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How Foresight Could Help us Prepare for the Next Crisis

Minke Meijnders · External Foresight Consultant at Policy Horizons Canada · Posted: May 28, 2020

The rapid spread and grave consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have caught many off guard. But the truth is that the foresight and intelligence community saw it coming.   

Experts contributing to the annual risk report of the World Economic Forum (WEF) have repeatedly pointed towards the risk of the rapid spread of infectious diseases. In the last three years, the threat of a pandemic featured in the top 10 risks in terms of potential impact. In its most recent 2020 report, the WEF dedicated a special chapter to the fragility of health systems worldwide.

In the United States, the Department of National Intelligence warned in its 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report, that: “The United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.” The report explicitly points towards the increased risks of disease transmission due to the growing proximity of humans and animals.

In many other countries, similar threat analyses reported the same. In the 2016 Dutch National Risk Assessment, to which I contributed, a severe influenza pandemic was marked as the second biggest threat to national security in terms of impact.

With this in mind,  the current pandemic cannot possibly be characterized as an “unforeseen problem” as President Trump tries to frame it. Nor is it  a “black swan,” as others called it. This term, popularized by the intellectual Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his best-selling 2007 book, refers to an unpredictable, rare event with catastrophic consequences. While Covid-19 has extremely disruptive effects on many parts of our life, it is undoubtedly not something that we could not have seen coming.

This pandemic, just as previous crises that arose unexpectedly – think about the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008, Brexit, the annexation of Crimea etc. - has once again underscored the importance of building strategic foresight capacity to make informed decisions, especially in the context of national security. The objective of strategic foresight is to explore a wide range of plausible futures and to prepare for the possible challenges and opportunities that could emerge from it. There are at least three ways foresight could help decisionmakers in both governments and private organizations to help navigate in these uncertain times.

First, strategic foresight could help to deal with the highly uncertain and complex post-pandemic future. How will the world look in the next 10 years? What are the key uncertainties determining this future? What are potential disruptors? The goal here is not to predict a certain future, but rather to explore what forces shape the system and to ask ourselves if our current assumptions about the future are valid. Through scenario-building exercises, it is possible to visualize alternative scenarios and to prepare for it.  

Secondly, strategic foresight helps us prepare for the next crisis. Foresight analysts have not only been warning about a pandemic but also have pointed to other possible future security risks, with climate change topping most of the lists. In the above-mentioned WEF report, the climate crisis dominates the top five risks in terms of likelihood in the next ten years: extreme weather events, major loss of biodiversity, the failure of climate-change mitigation and both human-made and natural environment disasters. Other risks that experts have been warning about include things such as massive technological disruption, the changing geopolitical order and increasing levels of polarisation and inequality. Even more importantly, foresight will help us identify future challenges that we are not yet aware of. Through the process of horizon scanning, for example, it is possible to detect trends and weak signals – signs that disruptive change might be happening, but which are not yet part of our common understanding.         

Thirdly, strategic foresight helps to balance and prioritise future risks in a systematic way. In the context of national security, future risks are often measured against the potential effect they could have on national security interest. The current pandemic, for example, has a clear impact on public health, but there are also major economic and social consequences. It is the task of policymakers to balance these -often competing- interests. Foresight can help to structure this political discussion by providing an all hazard overview of possible threats to national security interests.

Addressing the post-pandemic challenges, as well as other future threats, demands true system and forward-thinking. Ignorance can have far-reaching consequences. Building strategic foresight capacity is therefore more needed than ever.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.

Minke Meijnders is an expert in Strategic Foresight, focusing on geopolitics and geo-economics. She is a former Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute, the leading think tank on international relations in the Netherlands. She also worked as an external foresight consultant at Policy Horizons Canada.


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