Thinking about the future is hard. What has COVID-19 taught us about how to do it better?

Thinking about the future is hard. What has COVID-19 taught us about how to do it better?

It is possible that how a society comes out of a major emergency is more important to long-run human flourishing than how it goes into it. But this requires a deep understanding of how to make sound decisions for the future

Claire Craig

Thinking about the future is hard. Humans do it all the time, yet we don’t really know how we do it – nor do we have shared ways of talking about doing it. In public reasoning, this means crucial assumptions go unexamined, and imaginative opportunities may be missed or efforts wasted. Add in the difficulty of working out how best to influence the role of government to change the future, and you’ve got complexity on top of complexity.*

However, because the task is hard does not mean it should be avoided – it just needs the right combination of humility and determination. This blog is intended to provide some tools for thinking about the future that will help collective, inclusive and robust decision-making during what the British Academy recently called ‘the Covid Decade’.

A starting point is not to confuse what you want or expect, with what will be…

A human faced with some plausible futures (or even implausible ones) may over-weight the ones they want, expect or are familiar with. But because a future could happen within the laws of physics doesn’t mean it will happen. This tendency creates at least two problems for public reasoning.

During the pandemic, decision-makers made choices when clearly facing multiple futures. They could not know which were going to be closest to reality – what type of virus variants might emerge, what other countries might do, how citizens would respond and so on – and therefore what the outcomes of their choices were going to be.

  • The first problem was that they (the decision-makers, informed by the media and publics) may have prioritised decisions that would only work best if the preferred or expected future happened. If they were over-weighting those futures then the decision was taken on an inconsistent or poorly-informed basis and could be said to be wrong. Eat Out to Help Out may be an example of that, whereas the UK’s vaccine strategy may be an example of reasonable anticipation.
  • The second problem, which is more subtle but potentially quite corrosive, is that some of their decisions may have been consistent with the best outcomes within the relevant worldviews in what were the most plausible futures at the time the decision was taken, but still turned out to be ‘wrong’ in the sense that other decisions might have had better outcomes in the futures that actually happened (thinking of multiverses helps here).

The concept of best-possible decisions with less-than-best outcomes is not one that comes naturally in either public or private life. Recognising it would help both to inform hindsight and judgements on past decisions and, perhaps more importantly, to allow a more reasoned explicit approach to uncertainty in the consequences of future decisions. That is because requiring the pretence that a good decision always leads to the best outcome shuts down the opportunities to imagine or consider the full range of potentially viable futures.

In contrast, acknowledging the existence of plausible futures that are not the desired or expected ones increases the space for good decisions. Looking longer term, some of the big ideas that could emerge rapidly now, in the aftermath of the pandemic – such as new forms of social contract around minimum incomes, or the meaning of old age, or of sustainable living – will flourish more strongly if the range of plausible futures in public debate is extended in this way.

A second point is that it sometimes helps to think of time as fluid…

In other words, a bit less linear than notions of rationality normally permit. Government’s heuristic may be point interventions and linear accounts, but those interventions and accounts need to emerge from broader thinking. All we can know in a narrowly evidential sense (individually or collectively) is what has happened – and even there, what we think we know is in how it is told, or what was observed and by whom.

In thinking forward, the natural tendency is to try to optimise the outcomes over a chosen period. That may be tomorrow, or the run-up to the next election, or it may be a nearly asymptotic approach to all discernible long-run possibilities. (Of course, the uncertainties multiply as you move forward and the causality becomes harder to consider or to claim.)

For example, it is possible that judgmental accounts of the effect of the pandemic when viewed from 10 or 20 years in the future will depend most on what, if any, are the causally related implications for education or mental health, jobs, political stability and for inequality and intergenerational relationships. That may mean that the judgments of the future are almost independent of the relative death rates/capita of the first 18 months, even though those drove much of the debate during those months.

There is perhaps an important practical point here about the timeline of the emergency itself. Emergency advice concerning physical or natural phenomena tends to focus on the sciences, including medicine. In Roger Pielke’s terms, it’s ‘Tornado politics’ in which no one stops to argue publicly about values; they just want to know the likely path of the hurricane. The forward timeline is hours or days. The longer the emergency plays out, the more opportunity and need there is to move to wider framings that consider longer timescales and, in advisory terms, the full range of relevant disciplines – including the humanities.

A third point is to hold in play the question of what you are modelling…

Models are an important way in which humans link past and future. A model is an abstraction of the ‘real’ world. To be useful, it has to ignore most of the properties of whatever part of the real world the user is actually concerned about or immersed in.

Jane Austen’s novels vividly model aspects of middle-class life in her lifetime but do not directly model much about colonialism; an epidemiological model shows disease outcomes but not educational ones, and so on. The model has to be simple to be useful, but if it’s useful then there is a risk that its users rely on it too much and pay insufficient attention to the other important parts of the world which the model must ignore in order to function. This gap applies both to computational models, with their compelling charts and numbers; and to narrative models, with their seductive detail and rhetoric.

For COVID-19 in the UK, this model, in the broadest terms, has focused on the one disease and framed it – at least initially – as an emergency which implicitly has a beginning, a middle and an end. For coming ‘out’ of that emergency, it’s important increasingly to consider other factors: first, the underlying trends that will inform the plausible futures (climate change, demography and technology, for example); and, second, the inevitability of future emergencies. Here, humble learning means recognising both that COVID-19 won’t be the last emergency and – as a brief glance at the UK’s National Risk Register shows – that it is by no means the worst for which the UK should plan.

Thinking backwards and forwards in time and across different types of emergencies points up behaviours and policies whose benefits are otherwise hard to quantify. In particular, long-term thinking shows the value of redundancy and of ritual. Resilience to specific emergencies depends in part on the individual and collective things done (or not done) that make little sense at the time and have immediate opportunity costs.

These are the things – from less-fragile food and fuel chains, fitting houses to recover faster from flood damage, storing things, and having multiple sources of energy and communications; to richer or denser social networks passing on knowledge and maintaining social fabrics, and practices that manage bodily reactions to stress – that would make a big difference in at least some of our plausible futures.

Narrative futures models can help. Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the film Contagion helped him anticipate the importance of access to vaccines. Narrative futures models might take the form of the British Academy’s qualitative scenarios of the next 10 years, or the models embedded in more popular literature such as N.K. Jemisin’s descriptions of societies living with cyclical risk in the Broken Earth trilogy, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s model of a society living in an entirely closed material system, in the novel Aurora. Thoughtfully deployed, these could, for example, complement more traditional quantitative modelling of economies, the climate or diseases. They provide opportunities for surrogative reasoning within public debate.

Having recognised the need for humility, then comes the possibility of boldness…

Of course, what governments do, and what individuals do, determines the detail of which futures happen. Major new policy ideas have their moments. Times of uncertainty and disruption may be when they are created – or, more likely, when they emerge from wherever they’ve been in hiding, until then merely the pursuit of a small group of people (remember the energising quote ascribed to anthropologist Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’).

Right now, a challenge is to create the collective momentum to achieve the things you want to. Big shocks like wars and pandemics do create opportunities for new or existing ideas to take hold in ways they don’t when collective life is more stable. Informed futures thinking could help to expand the range of futures considered to be plausible and so build momentum for the new: the future can be decolonised; creating it can be inclusive and massively energising. Just remember that it cannot be controlled.

In some ways, it is odd that there are not more of these big ideas in popular circulation already: rewriting the social contract on universal basic income; tax that reflects occupation of digital spaces alongside physical ones; radical redesign of urban areas to incorporate parks and plants with 4-D thinking about the use of vertical surfaces and space at all levels from below ground to the sky; new forms of national civic service; new realisations of how to live with unhealthy ageing and death – each of us personally might have favourites. Above all, perhaps, a recognition that the slow violence of climate change requires even more radical thinking than the more rapid violence of the pandemic.

It is possible that how a society comes out of a major emergency is more important to long-run human flourishing than how it goes into it. Realistic futures thinking can help provide ways to shape, test and articulate new ideas against a range of plausible futures that include so much we cannot control, but some things that we can.

Next time you are critiquing a government decision, remember – perhaps humbly – to consider what futures could or should have been visible at the time it was taken. And, in boldly creating your own futures, listen very carefully to the stories around you. Some of them may be more plausible than you think.

* See, for example, Cairney, P. 2020. Understanding Public Policy: Theories and Issues. 2nd edn. London: Red Globe Press

  • Dr Claire Craig is the Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford – writing in a personal capacity – and former Director of the Government Office for Science