the months ahead, there will, in the short term, be policies to revise, priorities to reorder, budgets to reallocate and perhaps whole organisational structures and systems to revise. Once we start looking to the medium and longer term, those questions get bigger still. Preparing for the future, therefore, should not imply idle, beard-stroking what-if-ery, but a necessary exploration of our challenges and opportunities whilst the ‘new normal’ is still emerging.
Some of this work will be done by experts putting their heads together, churning out datasets and advising what the response should be. But preparing for the future is about more than making predictions – it is about bringing people with you, exploring those possible futures together and coming to shared conclusions about what that means for the here-and-now. Helping your staff, partners, service users and citizens to really engage with future realities and to develop some short and medium term actions on the back of that is thus a valuable thing to do.
At Traverse we have a long history of developing scenarios and designing simulations so that organisations can road test different versions of the future. We have used futures work to help councils design local visions, to help local health systems to prepare for winter pressures, and to help the care sector plan for the impacts of Brexit. Both scenarios and simulations start with existing data and insight about future trends (the health needs of a population, employment figures, new technologies etc.) and add a dose of imagination to construct future realities for stakeholders to reflect on and react to.
Scenarios – short, rich narratives set at a given point in the future – usually come in sets of three or four, each imagining a slightly different world. These serve as stimulus for conversations about implications for a team, an organisation or a wider system: How could we prepare for this? What would we need to change? And are there skills we should value or actions we should take that make sense regardless of which future emerges?
A simulation, by contrast, offers just one version of the future and invites a range of players to engage in it as a dynamic, immersive process – probably over the course of a day. It seeks to simulate how different individuals and organisations might react, and to reflect on this in the final stage of the event: How did we make decisions? Did we show leadership? Did we move to quickly or too slowly and what were the results? And overall, what does this tell us about ourselves, our organisations and the local system that we need to change?
The idea of all this is not to make bold predictions about the future, but to lift people’s heads above the maelstrom of the here-and-now and extend their visibility into future realities they may not yet have really considered – or at least not together. And whilst many aspects of the future will be uncertain, transplanting yourself into at least one version of it can give surprising clarity about what we need to prioritise in the present in order to reach the future in good shape. Finally, and not insignificantly, spending some time in the future can be fun – an energising, motivating experience that can boost a sense of team spirit and shared vision, and which invites us to look at our work through a different lens. And after the trials and tribulations of this most usual and unnerving period in our professional and personal lives, that will be a worthwhile exercise in itself.
You can read more about Traverse’s futures work, including examples of our past projects, here. If you’d like to talk to us about how we can design a futures process with you – how ever big or small – contact Rob Francis at firstname.lastname@example.org.