Photo of a tsunami

The Pandemic Triggered a Futures Tsunami

Professor Emerita Sirkka Heinonen:

Systematic thinking about futures has been practiced in our society at various levels – in the academic world and in educational institutions, in the field of public administration at the state, regional and municipal levels, as well as in companies and non-governmental organisations. However, it is the pandemic that has now unlocked the heavy gates to the futures realm – opened the eyes of actors to see the critical nature of foresight and the exponentially growing need for futures work.

Anticipating the future is no longer a luxury in ivory towers or a proactive preoccupation for the few, but simply a categorical imperative for us all to survive in a turbulent world. My blog title is ambiguous – first, it means this wide-ranging and dramatic “reawakening to the futures” triggered by a tsunami-like pandemic – all organisations should have a strategy for the future. A forward-looking futures strategy means that, in addition to and on top of a normal strategy, a longer-term strategy is developed that looks at issues and causal chains broadly and using peripheral vision. Let us look at what is happening in the world around us and in the operating environment beyond our own domain. The long term can boldly reach even a hundred years from now (Heinonen et al. 2018).

Organisations need to create future trajectories, firstly, on how to cope with the conditions of a pandemic and on what all the entangled effects it will have in the short and long term. Second, the blog title suggests that the future will come as a surprise – i.e. it is pregnant with wild cards and black swans. Surprises are the new normal (Heinonen et al 2017). Like a tsunami, traditional practices and accustomed ways may turn upside down or towards totally new paths. Such a tsunami of the future can also mark the beginning of a new “good” – the budding seeds of development are strengthened with flexibility and perseverance. At its worst, a future tsunami could mean that the “futures Angst” suppresses hope for the future (Interview of Steinmüller). Concerns about illness, death, and livelihoods can blur the future into non-existence. This should be prevented in every way, and education, research and scientific communication have a serious role to act here. (Ministry of Education and Culture)

We cannot avoid uncertainties and surprises, we cannot control them, but instead we can use futures knowledge to anticipate them, to prepare for them, to make them less harmful and to become futures resilience. The actual surprises may still be coming and rise from the multifaceted effects of the pandemic on society. A pandemic is like an earthquake – its aftermath is at least equally unpredictable.

A Pandemic is Testing Future Resilience

The pandemic caused by the corona virus shook and will shake Finland and the whole world for a long time to come. It acts as an epochal divider in the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic periods. The progression of the pandemic and its consequences, as well as the measures and attitudes triggered by the crisis, appear to be quite different in different countries. A pandemic tests society’s futures resilience – how well society is able to react to a situation, decide on relevant measures and emerge from a crisis. Futures resilience is first and foremost about how society emerges from a pandemic-induced crisis and how the factors that led to it are identified and managed. Second, and at least as important element in futures resilience, is to learn from what has happened and from the cause-and-effect chains of events for the future – through systematic forward thinking and holistic proactivity, and anticipation of uncertainties and risks.

The pandemic converges with the basic principles of thinking about the future – it stops us to reflect things in a broader and longer perspective, and calls into question many things: efficiency thinking, global production chains, free movement, air travel, and eating habits – to name a few.

This pandemic struck like a tsunami, it took us by surprise, although in several foresight studies and scenarios, a pandemic has been brought forward as a standard example of a surprising event that, when realised, has dramatic effects. However, scenarios generally have not delved deeper into the consequences of a pandemic for society. But now the pandemic itself has also caused a “scenario tsunami” – scenarios about the pandemic, its effects and survival have been constructed around the world. The newly released COVID-19 scenarios of the Millennium Project (Millennium Project COVID Scenarios Team 2020) were commissioned by the United States Red Cross. They can be modified and used for deliberation of coronavirus scenarios in different contexts and countries. The set of traditional three scenarios (BAU, pessimistic and optimistic) is based on the results of the four delphis (MP RealTime Delphis), which are annexed to the report. The confidence of the general public and the cohesion of society turned out to be the alleged necessary criteria for surviving the pandemic with decency. The risk in the combat against the virus is to compromise freedoms – especially that of assembly and mobility. At both national and global levels, there is a need for strong and wise leadership that distinguishes between what is known, what is assumed, and what is mere disinformation or purposeful misleading.

For the first time, the summer seminar of the Finnish Society for Futures Studies (FSFS) “The Future on the Watershed” was organised completely virtual. As part of the FSFS’s 40th anniversary, a short film competition was also held to visualise life after the pandemic. The winner was the dream-like work “Isolation 3.20” by Amanda Gutierrez and Tuomo Tiisala, which evoked diverse thoughts and images. As a kind of sparring (outside of the competition) from the organising team, I made my own video manifesto about life after the pandemic “We will Survive”. Visualisation of foresight material is becoming an important channel for futures communication and interaction. I call for bold efforts for visualisation of scenarios, for example in the form of videos.

A Place to Stop and Rethink

With the limitations caused by a pandemic, it is good to stop to think about what you consider important in life. This pause also gives way to the cultural model of slow life. Not everything needs to be done efficiently and on a tight schedule. A slow life model forced by a pandemic leads many to virus-free summer cottage living. The periphery can become a refuge for densely populated city dwellers. Indeed, one of the effects of the pandemic may be linked to the rethinking of rural / urban stances and the dismantling of the dichotomy. The importance of the natural environment such as forests, parks and coasts is gaining momentum. Reducing physical contact for fear of limitations and infection has opened windows and doors to nature and physical exercise. If outdoor activities in nature remain a permanent form, even for those who did not do so much before the pandemic, one can even talk about the effects on public health. There will also be new demand for space design and landscaping. For urban planning, the pandemic will be an interesting and urgent challenge – how to add green spaces to the urban structure and how to enable citizens to move around in natural sites and urban spaces, even in the conditions of a viral epidemic. As the latest “discovery” washed ashore in the pandemic tsunami, i.e. as a recent new research topic, the forms, ways and innovations of using a safe urban space for a pandemic or other emergency come to mind. The same applies to the possibilities offered by the use of geographic information systems (GIS) and artificial intelligence (AI).

During the coronavirus pandemic and its worrying economic and social impacts, humanity has received its first global “timeout”. We should rethink all institutions. Can we use the time of this stop wisely? Let us think about what does not change and what we do not want to change? Humans are social animals. Our need for human interaction and connection to natural will not diminish. Solidarity, helping and caring are the qualities that make a human being truly human.

This blog post is based on a longer statement I was invited to write to the Committee for the Future of Finnish Parliament where I also included a PESTEC table on the effects of the corona pandemic. The Committee for the Future has compiled all the expert opinions it has requested on the good and bad consequences of the coronary pandemic in the short and long term published in June 2020.

Sirkka Heinonen
Professor Emerita
Member of the Club of Rome
Chair of the Helsinki Node of the Millennium Project


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References

Heinonen, Sirkka (2020) The pandemic tests the futures resilience of Finnish society – Peeks into the consequences of the corona pandemic in the short and long term, p. 21–30. In: Report of the Parliamentary Committee for the Future TuVJ 1/2020 The good and bad effects of the corona pandemic in the short and long term. (In Finnish)

Heinonen, Sirkka – Kurki, Sofi – Ruotsalainen, Juho – Salminen, Hazel – Kuusi, Osmo & Zavialova, Sofia (2018) One hundred years of blame or clay – why and how to anticipate one hundred years? Futura 1/2018, 5–18. (In Finnish)

Heinonen, Sirkka – Karjalainen, Joni – Ruotsalainen, Juho & Steinmüller, Karlheinz (2017) Surprise as the New Normal – Implications for Energy Security. European Journal of Futures Research (2017) 5:12.

Heinonen, Sirkka (2020) Interview of Karlheinz Steinmüller on the deepening VUCA World and Surprises by Sirkka Heinonen at the Finnish Futures Research Centre (FFRC), Helsinki 2020. Audio and text.

Millennium Project Covid Scenarios Team (2020) Three Futures of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States January 1, 2022. Millennium Project. Washington D.C.

Ministry of Education and Culture (2020) Researchers’ views on the effects of the corona epidemic and the measures needed. Ministry of Education and Culture, 3 April 2020. Sirkka Heinonen / FFRC one of the authors.

Finnish Society for Futures Studies (2020) We Will Survive – Life Post-Pandemic. Organizer’s PR contribution video to the Call for short Films by the Finnish Society for Futures Studies (FSFS).

Tsunami photo: Smim Bipi at Pixabay.com

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