Futures thinking and the pandemic: looking back one year ago

One year ago…


The first image I captured.

One year ago, I was (among other things) monitoring the nascent coronavirus outbreak, trying to extrapolate how it might impact the world in general and higher ed in particular. I gathered information and data steadily and did some futures work on the topic.

In this post I want to reflect back on what I was doing on this score in February 2020.  I’d like to be clear eyed about what I did well and what I missed.  This is in the spirit of improving my futures practice, as I’ve done before (for example). It’s also part of my commitment to transparency.

What February 2020 looked like

Looking through my files and posts over the past week, I found items which illuminate last year’s moment decently.

Here’s a screen grab from the now famous Johns Hopkins dashboard, its format unchanged to this day:

Coronavirus stats 2020 Feb 12_JHU

Just 45 thousand infections and barely one thousand dead. (Today the site shows 105,995,961 cases and 2,313,477 deaths.)

I remember hearing from friends and other folks that this was a medical curiosity, something bad for part of China, one bit of a much larger biological mosaic.  It’s overblown, said one Facebook friend.

China was by far the center of COVID, at least as far as my records show, but there were signs of viral spread beyond that nation.  Here’s a pair of Guardian charts from February 10th:

Coronavirus rising_Guardian 2020 Feb 11

This led to, among other things, fears of anti-Chinese bigotry worldwide, should the thing spread.  For example, this screen grab made the rounds within American higher ed:

coronavirus_fear of Asian students

Meanwhile, many other topics filled the news and crossed my research sweep at the time. The presidential election, economics, etc. all competed for mindshare.

At home, my family started making plans in case of quarantine.

What I did

Speaking of my family, I owe a lot to conversations we had back then.  My wife, Ceredwyn, is an EMT (and now a contact tracer).  My daughter, Gwynneth, has a degree in disaster planning.  Together they provided a lot of knowledge and also were kind sounding boards to my questions and hypotheses.

I researched the heck out of the emerging virus, crawling the internet, bugging experts, working on the scientific literature.  I drew on extensive, pre-2020 futures work about pandemics. After a few weeks I posted about the resources I found most useful, then used that post as the basis for this sticky page, which has been on top of this blog ever since.

Meanwhile I shared what I found, in good web fashion. Twitter was one venue I used to not only learn, but to quickly get materials out and to elicit discussion. I did the same on Facebook, perhaps less successfully, as few people wanted to converse about COVID in my networks, despite the much larger population. And I blogged, establishing a coronavirus post category with my first post on the topic on February 12th. That let me share some background research and offer first thoughts on where the virus might be headed.

coronvirus my first blog post

The next day I followed up with my initial research and futures thinking about COVID’s impact on higher education.  A week later I posted more.

Much more would come.

What I got right

In February 2020 my posts sussed out quite a few points that would turn out to be accurate. Viral countermeasures did, in fact, hurt economies, including the trans-Pacific network of global supply chains, while “contactless” businesses thrived. Governments did accrete power and this would fly in the face of people who preferred smaller states.  International cooperation would be spotty.  Medical systems were, in fact, badly stressed. Social media did serve as a conduit for good and bad information.  Political and cultural unrest did occur.  Connections between the disease and geopolitics did crop up, specifically along the US-China axis.

For higher ed, I correctly surmised that campuses would take steps to protect their populations, including shutting down travel and in-person education. Residence halls did become danger zones. Mental health did become a critical issue. Institutional finances were afflicted, both directly and as a result of local/regional economic woe.  Academic research into the disease did become important. Campuses did host classes about the disease.

Throughout, I tried to be cautious. I struck a provisional tone, since so much was provisional and emergent. My writing emphasized the provisional nature of data and conclusions, along with my lack of professional expertise, not being an infectious disease specialist.  Beyond myself, I kept trying to provide platforms for others to share their thoughts and questions through this blog, Twitter, and Facebook. (The first Future Trends Forum session on COVID took place in March.) I think these were good choices, overall.

At the same time, several readers told me they found this paragraph from the then recently published Academia Next to be eerily prescient:

Academia next pandemic passage 1.jpg

I think I wrote this bit in 2018.

Georgetown students in the Learning, Design, and Technology program who took our Foundations course in 2019 told me my use of a hypothetical pandemic as a class exercise became similarly spooky with COVID’s real-world onset.

Where I erred

I didn’t foresee the CDC being such a shambles.  To be fair, neither did anyone else I can find.

I expected more religious responses than seem to have played out so far – unless we count Q as a religious accelerated by COVID, which some do.

The virus’ possible origin in a wet market didn’t seem to impact our desire for meat, not even with many Americans’ disgust for such sites.

I didn’t attempt to forecast how Trump would respond and mishandle the crisis.

What we can learn from this

On the positive side, the futures field proved a useful resource, providing productive ways of thinking about the pandemic.  Personally, I found using the social web for finding and sharing research to be very useful.  And my family was brilliant.

On the negative side, I need to better calibrate my analyses of people and institutions (CDC), religion, and food habits.

It is cold comfort to find my analysis to have been generally effective, in the face of such a catastrophe.

PS: my wife received her second (Moderna) vaccine shot this weekend. I’m tentatively scheduled for three weeks from now.

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2 Responses to Futures thinking and the pandemic: looking back one year ago

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, on a larger scale, you also have it right about Global Climate Change which will lead to more pandemics, famine, and international conflicts over resources, including water. This will be a game changer along with increasing inequality. It’s not like we couldn’t see it coming.



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