As a futures researcher, working in the Finland Futures Research Centre there has been numerous calls to offer scenarios for the post-pandemic. The Finnish government’s committee for the future for example, have had intriguing research calls in which to identify societal threats and opportunities and direction for this confusing time. As someone who uses scenarios in my research work and as a teacher of scenario thinking in the masters programme in futures studies (@UTU), it is then perhaps strange that I find myself feeling highly judgemental and cautious of the sudden grappling for scenarios. In fact, the emergence of a pandemic was not the utter surprise or ‘black swan’ it is said to be, there have been plenty of warnings and historical cases with intense discourse on this issue before, that somehow did not gain the global and public attention it deserved. It was always isolated, a hypothetical risk, something that happens someplace else. So, the reality of this new situation that we collectively on-mass have been experiencing does mark a new change in which society across the board is affected. It was the first-hand experience where we felt the full measure of the collective unknown and unexpected.
At first, I was warmed by the idea that people, companies and governments were channelling energy thinking about a time beyond corona, ‘that is smart thinking’ I thought ‘look to the future’. It gave a sense of relief that this all will eventually pass. That the multitude of infections and deaths will someday stop and the quarantine will be over. This feeling of potential relief was short lived however, with the realisation that much of the solutions potentially offered were future imaginaries that were just a short step, one way or another, from getting us back to how things were. i.e. the business as usual scenarios. These scenarios still did not attempt to answer the problems of climate change, or a next potential new pandemic. These were incremental rather than transformational visions.
I will now briefly eat my hat concerning current scenario work, as admittedly there are some very insightful attempts made to encourage new thinking and understanding of the full complexity of our situation. Futurist Sohail Inayatullah for example, offers his scenarios informed by his casual layered analysis, in which the unfolding situation can be characterised as a ‘zombie apocalypse’, ‘the needed pause’, ‘global health awakening’ or ‘the great despair’. These use narrative metaphors to describe the different complex readings of the unfolding futures. Another example is futurist Leah Zaidi who has offered a visual tool to understand the double loop cycle of opportunities, threats and outcomes. This breaks linear thinking. These are two very different fresh approaches that are the exception to what I am warning about, which are basically sold as predictions. Beware all scenarios or policy that say they know what will happen next. Speculation of the post-corona era risk becoming overt power-grabs for the future, in which the status quo will try remain relevant and maximise their potential. Included are the need to compromise concerning nuclear, clean coal, carbon capture, to keep our petroleum automotive dependent society afloat. I call these canned futures (see image) in which a scenario is produced with a singular presumption that is released to produce a desirable outcome that leads us to a future setting. These once opened, are a one-hit-wonder, hollow, bland and a monoculture image of the impending future, while advertising itself as positively gourmet.
At the core of futures is the sacrosanct belief in plurality and alternatively of possible, probable and desired futures (with an s), rather than one linear predicted future. And it is this very point that has been underlined for me during the pandemic. As I have been unable to adequately unscramble the chaos and noise and experience of global fear and suffering. I have been drawn instead to noticing strange attractors rather than exit scenarios.
This idea I’ve borrowed here from mathematics, a type of attractor. An attractor can be simply seen as an idea or activity that draws others to it, in locations called ‘basins’, where analysis produces clusters and groupings that form a future image. The difference is that the strange part of the strange attractor suggests that it is something really novel, existing out of our normal understanding while having its own beautiful chaos that draws our attention into it.
For me the strange attractor can be interpreted as a highly cultural and creative phenomena. Think teddy bears in windows to offer joy for puzzled passers-by during quarantine, think neighbourhood singing and music practice from Italian balconies, think about how nature has surprisingly taken up the spaces that are now quiet, within normally rush-hour busy cities. How would these develop to offer new future paths? These are fundamentally about the issue of emergence rather than the logical direction into the future, these have their own rules and emerge as totally new openings. The possibility within possibility. This has been described as not a change in direction, but a change in kind by Riel Miller, head of foresight at UNESCO and champion of the concept of futures literacy that informs these concepts in practice. In fact, during the past months working from home in the surreal bubble, created from zooming on my balcony; my weekly online meetings with UNESCO, Miller, with Climate KIC (FlxDeep), and École des Ponts Business School have focussed on this very issue.
Through embracing the emergent, has given me permission to then acknowledge and connect the crucial role of culture and creativity in transformation. A key criticism of scenario work for example, the role of culture and arts are missing in offering voice and expertise in producing relevant (IPCCC) climate change scenarios. In the Paris Agreement we can think we have numerical goals for energy and warming with many possible pathways, and also a few desirable paths 100 years into the future. But do we understand the unfolding varieties of cultures of the societies that occupy those thin lines? We should have film, instillations, performances, poetry and songs sung about and critically engaging these. The role of culture then is highly important to offer insight, and rehearsals for different possible futures, but also to create very much needed strange attractors.
I believe that in times of crisis culture and creativity can offer new growth and opportunities for society to change. In short creative culture to be understood as a catalyst. But this must be also acknowledged to be at the risk and effort of individual creatives whose often informal sectors would very much need also formal economic structural support to maintain them. Otherwise they carry the financial personal burden to which prosperous futures for others lie, even if indirectly. Research suggests this, but the connection is disjointed in public discourse during crisis, especially during the pandemic where culture and the arts seem to have been in their own quarantine, in waiting. Which is ironic considering it is the promise of culture and the new-found creativity of those stuck at home, that have had a key role in basically getting us through the quarantine.
For our next steps It is clear we need post-pandemic scenarios, as we do viable climate change scenarios to be able to get to a better just future. These should also be more fully explored for their societal implications that can be best explored and expressed in cultural form. If culture is a catalyst for change, then scenarios about culture and society need to be explored and implemented. This would call for a multidisciplinary approach. This would use the future in a more just and holistic way, the other needed concept is to embrace and not overlook the emergent, the strange attractor, a future that arts and culture are supremely qualified to probe.