The post-COVID future is hostile to prediction
December is the time when big thinkers look back at the closing year and make forecasts about the year to come. That is not what we do at Futures Strategy Group. In any case, 2020 was such a one-of-a-kind year that drawing lasting conclusions from it makes no sense other than to underline the obvious point that life surprises us.
We have had endless predictions of what COVID means for our future. Offices are over, for example, and working from home is here to stay. Cities are done; we should all be long suburban real estate. After 120 years we have come to our senses about watching movies in the dark with strangers; what were we thinking all that time? Handshakes? A handshake is a vector of disease.
Maybe these things will happen, maybe they won’t. The experience of 2020 reminds us that apparently stable systems can abruptly change. They do so (ir)regularly. Predictions, especially predictions made from a place of anxiety about the future, are literally risky business.
The enduring wish for certainty is evident, for instance, in the way the world talks about polls that reputedly “missed” big events like the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the success of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum that same year. As my colleague Patrick Marren observed after Trump’s election, what was lacking in the polling that year was not prediction but imagination.
“In all the breathless endless temperature-taking as to the latest polls,” Patrick wrote, “America stopped thinking about what the election of either candidate might actually mean.” And we saw it again in 2020.
Disappointment in something like polls—which after all measure the probability of outcomes, not their certainty—is evidence of how susceptible we are to the comfort of a number, even in a complex and volatile environment—maybe especially then. Something like a poll or a marketing forecast appears to offer facts about the future. We forget that the future is a realm for which there cannot possibly be any facts.
Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. Those are the adjectives likely to characterize the coming decades. The COVID year was only a first taste.
Our clients work with us because they want to build organizational capability for responding to whatever the future brings. If they hadn’t before, our clients now have an intuitive grasp of what FSG calls “the uncertainty space”. In 2020 our clients lived the uncertainty space every day. That is the place where plans meet unknowns and meet them in combustible combinations—and not always for the worse.
The future will not be a world without rules. It will have economic and social drivers, and they will have a logic in their impacts. But for planners the near term will be much nearer than it has ever been. Thinking strategically in such a world will require an oxymoronic recognition of volatility as a constant. Along with an eagerness to exploit that volatility in strategy development.
Happy new year. Think nimbly.