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A Guide to Imagining the Future: A Contingency Planning Model

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” --Marcus Aurelius

I, like Marcus Aurelius, have found worrying about the future to feel futile. Nothing has pulled that reality into such stark relief as my first major cross-country move.

With the move firmly in my rearview mirror and armed with a sharpened sense of hindsight, I can clearly see now what I could not see way back then:

1. Nothing I worried about before the move came to fruition.

2. Everything that went wrong, was nothing I had allowed myself to imagine.

So, is imagining the future truly futile? Business, military, and governmental studies would suggest otherwise. As an example, the military operates entirely from a foundation of futures planning. Large teams of military planners regularly analyze the world’s current state and then extrapolate future scenarios for military leaders to wargame.

The future is not about imagining what could be—rather, it is about truly recognizing what currently is.

Contingency planning is the outcome of military leaders using wargames to build plans, exercise those plans, and then analyze the results. The model has proven successful for thousands of years in military, business, and government. Even Marcus Aurelius himself recognized and employed its utility.

If this is the case, how do we go about imagining the future in a way that is not futile, but fruitful? For me, the shift in my awareness about contingency planning came when I recognized that the future is not about imagining what could be—rather, it is about truly recognizing what currently is.

The future is not some far-flung place that is best left to the imaginary devices of the Stephen Spielbergs of the world. The great artistic imaginations of our time often get it wrong. To make a great movie the future must happen to us; but in reality, we are the thing that happens to the future.

For example, think about all the pandemic movies you have seen throughout the years. Try to remember what the scenes in those movies looked like. Chaotic hordes of people overrunning hospitals, general street-level panic, mass migrating crowds, and often a small team of epidemiologists and medical professionals scrambling for a cure in the background of the chaos. This makes for a great movie, but reality, as we have seen, is quite different.

First, the beginning of a pandemic is eerily quiet. There are no crowded or chaotic streets but rather they are often empty. Where crowds do exist, such as lines at the grocery store, they are orderly and respectful with people lining up uncomplaining and distancing themselves by six feet without prompting.

Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Second, emergency room visits are down; with social distancing and shelter-in-place advisories implemented, there are fewer car accidents resulting in less major injuries. The virus also brings with it a stigma about hospitals--and many who might rush to the emergency department for a twisted ankle are now staying away because they are afraid of exposure and getting sick.

Finally, the whole of society has mobilized together. There is no small band of medical professionals fighting behind closed doors for a cure while the rest of us panic. Government, business, the military, and citizens old and young have all mobilized in inspiring unity to stay home and do their part to stop the spread. This makes for a boring movie, but it is truly a great story!

Properly imagining the future requires that we understand three things about our current situation:

1. What systems are at play, and how do they work with and against each other?

2. What components of our current system(s) are the least and most impactful to the success of the system as a whole?

3. What degree of uncertainty do we perceive about how components of our system(s) will react to change?

We understand a few things about the future intuitively. We understand that today is more likely to be like tomorrow. Especially if we compare today to a day five years from now. Or ten years. Or twenty years.

To worry about the future is to attempt to predict it. Blindly trying to predict the future is futile!

This makes sense to us, but why? It makes sense because there are things happening today that will affect our systems in the future in ways that we have not yet imagined. This sounds mundane however, it is important to recognize that imagining the future means visualizing how the underlying conditions of the present might change so that the systems of the present no longer operate in a way that is predictable—but note, I have not used the word prediction.

In other words, to worry about the future is to attempt to predict it. Blindly trying to predict the future is futile! There is no perfect scenario that we can imagine which allows us to describe the circumstances of the future. However, with sound methodology and analysis we can forecast a range plausible systemic threats based on what we know now. Scenarios can then be developed to tell us a story about how the future might exploit some aspects of our current systems that are highly impactful and highly uncertain.

So how do we imagine useful scenarios? In 2019 the PathFinderEX team asked a group of disaster responders to brainstorm twenty key factors for a successful response during a mass casualty event on the Oregon coast. Out of the twenty key factors they imagined, we asked them to discuss and select the two most important to their response efforts.

They chose technical communications and medical infrastructure as their top two key factors because they agreed as a team that they were both highly impactful and highly uncertain during a mass casualty response on the Oregon coast.

With two key factors focusing the storyline, the team was able to imagine a couple of scenarios that would either support or exploit the two key factors they selected. For instance, the Oregon coast is in danger of a once in a millennia earthquake and subsequent tsunami. This provided the backdrop for the scenarios. From there, we evaluated readiness for such an event using the two key factors the team selected. We assessed a wide range of current systems from buildings and infrastructure, to early warning technology and communications networks.

Ultimately, we came up with two scenarios. The Green Scenario (best case) which had massive infrastructure damage, with few buildings that were salvageable. This meant that there were some buildings of opportunity which were available for medical infrastructure. Communications were basically inoperable, with only one small cell network available for limited out of area calls. The teams had disparate communications equipment; however, radios and line of sight networks were operative if the teams could build them.

The second scenario was the Red Scenario (worst case), where all standing infrastructure was too dangerous for sustained operations. Teams had to establish temporary infrastructure with tents or other materials available to them. They had one team with line of sight radio communications to responders in the Green Scenario, with all other field teams operating under communications blackout conditions. The scenario forced the teams to establish communications protocols that kept them safe and informed without using any technology.

Left: Oregon Air National Guard Capt. Kevin Lindsey (left) and Capt. Vincent Faustino (center) and State Emergency Registry of Volunteers in Oregon (SERV-OR) discuss strike and recovery teams during Pathfinder Exercise 2019, June 13, 2019 at Camp Rilea, Warrenton, Ore. (Photo by Master Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

About a month before the Pathfinder Exercise, a small group of leaders from the inter-agency disaster response organizations used a wargame during a tabletop exercise for the Red and Green scenario to formulate a plan. The week of the exercise the teams spent one day of focused hands-on training in both scenarios which provided them the skills needed to execute the plan. On the second day the teams operated in four hour micro-exercises in both scenarios with a hot wash after each iteration. On the third and final day, the inter-agency teams put it all together: the teams operating in the Red Scenario canvased and located victims, ultimately transporting them to a casualty collection point located in the Green Scenario. From there, the teams stabilized the victims and coordinated transport to local hospitals for higher levels of care.

Through the hot wash and after-action process, we began to construct contingency plans for technical communications and medical infrastructure. Assessing the key components of our plan as compared to the exercise outcomes we can diagnose the gaps in our methods.

1. What worked from the plan, and what did not work?

2. Where did we have to improvise, and what improvisations worked or did not work?

3. What key information did our team or teams lack; what training could bridge those gaps?

4. What materials would have been useful, or better than what we had?

5. How could we have planned better?

These are not the only questions to ask, but they represent a solid foundation.

Imagining the future and contingency planning is not about finding the perfect scenario that predicts the future. It is about assessing the present for the key factors of the current system or systems. It is about focusing on two key factors that are highly impactful and highly uncertain; developing plausible scenarios around those two key factors that support or exploit the current systems; planning for the scenarios; training and exercising those scenarios. Then assess the outcomes, reiterate and redeploy from the assessment phase.

Contrary to popular belief, contingency planning is not an algorithm that says: if this happens, then this. It is a methodology for recognizing which aspects of your systems may become unpredictable quickly if underlying conditions change. Then it offers you an opportunity to imagine the spectrum of ways your system or systems may react. True contingency planning says: if my system begins to behave in a way that is unpredictable, then we will assess, plan, and employ established strategies that work to stabilize the unpredictable system.

There is no perfect contingency plan... there is great utility in your team working through a plausible problem together.

There is no perfect contingency plan. However, there is great utility in your team working through a plausible problem together. You may find that your well-rounded contingency plan does not fit perfectly into the square hole of the future, but the process of assessing and planning will provide creativeness and agility within your team when disaster strikes. Remember Marcus Aurelius--you will meet the future with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

In contingency planning, imagining the future is not futile. Now is the time to start sharpening your weapons of reason! Check out

This blog post was originally published to the PathFinderEX website on Apr. 12, 2020.

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