Our feral future: working on the crises you did(n’t) see coming

Over the last few weeks, on and offline, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about “preparing for the future you didn’t see coming”.

The foresight approaches which I favour tend to avoid predicting the future. Instead, I work with clients to highlight the futures you didn’t anticipate, either because you had a strategic blindspot or because you chose to ignore them.

Man with protective mask
Man with protective mask by Wikipedia user Tadeáš Bednarz – CC BY-SA 4.0

Was the pandemic one of the futures we couldn’t see coming, or one which we chose not to? And since its arrival, have our responses been based on what is really unfolding, or on mental models which we had previously constructed?

Foresight and failure

It’s pretty clear that the pandemic has blindsided many of us; we simply weren’t prepared at an institutional or individual level. In the Financial Times, Beatrice Weder di Mauro of the Centre for Economic Policy Research commented that “If anybody had told you at Christmas that this year would be one [with] an enormous symmetric shock hitting all the advanced countries and that this would cost something like 50 per cent of GDP for a few months or maybe longer. . . the kind of thing that happens in a war, everybody would have said you are crazy. There was no imagination to see where something like this could come from.”

However, some specialists and experts have noted that the coronavirus outbreak was a crisis waiting to happen. That for some time now, there have been warnings, and rehearsals, and contingency plans regarding pandemics from the health sector and intelligence services. That our nations’ most senior leaders, our global institutions, and the international community could have seen this was coming.

The New York Times has reported that in 2017, as part of the transition to the Trump administration, outgoing Obama officials ran a pandemic response exercise to help train their successors, and that last year, the new administration’s Department of Health and Human Services simulated a “Crimson Contagion” which imagined the global outbreak of a respiratory virus orginating in China.

“Three times over the past four years the U.S. government, across two administrations, had grappled in depth with what a pandemic would look like, identifying likely shortcomings and in some cases recommending specific action,” says the Times.

That doesn’t make it sound like the current crisis was unforeseeable. Perhaps the situation was foreseen but not acted upon?

The Saïd Business School’s Professor Rafael Ramírez defines scenarios as “a small set
 of manufactured possible future contexts of something
, for someone, for a purpose, with a pre-specified usable interface — and used.” Such exercises mean little unless they actually inform strategic decision making; so was this a failure of foresight or implementation?

Such failures might not just involve inaction, but decisions based on false assumptions and models.

The untamed future

Another article by Ramírez, co-written with Oxford University’s Jerome Ravetz, explores the notion of tame, wild, and feral futures.

The authors note that a great deal of futures work depends on mapping and managing what might come to pass through the tools of risk and mathematical probability. Such approaches build on accumulated data, models of significant patterns, and a belief that past data will be relevant for future conditions. These can be described as ‘tame’ futures, in the sense that, on the basis of past experience, our expectations of what the future will bring are justified.

In other situations, the future is wild: issues are emerging which make it clear that past experience will not be relevant, that there will be surprises and unpredictable events before us – the “unknown unknowns” which Donald Rumsfeld made famous.

The third type of situation identified by Ramírez and Ravetz is identified as “feral”, taking its name from wild animals which have escaped from domesticity or captivity, or which are descended from escaped animals.

Under feral conditions, situations that were expected to be tame prove to be wild. An example given is the Deepwater Horizon incident, the industrial disaster which polluted the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Science and technology seemed to have mastered the business of exploring for oil and gas safely, with all risks identified and accounted for; however, a range of drivers from incompetence to greed caused an unwanted and unexpected catastrophe.

Ramírez and Ravetz note that

“All feral futures are anthropogenic, as it is human intervention that does the taming in the first place; and then humans weaken, re-locate, damage, or even destroy the domesticating system. More generally, parts of the society-technology- nature system which had been thought to have been tamed, such as global food and water systems or biotic disease, now show signs that they might be going out of control through human intervention and are hence in a situation where they could become feral.”

The notion of a feral future has many implications for the COVID-19 pandemic. The epidemiologist and foresight practitioner Dr. Peter Black has noted that the issues driving outbreaks today are largely connected to the way humans choose to live on this planet.

To what extent are human-made systems and processes such as globalisation, air travel, and border control responsible for the journey which took the COVID-19 virus from wildlife to humans? To what extent is the real impact of the crisis nothing to do with the actions of the coronavirus itself, but the decisions and policies of humans? And how might our attempts to remedy the situation make things worse?

Is there the possibility that the UK, in its response to the coronavirus outbreak, created a feral situation?

In 2019, the Global Health Security index had assessed 195 countries’ ability to prevent and mitigate pandemics; the UK had been ranked second only to the US. These nations should have been able to provide an exemplary and effective response to COVID-19, but instead are floundering.

The Guardian, addressing this issue, cited Dr. Opi Outhwaite of St. Mary’s Law School in London, who noted that a lot of the UK’s pandemic planning had focussed on deploying expertise overseas, rather than being prepared for a crisis on its own shores:  “I suspect that we had to experience a pandemic here first-hand to shift the thinking. It’s very noticeable now hypothetical everything [in the strategy] appears.”

The British model has been tested and found wanting, and, as Reuters reports, the decisions based on that model’s assumptions may have exacerbated problems related to the pandemic.

British scientists failed to model a Chinese-style lockdown in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, because they assumed that such measures would never be politically acceptable. Their limited approach was based on the UK’s existing pandemic flu strategy. British institutions were prepared to fight the flu, whereas their Asian counterparts had built their pandemic plans from experience of the more lethal SARS outbreak.

A senior British politician cited by Reuters noted that reliance on the team of experts who had drawn up the flu plan might have created a cognitive bias: “We had in our minds that COVID-19 was a nasty flu and needed to be treated as such […] The implication was it was a disease that could not be stopped and that it was ultimately not that deadly.”

The British response to the pandemic has been characterised by confusion, mixed messaging, and a sense of indecision, all against the background of a rising death toll. Now the Prime Minister who had held out against more stringent measures is himself in intensive care.

What to do when it all goes feral?

Ramírez and Ravetz note that “Doing something about feral futures – beyond recognizing them, often too late – is peculiarly difficult, as that involves rapid learning, and more urgently, unlearning.

Once a situation has become feral, attempting to address it as if it were tame may only exacerbate the situation. Futures that are becoming feral cannot be managed as if they were wild, either, because human agency will shape and deform the issues as they emerge.

The authors give the example of the Taliban in Afghanistan, tame from a US foreign policy perspective when their guerillas were “domesticated” into fighting against the USSR, only to become feral when the pursuit of their own objectives led them to turn on the “domesticating power”, with little hope for the Americans to arrest the situation.

Ramírez and Ravetz propose addressing feral situations through sensemaking procedures like scenario planning, which allow people and organisations to “think the unthinkable” by addressing not what is probable, but what is plausible: that is to say, the future contexts which will challenge our assumptions in ways that are strategically significant.

The imagined futures generated by scenario planning, liberated from an insistence on the predictive power of the model, allow us a new vantage point on unfolding situations such as the pandemic and its long-term consequences.

Existing assumptions are put aside for one moment, and space created to consider the situation anew – attending to signals and experiences which were previously at the periphery. By addressing what is uncomfortable or ignored, this approach liberates us from our attachment to the already mapped and tamed, the blinkers that can come from insisting on an outdated model while the world itself has changed.

Scenario planners talk of avoiding the “brutal audit” of a real-world crisis – such as the undermining of the UK’s hypotheses about a domestic pandemic – by bringing forward plausible futures into the present conversation, so they can be discussed and worked with. An imagined crisis hurts much less than a real one.

Harvard Business School’s J. Peter Scoblic, writing in a recent paper on strategic foresight, risk, and uncertainty, notes that, in the situations which Ramírez and Ravetz describe as tame, managers model and make strategic decisions by analogy to the past. However, uncertain situations – whether wild or feral – preclude analogy, because these situations are unique. (Scenario planners in the Oxford Scenario Approach speak of TUNA conditions, characterised by Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty, and Ambiguity).

For Scoblic, analogies can be made not only to past situations, but also imagined future ones. From Cold War nuclear wargaming to present-day scenario planning, the way to deal with uncertain situations may not be to unearth more analogies from the past, but construct better ones to the future.

Foresight methods drawing on plausibility and imagination may enrich strategic judgment under uncertainty because they encourage consideration of the multiple outcomes which may await, including those which exist outside of a given model.

Rather than explicitly or tacitly clinging to a given analogy – “this pandemic will be like the flu which we have rehearsed for, and we understand the political context in which the response will take place” – such an approach may encourage the capacity to revise assumptions and strategically reframe our view of the situations we find ourselves in, now and in the future. Instead of girding ourselves with the armour of past experience, set it aside, unencumbered, in order to move more nimbly and reach places that were previously beyond our conceptual grasp.

The Reuters article on the UK’s coronavirus response notes that Professor Graham Medley, the chairman of the pandemic modelling committee, reports that “no one now doubts, for all the initial reservations, that a lockdown was essential in Britain” – the one measure which had originally been discarded as politically unfeasible.

Medley concludes: “At the moment we don’t know what’s going to happen in six months. All we know is that unless we stop transmission now, the health service will collapse. Yep, that’s the only thing we know for sure.”


9 thoughts on “Our feral future: working on the crises you did(n’t) see coming

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