Foresight, not just experience, can stabilize us during disruptions like a pandemic
As new waves of the COVID-19 pandemic hit us, the world as we have known it is in tatters. The systems that we have built over decades are disrupted. We cannot travel at will, we cannot send our children to school, and we cannot get our sick people treated quickly enough. There is uncertainty, panic and fear. Interventions by government and other institutions do not yet appear to be successful.
These seizures are the result of unforeseen changes occurring all around. The process of change did not start with the virus, but it accelerated with the pandemic. Whether it was the destruction of the Twin Towers, the 2008 recession, or the Fukushima nuclear disaster, our world has witnessed many events, large and small, that are changing it beyond recognition. Climate change, social polarization, technology and many other factors contribute enormously to this process. However, so far the change has been noticed in isolation in different areas of life and has not affected all human beings in a uniform and devastating way.
The magnitude of the change is such that it is believed that entire sectors and industries can either be erased or reshaped beyond recognition. Areas of our personal and social life have been severely affected and will need to be redesigned. If we were to list the rules that we used to live and that we have discarded since the start of the pandemic, it will fill volumes. In our response to this change, we use the tools and techniques that we have developed while facing past challenges. We try to reuse them in our attempts to see what works. These tools are based on our experience in the past. They are rooted in hindsight.
Hindsight is a tool for understanding the post facto past. Operating with hindsight is a reflex action that is taken in response to an event that has already occurred. This helps reduce the risk of failure when we are faced with a similar situation in the future. It is useful for managing gradual change. When it comes to disruptive change, hindsight provides no comparable example to fall back on and, therefore, is not enough. We experienced this in many ways during the pandemic. When people let their guard down or the authorities relax restrictions, another wave hits us again, with mutations in the virus. To take another example, hindsight does not provide much guidance for dealing with climate change. Tools based on hindsight are proving insufficient to cope with global change.
So what do we do? We need a new framework that can help us avoid making choices that can lead to unintended and uncomfortable consequences. A tool that takes advantage of the lessons learned from hindsight but which is not limited by it. A tool that allows more of us to collaborate, whether we have the relevant experience or not, knowing that no one really has the experience of dealing with such massive change. A tool that helps us visualize and avoid worst-case scenarios. We need foresight.
Since no one can predict with certainty what will happen in the future, we must deploy our forethought to visualize several possible choices in each situation. For example, knowing what we know about climate change and expected sea level rise, should we build our infrastructure far from the coast? Should we divert more resources to strengthening health infrastructure to deal with future health emergencies?
Deploying foresight helps us make intentional choices with greater awareness than if we were simply projecting our experience into the future in a linear fashion. Decisions based on hindsight are reflex actions while foresight can lead to conscious creation. It engages our creativity to look beyond the current challenge by allowing us to visualize where we want to be. This allows us to choose the direction in which we want to go. When we see what we do as an intentional choice rather than just a response to an event, then from that choice’s perspective, we will be able to understand where we are going. We will be able to open the doors we want to open rather than being surprised by the sudden opening of doors that we did not intend to open. Foresight is the tool in which we should invest for our future.
We are trained to use our hindsight to navigate our day-to-day lives. Usually we can just project our retrospective into the future and decide on our course of action, which is good enough. However, in the face of accelerated and unpredictable change, hindsight alone is no longer enough. Foresight, based on the creative visualization of the possible consequences of our choices, then on the choice of the most beneficial choice, is the tool that can stabilize our rocking boat.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 22, 2021 under the title “Wisdom for extraordinary times”. The writer is a serving IPS officer. Opinions are personal