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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.