This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Responding to Coronavirus Disruption

Rohit TalwarWithin the futurist community there is much hand wringing and frustration at the extent to which leaders, decision makers, and policy advisors have ignored past advice and countless preparedness studies for governments, businesses, and civil society. Since the 1960’s the stock in trade of much futurist work has been to advise on both the range of risks on the horizon and also, more importantly, the response strategies to mitigate the impacts and after-effects. From health pandemics and extreme weather events through to infrastructure shocks and financial fault lines – there has been no shortage of foresight and preparedness advice.

So, what lessons can we learn from the past and apply to both our current pandemic responses and our future scenarios? Here are 10 messages that we believe need to be factored in by governments, businesses, and civil society:

Genuinely Global Response Mechanisms – Futurists have long since argued the centrality of co-ordinated international action to address many of our biggest global. For example, recovery from the global financial crisis is attributed in part to well co-ordinated international action. In contrast, the failure to make the desired progress on climate change is blamed on weaknesses in the global policy and response mechanisms currently in place.

COVID-19 has focused attention on the fact that, until this largely “aircraft borne” disease has truly been brought under control everywhere, it remains a risk for all. The solutions for these global health, humanitarian, and economic crises will required co-ordinated and consistently executed action across the planet. From testing and treatment through to economic recovery, nations will need to work together to address the current challenges and ensure more robust future anticipatory and response mechanisms.

Develop Scenarios for a Range of Shocks – The current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of developing scenarios for a range of possible types of shock from health emergencies to weather disasters, terror incidents, and infrastructure breakdown. Not every risk can be covered but the broad types of underlying impact can be addressed to help inform preparedness strategies and plans. These risk/shock scenarios should either include or drive a subsequent set of scenarios which focus on the possible social and economic impacts and aftermath. Thinking the unthinkable on a regular basis should become part of the training of every leader and manager and embedded in the governance processes of every organisation – public and private.

Strategies, Plans, and Testing: Focus on Broad Categories of Impact A follow action is to develop strategies and plans and test them against a range of the underlying scenarios. The aim is to highlight where response mechanisms are robust and identify key points of weakness or omission. The testing needs to start with an intellectual “red teaming” exercise to assess robustness, followed a practical one involving all the agencies and resources to see what happens when strategies and plans meet reality.

We cannot plan for every possible event, but we can prepare for the types of impact – be that a health crisis that impacts the whole country or an accidental or deliberate failure that disables critical transport, communications, or utilities infrastructures. So, for example, we don’t need to know all the possible causes to plan for situations where large numbers of businesses are unable to operate with the resultant impacts on the workforce.

Knowing that such events might happen allows governments to think through and put in place the responses mechanisms, such as the ability to make payments to every business and individual. Such an approach would also allow alternative models of guaranteed basic income and service provision to be evaluated and delivery mechanisms to be established in advance of their need. These may never be needed but having them ready and tested means they can be mobilised rapidly. Agreements could also be established in advance with research and testing facilities in universities and the private sector. Much of what is being rushed through in the midst of the crisis today around the world would fall under this category.

Assume Emergency Powers Will be Required – Many governments are rushing through emergency powers to allow them to maintain public order and address the crisis. The speed of implementation leaves little time for the normal mechanisms of scrutiny of politicians by civil society organizations, the media, and the public. A more forward-looking approach would be to draft, debate, and agree to such measures in advance of any emergency and then simply enact the already approved measures during the crisis. Clearly, not every eventuality can be covered – but most can.

Resilience Through Distributed Capability and ResourcesThe current crisis has highlighted the challenges of trying to do everything centrally in the middle of a crisis – from COVID-19 testing through to distribution of personal protective equipment. Countless preparedness exercises have highlighted the importance of having people and physical resources distributed across the nation to ensure action can be enabled quickly. At the simplest level this means ensuring medical facilities have sufficient stocks of equipment to last them three months or more and everyone involved already knows exactly what to do in the absence of central guidance.

Enable Self Organizing Systems and Networks – The current crisis has highlighted the innovative power and impact of self-organizing systems. These range from the recruitment and mobilization of hundreds and thousands of volunteers and new cross-sectoral collaborations through to solution hackathons and global data and computing capability sharing initiatives. Again, we cannot predict the exact nature of a crisis, but we can expect that self-organizing systems will be an essential part of the solution. The speed with which such initiatives can get going can be accelerated by putting in place such enabling mechanisms in advance to support network convenors and co-ordinators.

Mobilize at the Earliest Warning Signals – The current crisis has highlighted huge differences in the approaches taken by different governments. Interestingly, those with some of the most sophisticated horizon scanning and risk planning mechanisms such as Singapore were able to act quickly and comprehensively. Key actions taken by such countries included closing transit borders with affected regions, implementing rapid and widespread testing and contact tracing, resourcing medical facilities, ordering additional medical supplies and equipment, and contacting retired and reservist personnel to alert them that they might be needed.

Across every broad category of risk from health to the environment, there are equivalent measures that can be taken early and pre-emptively. Whilst there is a cost involved in maintaining higher stock levels, it is significantly lower than that now being experienced by those who are trying to resource such requirements at the same time as everyone else and in a more chaotic and uncoordinated way. The cost in human terms of unnecessary exposure is incalculable.

Explain the Underlying Science, Models, Assumptions, and Plans – People crave information. Authoritative government communications can help dispel misinformation and rumour and enable organizations and individuals to plan. For example, some governments have been exceptionally clear about which models they are using, the assumptions, they are making, how long they expect things to last, and the response mechanisms they are putting in place. Of course, there are caveats because no one knows for sure how long a particular crisis might last.

Hence, it is crucially important to clarify whether you are anticipating a two-week disruption or a six month one. This helps businesses to plan more effectively and enables firms and individuals to assess the potential financial impacts and act accordingly. People are far more willing to forgive timeline changes from a government that communicates clearly than one that has obfuscated, presented mixed messages, and hedged its bets. Official, comprehensive, and regularly updated websites are critical to ensuring people are drawing from a single source of government information and advice.

Minimize the Crisis Agenda – The actions outlined above all help ensure better forward planning, greater resilience, and a faster speed of response. Critically, they allow governments to build public confidence and support by allowing rapid and co-ordinated action. They also minimize the range of crisis specific actions and decisions that need to be made at speed. This in turn reduces the risk of poorly thought through, uncoordinated, and badly communicated crisis response measures.

Learning and After-Action Review – However well governments address the actions outlined above, not everything will work perfectly, unexpected and unpredictable issues will still arise, and previously tested systems will fail in unanticipated ways. Hence, a willingness to acknowledge, share, and learn from these issues and mistakes is essential both to refine current response strategies and to the updating of plans for future emergencies. Once the crisis has passed, a more rigorous “after action review” is vital – taking inputs from across society. This can only help improve future strategies, plans, and overall resilience.

The crisis has highlighted the flawed nature of some nations’ crisis response strategies and resilience plans. This need not be the case. Not every crisis can be anticipated, but the impacts of most can be prepared for with well-constructed scenarios, robust strategies, and regularly tested and well-resourced plans. There have never been more people around the world involved in foresight, future studies, risk anticipation, horizon scanning, scenario planning, and other forms of futurist activity. Now, might be quite a good time to start listening to what they have to say.

Questions you and your organization should be asking:

  • What use does your organization make of scenario planning and horizon scanning to prepare for possible future shocks, crises, and dramatic economic disruptions?
  • How robust are your business strategies and disaster preparedness plans against the range of scenarios that might play out at the global, national, and market level?
  • How open is your organization to hearing difficult messages and considering previously unthinkable scenarios that could overturn your current assumptions and business plans?
  • How often do you undertake horizon scanning and scenario thinking exercises – how do the feed into strategy development and operational planning?
  • How do you go about training managers and leaders to think about the future and factor in possible developments that are not on their current radar?
  • How well prepared do you feel to share the level of uncertainty we are experiencing with your teams?
  • Do you have the skills and organizational support to cope with the additional responsibility on you as a leader?

Rohit Talwar is the CEO of Fast Future Research, a global research and consulting company that specializes in identifying future growth industries and helps governments and global companies to explore and respond to the sectors, ideas, trends and forces shaping the next five to 20 years.

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