Coronavirus and the world: how futurists have been working on this kind of thing for years

SARS-CoV-2I’m sometimes asked what futures work is good for.  Some folks complain that it doesn’t always provide solid predictions of what’s next.  Others think it’s just fantasies and a waste of time in pratical reality.

One standard response from the futures profession is that we futurists help people think about the future: more creatively, more openly, with better information, and more strategically.  You could say we improve planning or we expand vision.

Today’s case in point of the utility of futures work is the COVID-19 global outbreak.  Futurists have been forecasting and exploring such events for decades.  That work has informed disaster planning, and we can all turn to it for more information now.

In this post I’ll share some examples and reflections on what we can learn.  I wrote “some examples” because this is by no means an exhaustive list.  It’s a sampler, showing some of the range and capacity of the field.  Readers can hunt for more, or I can add some if I get time.

Tabletop simulation: A tabletop simulation combines role playing with physical and/or digital materials.  The 2019 Event 201 exercise involved a group of leading officials grappling with a disease outbreak starting in Brazil.  And when we say tabletop we mean it:

Event201-NickKleinPhotography-344-group with PPT

Participants played mostly by conversation and determining courses of action, which the game managers then represented and integrated into events.  The scenario had certain initial conditions and progress, such as:

When [the disease] starts to spread efficiently from person to person in the low-income, densely packed neighborhoods of some of the megacities in South America, the epidemic explodes. It is first exported by air travel to Portugal, the United States, and China and then to many other countries. Although at first some countries are able to control it, it continues to spread and be reintroduced, and eventually no country can maintain control.

There is no possibility of a vaccine being available in the first year. There is a fictional antiviral drug that can help the sick but not significantly limit spread of the disease.

Those are conditions and events players responded to.  Then things progressed further, both because of player decisions and forces beyond their control:

Since the whole human population is susceptible, during the initial months of the pandemic, the cumulative number of cases increases exponentially, doubling every week. And as the cases and deaths accumulate, the economic and societal consequences become increasingly severe.

The scenario ends at the 18-month point, with 65 million deaths. The pandemic is beginning to slow due to the decreasing number of susceptible people. The pandemic will continue at some rate until there is an effective vaccine or until 80-90 % of the global population has been exposed. From that point on, it is likely to be an endemic childhood disease.

In response to the game, everyone involved generated a series of recommendations to the rest of us.

Event201-NickKleinPhotography-272-head in hand

Related: the 2018 CladeX tablestop sim.

Real world simulation: East Africa Community exercise 2019 EAC and WHO offered a simulation of a disease outbreak.  All kinds of people were involved, from farmers to government officials.

The exercise scenario depicted a cross-border Rift Valley Fever (RVF)-like virus outbreak (a fictitious virus described as East Rift Fever was created so as not to interfere with current public health efforts targeting real viruses circulating in the region). The outbreak scenario impacted humans and animals, lives and livelihoods, agriculture, trade and tourism, peace and security and the overall regional economy.

How did it work?  This wasn’t a computer simulation or tabletop exercise.  Instead, a central control room sent out updates to players in their actual geographical positions, updating them on the outbreak’s development, then gathering responses.  Players were in the real world, engaging as far as possible with other people.

What were the results? Why do this at all?

The simulation identified clear strengths, including functional multi-sectoral collaboration; the effective use of the One Health approach; rapid response to alerts and deployment by some rapid response teams; and functional use and activations of standard operating procedures and guidelines.

The exercise was not only intended to identify achievements and challenges in preparedness and response for a public health event affecting the East African Community, but also, by exposing participants to a realistic scenario, and to practise the roles they would carry out in a real emergency.

Trends analysis and projection An example of this approach comes from the US National Intelligence Council‘s 2008 global trends report.  The document covers a lot of ground, since its purpose it to outline a wide range of challenges, but let me draw your attention to page 75:

pandemic scenario_National Intelligence Council 2008

It goes on:

Waves of new cases would occur every few months. The absence of an effective vaccine and near universal lack of immunity would render populations vulnerable to infection.a In this worst- case, tens to hundreds of millions of Americans within the US Homeland would become ill and deaths would mount into the tens of millions.b Outside the US, critical infrastructure degradation and economic loss on a global scale would result as approximately a third of the worldwide became ill and hundreds of millions died.

Note the geopolitical unrest aspect, crucial to the report’s audience, and which we really haven’t experienced so far.

One more example of trends analysis comes from… my most recent book, Academia Next.  I wrote this in 2018 and handed into my kind publisher in 2019.  On page 23, a thought exercise:

Academia next pandemic passage 1.jpg

Computer game: CDC Solve The Outbreak The CDC produced a web game that simulates various disease outbreaks.  Players have to pay careful attention to the evidence provided (data, photos, definitions, descriptions) and think hard about how to investigate and address each one.

CDC Solve The Outbreak game

Computer simulation: modeling a disease outbreak with cellular automata In 2016 Sangeeta Venkatachalam and Armin R. Miklerexplored using this computing approach to forecast the course of a disease.

(Don’t forget the World of Warcraft blood plague!

“Seemingly innocuous aspects of the game world, each directly mirroring an aspect of real-world epidemiology, allowed what should have been a very minor point of interest in a small area of the game… to become the first online instance of uncontrolled plague to affect millions of Americans, Asians and Europeans at home…”)

AI analysis: Shaping Tomorrow’s forecast uses automated horizon scanning and analysis to seek out emerging trends.  It’s a fascinating service, and one that’s been peering at diseases for a while.

Science fiction and other literatures Literature has addressed diseases since the earliest documents we have.  Think of Oedipus being brought to his doom by investigating a plague, or Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).  Science fiction has long considered plagues.  Mary Shelley’s last novel (1826) is about a disease that exterminates the human race.  Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) also nearly wipes out humanity.  More recently, a Dean Koontz book actually invented a disease named for Wuhan.

Those are examples from print media.  We can find more examples in other media, from comic books (such as Y: The Last Man, 2002-2008) to the devastating “Confessions and Lamentations” episode (1995) of Babylon-5Contagion (2011) may be the best cinematic vision of a pandemic.

Each of these visions lets us imagine a world struck by disease.

And so on.  There are many more examples, but I hope I’ve made my point.

One more related point: professor Clare Wenham clearly points out that other researchers have been identifying the outlines of pandemic response for nearly 20 years.


…and so what?  What do these visions and games, stories and exercises tell us?  What’s their use?

First, the experience of seeing through a scenario helps us understand how things might unfold under certain circumstances.  This in turn gives us insights into how we can prepare now.  See, for example, the Event 201 recommendations (that we should have heeded better than we did).

Second, these are pedagogical experiences or objects.  They inform us about the many aspects of each problem, from disease science to inter-governmental-agency wrangling.  They are learning experiences for anyone who might be involved in a breakout.

Third, they teach us as well about ourselves.  How might we react when a disease creeps into our lives?  Psychological and social depths can be illuminated.

Fourth, they are practices, giving participants the chance to test their skills and plans to various degrees.

I hope we have learned from the futures works for the challenge hitting us in the present.

(thanks to many folks in conversation; SARS-CoV-2 image via Wikipedia)

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2 Responses to Coronavirus and the world: how futurists have been working on this kind of thing for years

  1. fabulous and insightful snapshot, which I forwarded to my colleagues as recommended reading. thank you, Bryan

  2. Pingback: Thinking about the future – Richard Sandford

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