Anticipating a pandemic

Here’s one thing about being a futurist.  Sometimes the world confirms one of your scenarios or models, but it’s not something to celebrate.  That’s because what you foresaw isn’t good news for anyone when it actually enters the real world.

Academia Next coverCase in point: my newest book, Academia Next, came out from Johns Hopkins University Press in early January 2020.  I wrote it in 2018-2019.

If you read chapter 14, the most forward-looking section, you’ll see pages of me anticipating a wide range of global changes that could hit higher education.  Some of them appear fairly likely.  Others, less so.  On page 212 I offered some options:

…black swan possibilities also lurk. Historical examples abound, such as a leader’s sudden death by accident or assassination that unravels a political order. A new religious sect or the vigorous reformation of an existing faith can win adherents and upend societies. Beyond political and social causes, a pandemic that exceeds our medical containment capacity could not only constitute a humanitarian disaster but also sap regimes, shock economies, and electrify cultures. (emphases added)

I don’t think a reader mentioned this to me until February, once the coronavirus terrorized Hubei and began reaching out to the world.

Yet that passage is not the most telling bit.  Much earlier in the book is a longer meditation on disease and higher ed.  It appears as an example of futures thinking within chapter 1.  I invited readers to use their imaginations in order to see how academia could change under certain conditions.  As an example, I offered this on page 23:

…imagine a future academy after a major pandemic has struck the world, perhaps along the lines of the early twentieth century’s Great Influenza. To envision the institution under such pressure, we would have to think through multiple disciplines and domains. We would have to consider, first, how such a thing would occur. This could involve delving into the history of disease, a look into graph theory for models of contagion, and a reflection on contemporary public health. We would then apply that learning to colleges and universities, a process that can ramify extensively depending on our awareness of the sector. Would distance learning grow rapidly as people fear face-to-face learning because of perceived contagion risk? Similarly, how would we take conferences and other forms of professional development online? Depending on the disease’s death toll, should we plan on depressed demographics within a generation, or would the birth rate bounce back? Would athletes refrain from practice and play from fear of contagion, or would both institutions and the general public demand more college sports as an inspirational sign of bodily vigor in the context of sickness and death? Which academic disciplines would be most likely to grow in the disease’s wake?

Note that I used the word “pandemic” in both instances.

evil eye Quinn DombrowskiSince COVID-19 seized our lives more than a few readers have asked me about these passages.  They have all been kind and refrained from making warding off the evil eye gestures in my direction.

My students last summer were similarly kind when I posed a pandemic to them as a design challenge for the future of the university.

But please don’t think I’m bragging.  I don’t mean to claim some oracular title for myself.  As demonstrated last week, working through disease outbreak futures is an established, long-running scenario practice, both by professional futurists and those who don’t use the name.

Here’s the thing.  Futurists generally want things to get better in their chosen domain.  I want academia to thrive.  But we have to look ahead across a full range of possibilities, from utopia to dystopia, as I like to say.  We can’t avert our gaze from negative or even horrible futures in the hope of salvation.  We have to consider the future as a whole, as objectively as possible, with an open mind.

I just hate getting this one right.

PS: Johns Hopkins University Press, this book’s publisher, made my book and many others available for free online, as a response to the pandemic.  I’ve linked to the appropriate chapters up above.  Kudos to them for doing this!

(thanks to Remi Kalir, who requested it; evil eye by Quinn Dombrowski)

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7 Responses to Anticipating a pandemic

  1. Yes, Bryan, unfortunately too prescient. Face it brother, you were Nostradamus in a past life. I appreciate your frequent updates; data and extrapolation woven firmly through with compassionate humanity. You are one of my Bodhisatvas!

  2. If I may toot my own horn for a bit (too). When I made the decision in 2008 to change careers, there were two clear signals that informed my next move: my video post-production business had completely migrated to remote work and clients wanted their media to be delivered for online streaming – not just TV formats. The trend had begun years before, in about 2003.

    And then, in graduate studies, I took my very first online class in 2010. It was awful!

    It was at that moment that I was certain that the future was not only going to be based upon on online communication, but that there was a desperate need for a vision of online instruction that did not suck. I spent the remaining year of my graduate studies on (cynically) forming a philosophical position about online learning as fundamentally a communications challenge.

    As a “mini-futurist” in that sense, it is, at once, pleasing to see that my investment in this domain has paid off in the form of steady and sustainable work, but there is (now) a much greater demand for comprehending the complexity of teaching and learning in modes other than F2F. Thus: millions of recent tweets in my feed saying “FYI, remote teaching is not online learning!”

    Earlier this week, I volunteered to chat with my local public school’s superintendent about distance learning. He found value in making the distinction between remote teaching and online learning, as an operational matter, since his stakeholders were not exactly clear on what they were doing as they “pivoted to online.”

    This is a long-winded way of saying that the crisis here is serving to clarify what online educators actually do and how this expertise is relevant to the implementation of different pedagogy as needs as market forces require.

    OK, done tooting! Now maybe fewer people will get that quizzical look on their face when I describe what I do for a living. 🙂

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Well done, sir!

    • Chris L says:

      You and many, many others, most of whom went mostly unheard and unheeded during their time advocating and practicing from the mid-90s (and before, but that was when I started) onward…far too many of whom were broke on the wheel of administrative complacency and faculty foolhardiness—to put it as kindly as I can about two swathes of people in which there are bright spots but who are mostly terrible—and who have now moved on or otherwise gone dark.

      I have a tiny sliver of hope that *this time* in the repeated cycles, things might be different. But it’s a very tiny sliver and, sadly, that sliver only grows larger if the disaster deepens…and I can’t wish for that.

  3. Joe Essid says:

    I’m trying to imagine the enormous financial burden that institutions of higher education now face, with large physical plants that are nearly deserted. I keep wondering if this drags on for months how many schools might close.

    My school will weather the storm, but those without our”draw” may find their former students studying online elsewhere to continue their education’s.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I’ve got a couple of posts about this.
      Much depends on how long and deep the pandemic is.
      Short term scenario: it could depress enrollments and revenue, esp. for public universities.
      Longer term? My peak higher scenario on fast forward.

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