Are we sharing enough data?

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
October 22, 2020

The world is rapidly digitalizing, and the deployment of data offers many opportunities for economic development, achieving sustainability and a better quality of life. There are, however, considerable concerns about the misuse of (personal) data and undesirable outcomes of unbridled use of data. These concerns are legitimate, but we’re also running the risk of becoming too defensive when it comes to data, missing out on big opportunities and, more importantly, our selective opposition to data sharing may have undesirable effects.

Our observations

  • The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has, according to an evaluation by the European Commission, worked well when it comes to “empowering” consumers and giving them more insight into and control over the use of their personal data. At the same time, this regulation is expressly targeted at minimizing risks, and with that could lead to an all too defensive attitude on the part of governments and citizens that could, for instance, stand in the way of innovation.
  • The so-called privacy paradox plays a large role in this. We consider privacy to be highly important but time and again show willingness to exchange data for access to information or services. This applies most when the reward we receive is immediate and beneficial to us as individuals. It’s therefore likely that a more defensive attitude towards data sharing will lead to lower willingness to share data for collective purposes (e.g. relating to public health).
  • The recently launched Dutch coronavirus app was long-awaited, partly because of a painstaking approach to the privacy risks. The chosen solution, as developed by Apple and Google, minimizes the storing of privacy-sensitive data, but also limits the possibilities for researchers and policymakers to ascertain matters such as where contaminations took place (when location data is lacking). Ironically, some governments therefore actually asked for less protection of privacy than the tech parties were willing to offer.
  • When only or mostly contextual data is used, the risk of bias increases, along with the risk of undesirable consequences such as discrimination and the reinforcement of socio-economic inequality. This happens, for example, when predictive policing leads to higher deployment of police services in neighborhoods with above average crime rates, which then almost unavoidably leads to higher rates of reported crime. Another example is that theft insurance costs more in neighborhoods or cities with a bad (statistical) reputation, even when the individual takes all the necessary precautions to secure their belongings.

Connecting the dots

Like the great technologies of our past, digital technology enables us to increase our wealth and, more importantly, actually improve our well-being. On the one hand, technology can have direct financial benefits, such as cheaper services or more efficient use of energy and resources. On the other hand, and perhaps more crucially, technology enables us to improve our quality of life by facilitating matters such as better healthcare or a cleaner living environment. Opportunities are arising in our own daily lives as citizens and consumers, as well as in the public space, where we can organize matters more intelligently, better, more honestly and in a cleaner way. Data is the most vital resource in this, as data and the knowledge and insights it yields can help us to make existing processes more efficient or otherwise smarter and better. Along with all these promising prospects the datafied society offers, the other side of the coin is that there are great concerns over the use of (personal) data and the possible violation of our right to privacy and, worse, our civil rights. The societal and political knee-jerk reaction to this is to limit data sharing as much as possible in hopes of eliminating as many risks as possible. It’s questionable, however, whether this is the right and most productive approach.

First, this is causing us to miss out on great opportunities, for individuals and society as a whole. This can never be a valid argument for releasing all possible data to solve any problem that needs fixing. We have to be more fastidious about this issue and ask ourselves to what purposes we’re willing to allow the use of our data. At the moment, there seems to be an imbalance, in that we are willing to offer up our data to various (relatively anonymous) tech companies without asking any questions or setting conditions. Though this yields clear “rewards”, these rewards are often not related to the data we release or generate. In fact, we often don’t even know what they (can) do with our data, outside of personalizing the ads we see. We’re much more cautious with parties closer to us (such as the government or health insurers) and with applications in which the purpose of using our data is clear, visible and more concrete (such as the coronavirus app). In other words, the clearer and more concrete the value of our data is, the more reluctant we are to release it. That might make sense, because it’s easier for use to imagine our data being misused (e.g. resulting in higher health insurance premiums), but it should also be clear how this, most valuable, data could work to our own or collective advantage.

Second, we’re running the risk that, in the absence of reliable and/or individual data, inaccurate, incomplete or contextual data will be used, potentially resulting in disadvantageous decisions. That is, the role of data will certainly expand because of the promise it holds and the ubiquitous tendency to ascribe importance to anything that’s measurable. Conversely, we also have the tendency to reduce “problems” to what is easily scaled and solved by means of (digital) technology (which Evgeni Morozov calls solutionism). This implies that it’s clearly in our best interest to make sure that data about ourselves is in fact complete and accurate. If it’s not, we will be subject to judgment and treatment based on non-specific data that’s publicly accessible (e.g. features of the neighborhood we live in).

As mentioned, the promise of the datafied society is now at odds with concerns over the use of personal data. The only possible way to reconcile these two will be to develop systems that enable citizens to explicitly release data to parties that will use it for something of value, without relinquishing all control of their data. It’s also imperative that it becomes much clearer what these parties use the data for exactly and how this benefits the citizen or society as a whole. Many initiatives have already attempted to develop this kind of system and fix the internet, but there hasn’t been any real breakthrough as of yet. Hopefully, our (selectively) defensive attitude towards data sharing will eventually make way for a more wholehearted embrace of these systems that enable us to get the best out of our data.

Implications

  • There is a growing need for data management systems with which citizens can govern the use of their personal data and the data they produce through their everyday practices. Governing should not necessarily imply a strong focus on privacy or not-sharing of data. Individuals and society as a whole have a lot to gain from sharing data with others and allowing third parties to cooperate on the basis of such (possibly anonymized or aggregated data)

  • Developing and managing such a system is not necessarily a task for private companies or governments; there are good reasons not to trust either of them to the full. Both may be involved to maintain a balance between interests, but solutions fully owned by users (e.g. using a decentralized infrastructure) may also emerge.

The politics of strategic technology

Short Insight written by Alexander van Wijnen
October 22, 2020

What do semiconductors and artificial intelligence have in common? Both have great impact on the economy as well as national security. Historically, such “strategic technologies” trigger a predictable pattern of politics, as shown by Jade Leung. The pattern pertains to the role of the state, firms and researchers, whose roles change in each phase of technological development. During the first phase of emergence, there is primarily synergy between them as the state supports its firms.

However, in the second phase of commercialization, fearful images arise as the impact on security gains more attention, and in the third phase of maturation, a big shift occurs as the state attempts to take back control to prevent foreign actors from gaining access to its strategic technology. We have seen this happening in the semiconductor industry and it is likely to happen in AI as well. Part of the pattern is that some firms will cooperate with the state (e.g. Palantir), whereas others publicly distance themselves from the state (e.g. Google). Overall, the politics of strategic technology will shape the future of semiconductors and AI.

Human death as a boost for the use of ecological materials

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
October 7, 2020

This autumn, the first human was buried in a coffin made of mycelium, the root network of mushrooms and nature’s biggest recycler. It ensures a highly efficient transformation of remains into nutrients for the soil. The product ties in with a larger trend of using alternative materials that, contrary to stone, steel, wood, polymers or glass, are more compatible with the ecological processes of nature and/or are produced in an environmentally friendly way. The product has met with worldwide interest and could boost the reception of this controversial material. In some cases, it could even stimulate new uses and rituals.

Our observations

  • We’ve written before that global problems such as climate change, the depletion of natural resources and waste call for sustainable, circular and adaptive solutions. Studies on organisms such as bacteria and fungi show that nature has a very efficient way to produce its basic elements such as lipids, protein and complex chemicals with minimal waste. Progress in areas such as biotechnology, bioinformatics and synthetic biology is making it increasingly easy to use these insights for our own production methods.
  • In the West, the interest in the workings and possibilities of fungi is relatively new. According to biologist Merlin Sheldrake, there are two reasons for this. First, technologies for scientists to fully research the world of fungi have only recently become available. Second, historically, there has been a deeply-rooted prejudice against fungi, which mainly invoke fear and disgust in us. For example, fungi were only recognized as a separate kingdom of life in the ‘60s. Before that, scientists studying fungi were classed as botanists, rather than as mycologists (fungus scientists).
  • Fungi now appear to play a more important role in the carbon cycle than was previously assumed. Studies show that when plants cooperate with certain types of fungus, they can store up to 70% more carbon in the ground, which contains more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined.
  • Scientists are using mycelium more and more often to make all kinds of products, from packaging to plant-based meat, and even frames to grow new organs in. It also has great potential in construction, as an alternative building material that is both practical and benefits the climate. At last year’s Dutch Design Week, a building made of mycelium was displayed.
  • The ecological footprint of conventional funerals and cremations is substantial. In the U.S., cremations account for about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. In India, emissions are much higher, and millions of trees are cut down each year to cremate the dead. The use of wood for coffins in the U.S. accounts for about 4 million hectares of forest per year, not to mention all the steel, plastic and toxic materials used to produce the coffins that end up in the ground. Moreover, a coffin delays the decomposition process, causing the body to produce toxins that also seep into the ground.

Connecting the dots

Mycelium feeds through hyphae, fungal threads, on the organic remains of trees, plants and dead animals. It can also neutralize the toxins that are released in the decomposition process. It’s the fundamental link in the process of turning (organic) waste into nutrients for nature. The advantages regarding the sustainability of a mycelium coffin as opposed to a traditional stone or wood coffin, are considerable. It stimulates the decomposition of the body as well as the conversion into nutrients for the environment, and the process can be complete after only one year. By comparison, a wood coffin in fact delays the decomposition process (on average, it takes ten years), causing the body to produce toxins which eventually end up in the ground.
Furthermore, no glue, lacquer, paint, metal or plastic is used in the production of a mycelium coffin, also sparing the soil some toxic pollutants. In addition, a chipboard or wooden coffin on average needs a year to decompose and a mycelium coffin is absorbed into the soil after 30 to 45 days. Finally, mycelium can be produced very sustainably and locally, using organic waste and without carbon being released. In that sense, this product ties in perfectly with the trend of environmentally conscious products such as meat substitutes, sustainable materials in fashion such as bamboo or hennep and energy-saving systems. The mycelium coffin was thus developed from a practical perspective on the ecological footprint of our final resting place.

There are, however, long-standing traditions surrounding the process after we die. Jews, for instance, bury their loved ones in a raw pinewood coffin, Muslims bury the dead on their right side, wrapped in a white cloth and without a coffin, Hindus often opt for cremation as it is the fastest way to return to “the source”. Additionally, in many cultures, it’s customary to give the deceased various objects and to create some type of permanent memorial. In secular funerals, many of these customs have remained. With this alternative option for burial, dominant values around sustainability gain prominence in this domain, and it brings its own, new uses and rituals. For example, it’s possible to give the deceased seeds so that the body can provide nutrients for the new life that will issue from the seeds. The use of a tombstone or other permanent memorials does not appear to be consistent with this new form of burial, which is meant to correspond to the biological processes of nature as well as possible.

The idea of life after death thus maintains a place in our secular worldview, albeit in a very singular way. With this, we’re breaking with old values of, for example, Christianity or certain Chinese practices and rituals in this context. In these practices and rituals, it’s of the utmost importance that the soul of the deceased is treated a certain way after their death, in view of the afterlife. At first sight, this new type of burial doesn’t appear to be consistent with these principles, and it seems to mostly be in concordance with the secular values of sustainability.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, globally, the religious population is growing. And yet, the alternative of the mycelium coffin has been met with worldwide interest, including in non-Western countries such as Thailand and India. It’s not the first time religious people have shown the willingness to make concessions to sustainability when it comes to burial rites. Certain communities in India, for instance, have accepted a non-traditional but sustainable manner of cremation that requires only a fourth of the wood required in traditional cremations. Generally, modern values have often been known to affect religious customs.

Implications

  • In the U.S., among other countries, cremation is now more often elected than burial, mainly out of the desire to be environmentally friendly. If the mycelium coffin turns out to be a significantly better alternative to traditional burial than cremation in that respect, people might revert back to burials. However, traditional burial grounds don’t have sufficient room to accommodate a large increase in burials. But because this form of burial purports to benefit the soil, regulations on which locations may be used as burial grounds might be adjusted. Governments’ desire to plant more trees could, for example, play a role in this. In this way, new values could emerge with respect to the final resting place of our loved ones.

  • The mycelium coffin is the first applications of living mycelium that could be relevant to everyone. After all, every person dies sooner or later, and this is one of the first scalable, sustainable and affordable alternatives to traditional burial or cremation. This product could therefore have an important impact on our acquaintance with and subsequent acceptance of mycelium as a usable material in our living environment.

No science is sacred anymore

What happened?

After testing positive for the coronavirus, the Brazilian president Bolsonaro publicly took a tablet of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. This drug, however, has not proved effective against COVID-19 and its use against it is not approved anywhere in the world. This move, alongside President Trump’s embrace of the drug, illustrates how politicized research into this drug has become and how a next step has been taken towards the politicization of science as we know it.

What does this mean?

From now on, we should be mindful of the fact that any study may be called into question and that this will be increasingly based on the intentions and underlying interests of the researcher. Sometimes, we are right to doubt; we know, for example, that funding, even in medicine research, can influence research findings (i.e. funding bias). However, we seem to be taking it a step further, which is diminishing our shared knowledge base. As a consequence, in the future attempts to combat fake news (and the broader infocalypse) could become even more futile than they are now.

What’s next?

And yet, it’s understandable that health insurers want to bond more with consumers and to have a more proactive role in the health of their customers. To a health insurer, more data on patients and treatments equals more possibilities to organize care more efficiently and cost-effectively for society. That’s why insurers are seeking alliances to improve their customer retention through cooperation. Big tech companies are crucial in appealing to the homo ludens and promoting a vital lifestyle. Better adjustment to the services and ecosystem of big tech, as for example Vitality health is adjusted to Apple Watches, appears to be a strategic route. To generate trust and security around health data, insurers are more focused on cooperation within the healthcare domain. Digital companies such as CareVoice or apps such as Stresscoach and MS Sherpa could fulfill an important role for the insurer, but caution remains warranted regarding their revenue model and the responsible use of health data.

Will COVID change young people’s quiet image?

What happened?

The average age of people who become infected with the coronavirus is dropping.  It’s increasingly becoming a disease for young people too, for whom it seems to be becoming more difficult to follow the prevention measures against the spread of the virus. Due to the lack of possibilities for young people to come together in, for example, bars or at festivals, there’s an increasing number of illegal parties being organized, in the U.S. and the U.K., for instance, marked as “superspread events”. Because of these events, contagious attendees, who make up 10% of the total number of infected people, are responsible for 80% of the spread of the virus. In addition, a lot of drugs are used, there are connections with the criminal circuit in organizing these events, serious acts of violence are committed and a huge mess is left behind.

What does this mean?

Younger generations, and Gen-Z in particular, has often been characterized as a generation that, in contrast to the standard view of “today’s youth”, is responsible and virtuous. For example, this generation supposedly prefers to stay at home, use less drugs, have sex later in life and be more environmentally conscious than previous generations. Moreover, in the past years, younger generations have levelled substantial allegations at older generations. Climate change, care and pensions becoming unaffordable or the distressed housing market are all attributed to older generations’ lifestyles, particularly that of the baby boomers. Now that younger generations also appear to be getting their hands dirty by needlessly complicating the way out of this global health crisis, this dynamic might change. Because it’s precisely on these issues that a longer duration of the crisis would have a negative impact.

What’s next?

As we wrote before, young people are hit hard by the coronavirus where work, social activities and future prospects are concerned. And although they’ve begun many constructive initiatives to improve those prospects, this recent development could tarnish their reputation. There have been multiple articles in, among other news outlets, The Guardian, in which young people are characterized as “selfish idiots” who might go down in history as the generation that knowingly aggravated the crisis. Since the behaviors that young people now exhibit are not much different from the behaviors that earlier generations have exhibited at a young age (partying, using drugs, cluttering), this generation may be judged harder on their behaviors than previous generations.

Crisis practices

As a consequence of the corona crisis, we’re developing all kinds of new practices to replace our old ways, which, for the time being at least, are no longer viable. These are often practices that were already popular in certain circles, but are only now becoming mainstream. The question is whether these new practices, which often take place in the digital realm, will last or be quickly discarded once the crisis is over. This will largely depend on whether we’ll think of them as inferior substitutes or come to see their value.

Our observations

  • A number of online services have seen their number of users skyrocket as a consequence of the corona crisis. It’s highly likely that services such as Zoom, for teleconferencing, and Houseparty, for catching up with loved ones or throwing a small party, will go down in history as the apps of the corona crisis.
  • Social media platform TikTok was already extremely popular among young people and, thanks to the corona crisis, has gained even more users and become the platform for making and sharing quarantine videos. Use of educational app Squla increased so quickly after schools closed that its servers were unable to accommodate all the extra traffic.
  • The use of e-commerce has also, understandably, increased considerably as a substitute for closed physical stores. Meal and meal kit delivery have taken flight, replacing eating out, and are framed as a way of supporting local restaurants and food producers.
  • Musicians and other artists that cannot give live concerts now are going online en masse. An intriguing example of this is YouTube star and live musician Marc Rebillet, who replaced his four cancelled concerts in Australia with live shows on YouTube, reaching a far greater audience (more than a hundred thousand viewers) than he would have with his live concerts. Similarly, various yoga courses, boot camps, church services and even the AA’s addiction treatment are now provided online.
  • We’ve written before about young people’s online practices and the ways they find meaningful experiences in environments such as Fortnite and Roblox. Gen Z is often seen as the first generation of “digital natives”, people who never experienced the pre-digital age. Nevertheless, there are older generations that have worked with digital technology nearly their entire lives, even if they use it less and, especially, differently.
  • Not all practices that are gaining popularity are digital. As a consequence of gyms closing, hordes of people have taken to exercising inside as well as outside (often supported by an app), to kill time, people are baking again, and we might see large numbers of people going camping this summer if we still can’t go on holiday abroad by then.

Connecting the dots

Because of the corona crisis and the limited lockdown we’re in, we’re eager to find new means and ways to continue with our daily lives as best we can. This is giving rise to new practices. It started with the elbow tap instead of a handshake and by now, we’re all having video conferences, being homeschooled and having house parties with Houseparty. Many of the apps that have now been discovered by large groups of users, already existed before and were of value in specific niche markets. Apps such as Zoom, Houseparty and Squla were not developed in response to the crisis but were already seeing their userbase grow, and now that growth is accelerating strongly. It remains to be seen whether these new practices, many of them supported by digital technology, will remain, or whether we’ll simply revert back to our old habits as soon as the necessity of these practices is gone.
Some of these crisis practices are indeed perceived as necessary but inferior substitutes, and these will be abandoned as soon as possible. In this light, Houseparty might just turn out to be the tulip bulb or chicory coffee of the corona crisis. However, there will also be practices that we clearly see as adding value and these will stay on. That added value could be, for example, the time we save with videoconferencing, or the far-reaching personalization made possible by tele-education. Furthermore, a lot of people are grocery-shopping much more efficiently now, because they see the supermarket as a hostile environment that is to be avoided as much as possible, certainly not as a place to linger. And this might just be the stepping stone for a lot of consumers to start shopping for groceries online more often. After all, their new shopping rhythm, including planning ahead one or several weeks, is already similar to the rhythm of ordering groceries online.
Things become more interesting when we consider genuinely new practices that arise from the possibilities, such as time and technology, offered by the crisis,

rather than those that emerge as frenetic surrogates. In this respect, we might follow the lead of young people who have been having (meaningful) experiences in the virtual world for much longer. To many, environments such as Roblox, Fortnite and TikTok are a viable alternative to the playground, the schoolyard and maybe even the club. Notably, these environments are not half-baked attempts at mimicking real life (like Zoom or Houseparty) but offer an entirely singular experience. The question is whether older generations will also develop and embrace these kinds of practices. Ironically, these older generations, specifically older millennials and Gen X members, who grew up with gaming and other (primitive) forms of digital technology, are much more inclined to distinguish between real (physical) and valuable experiences on the one hand, and virtual, thus less meaningful (or even childish) experiences on the other. The corona crisis could lead these generations to also discover value in virtual environments, such as a metaverse, where part of your life is meant to take place, as was the aim of Second Life, and was intriguingly portrayed in the recent film ReadyPlayerOne. New consumer practices arise from a combination of technological possibilities, changing societal norms and individual desires and abilities. A crisis, such as in times of war, functions as a pressure cooker in which developments accelerate while societal norms and personal needs become flightier. Whether this crisis will actually result in new technology will probably depend on how long it lasts, but the aforementioned examples do show that all kinds of norms are, at least temporarily, shifting. It will therefore be interesting to see to what extent existing technology will find new uses due to these changing norms. After all, the technology for virtual reality and video calling has long been available, but adoption was partly hampered by cultural barriers, which are now rapidly being broken.

Implications

  • A number of new applications and platforms will take flight on a large scale, and this doesn’t just include the obvious, apparently most appropriate substitutes for old practices. They could also be games that offer a rich, social experience to older users, or e-commerce platforms that specifically target, for example, elderly users.

  • In this crisis, our house is where most new practices are developed and, as we noted before, the home will have a multitude of new functions. These will largely (have to) be supported by network technology, smart appliances (e.g. smart sporting equipment) and data-driven platforms. The home itself will also increasingly change shape and come to include, for example, separate, or flexible rooms (e.g. an office also functioning as VR room).

  • Business models that were previously thought impervious to digital technology, such as yoga studios and conference centers, are now under pressure, as people are realizing that the digital alternative can be (almost) as effective and valuable. It’s highly likely that a winner-takes-all dynamic will manifest itself here as well: one good yoga teacher will render all the other ones redundant.

Scenario-denken: het omarmen van onzekerheid

Wanneer we nadenken over de toekomst, zijn er twee strategieën die we toe kunnen passen. De eerste is het doen van prognoses: hierbij wordt daadwerkelijk geprobeerd de toekomst te voorspellen. Deze strategie wordt vaak gebruikt door politici of bedrijven om stemmers of consumenten voor zich te winnen (‘Als u zich bij ons voegt, ziet de toekomst er zo uit’). De tweede strategie omarmt de aanname dat de toekomst per definitie onvoorspelbaar is vanwege structurele onzekerheden, en men concentreert zich hierbij op het ontwikkelen van verschillende scenario’s die worden behandeld als allemaal even waarschijnlijk. Vandaag de dag lijkt het erop dat we ons steeds bewuster zijn van, en steeds meer geconfronteerd worden met, structurele onzekerheden zoals klimaatverandering, virusuitbraken, snelle technologische innovatie of politieke instabiliteit. Dit kan ertoe leiden dat mensen op zoek gaan naar partijen die onzekerheid omarmen, in plaats van proberen weg te nemen.

Onze observaties

  • Complexiteit wordt gedefinieerd als het aantal factoren waar we rekening mee moeten houden, de variëteit ervan en de relaties ertussen. Hoe meer factoren, hoe meer variatie en hoe meer ze met elkaar verbonden zijn, des te complexer wordt het om de toekomst te voorspellen.
  • Met de opkomst van het internet en digitalisering, zijn dingen die ooit geïsoleerd waren, verbonden geraakt, wat de wereld complexer heeft gemaakt dan daarvoor. Er hebben onder andere technologische en sociologische veranderingen plaatsgevonden: de digitalisering van enorme hoeveelheden informatie, smart systemen die autonoom communiceren, de steeds lagere kosten van rekenkracht, het toenemende gemak waarmee ‘rijke content’ gecommuniceerd kan worden door tijd en ruimte en institutionele innovatie met betrekking tot industrienormen en zakenmodellen. Door zulke ontwikkelingen is het veel moeilijker geworden een enkele, goed gedefinieerde en hoogstwaarschijnlijke toekomst te voorspellen.
  • Volgens Forbes hebben auteurs in populaire zakelijke media en academische literatuur er moeite mee om termen te vinden voor de toenemende onmogelijkheid grip te krijgen op de wereld en de gebeurtenissen die zich voordoen. Onzekerheid, turbulentie, snelle verandering, dynamisme, verstoring, complexiteit, hypercompetitie, hogesnelheidsmarkten en flux zijn voorbeelden van zulke termen. Het acroniem VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex en ambiguous, te vertalen als veranderlijk, onzeker, complex en ambigu) wordt steeds populairder, omdat het recht doet aan de verschillende dimensies van onzekerheid waarmee we te kampen hebben.
  • Volgens BNY Mellon zijn een paar van de vele consequenties van de continue technologische verstoring dat bedrijven veel korter op topposities staan op de beurs, traditionele bedrijfsmodellen veranderen en dat bedrijven een veel kortere levensduur hebben. In 1965 bleef bijvoorbeeld een bedrijf gemiddeld zo’n 33 jaar op de Amerikaanse aandelenmarkt. In 1990 was dat al gezakt naar 20 jaar – In 2026 wordt verwacht dat dat gemiddeld nog maar zo’n 14 jaar zal zijn. Dat zou inhouden dat gedurende de komende tien jaar, ongeveer de helft van de 500 grootste bedrijven op de beurs in de VS vervangen zal worden.
  • Het schetsen van meerdere scenario’s is een gangbare manier geworden om de toekomst te verkennen. Het World Economic Forum heeft bijvoorbeeld vier mogelijke scenario’s geschetst voor de toekomst van energie, KPMG vier voor de toekomst van kunstmatige intelligentie, Medium bedacht vier scenario’s voor de toekomst van werk, ook kranten opperen soms meerdere scenario’s (zoals The Guardian over Brexit) wanneer belangrijke gebeurtenissen meerdere plausibele uitkomsten hebben, en Bloomberg Opinion schetste onlangs voor investeerders drie scenario’s over de impact van het coronavirus.

Verbanden leggen

Een prognose doen in de vorm van een enkele uitkomst die wordt gezien als de meest waarschijnlijke is een traditionele manier van strategisch plannen in organisaties. Hierbij wordt ervan uitgegaan dat het, in theorie, mogelijk is de toekomst te voorspellen, mits men beschikt over de juiste informatie en de (menselijke/geautomatiseerde) slagkracht om die data te verwerken. In de meeste gevallen houdt dit in dat een huidige trend verwacht wordt zich voort te zetten in de toekomst. Maar sinds de oliecrisis van de vroege jaren ’70 lijkt het doen van voorspellingen tekort te schieten als tool voor strategisch plannen in tijden van onzekerheid. De olieprijs leek toen al tijden een van de meest standvastige elementen van de wereldeconomie en experts voorspelden dat dit nog een decennium of langer zo zou blijven. Nu weten we dat hier niks van klopte, omdat de prijzen explosief stegen toen een aantal Arabische olieproducerende landen in actie kwam tegen het westen.
Maar in de late jaren ’60, voor de oliecrisis, had Pierre Wack een nieuwe strategische tool geïntroduceerd bij Royal Dutch Shell: scenario-planning. Dankzij deze tool konden de medewerkers van Shell op de oliecrisis van de vroege jaren ’70 anticiperen. Zij hadden de oliecrisis geïncorporeerd in een van hun scenario’s, dus toen de eerste tekenen van prijsverandering zich voordeden, herkenden zij dit scenario en konden ze snel inspelen op de veranderingen.
Bij scenario-planning wordt ervan uitgegaan dat de toekomst onvoorspelbaar is en onvermijdelijke onzekerheden bevat. Professor Van der Heijden maakt in zijn boek Scenarios onderscheid tussen drie typen onzekerheden: risico’s, structurele onzekerheden en het onkenbare. Van risico’s kunnen we modellen maken en deze doortrekken naar de toekomst, aangezien ze genoeg historisch precedent hebben in de vorm van soortgelijke gebeurtenissen die het mogelijk maken waarschijnlijkheden te formuleren. Structurele onzekerheden zijn trends of gebeurtenissen die uniek zijn en waarbij uitspraken over waarschijnlijkheid dus niet mogelijk zijn. Onkenbaar zijn gebeurtenissen waar we ons überhaupt geen voorstelling van kunnen maken.
Enkele huidige risico’s zijn bijvoorbeeld de spanningen omtrent handel tussen de VS en China of vergrijzing in veel landen. Huidige structurele onzekerheden zijn bijvoorbeeld de verstoring van veel bedrijfsmodellen door technologische verandering, de snel veranderende aard van werk, klimaatverandering of feedback loops.

Het huidige coronavirus kan gecategoriseerd worden als een structurele onzekerheid: hoewel we niet hadden kunnen weten wanneer en hoe het zou gebeuren, is het een zekerheid dat we zo nu en dan te maken zullen krijgen met een wereldwijde virusuitbraak. Een voorbeeld van een onkenbare gebeurtenis is het Fukushima-ongeluk. De nucleaire basis leek bijna overal op voorbereid, maar wanneer een tsunami toesloeg, veroorzaakte dit bij drie reactoren een meltdown. Scenario-planning beslaat het terrein van structurele onzekerheden.
Omdat structurele onzekerheden niet gereduceerd kunnen worden tot waarschijnlijkheden, is het bij scenario-planning zaak om rekening te houden met meerdere uitkomsten van zowel bekende als nog onbekende ontwikkelingen. In tegenstelling tot bij voorspellen, is het uitgangspunt bij scenario-planning het beschouwen van al deze uitkomsten als even waarschijnlijk. Naarmate de tijd verstrijkt, worden gebeurtenissen en trends bekeken door de lens van deze scenario’s, en wordt gezocht naar aanwijzingen en gekeken of die aanwijzingen weak signals zouden kunnen zijn van een bepaald scenario. Verder worden de ontwikkelde scenario’s regelmatig herzien en wordt nagegaan of ze nog up-to-date zijn na verloop van tijd. Het zijn zogenaamde levende documenten die zich steeds blijven ontwikkelen, in tegenstelling tot statische strategieën, die zich altijd vast blijven houden aan één visie.
Tot slot, voordat een beleid wordt geïmplementeerd of een project wordt gestart, wordt het geanalyseerd met het oog op deze scenario’s om vast te stellen of het succesvol zou kunnen zijn in één of meerdere scenario’s. Nu structurele onzekerheden zoals technologische verstoring, de toekomst van werk en klimaatverandering de perspectieven van bedrijven sterk beïnvloeden, maken veel van ’s werelds grootste bedrijven, zoals Disney, Apple en Accenture, gebruik van scenario-planning.

Implicaties

  • Zoals we eerder schreven, wordt onzekerheid steeds meer geaccepteerd in ons denken over de toekomst. Speculatief design is bijvoorbeeld ontstaan als nieuwe discipline in de architectuur en kunst. Hierbij worden de onzekerheden en ambiguïteit van nieuwe technologieën als uitgangspunt genomen om meerdere mogelijke uitkomsten uit te stippelen. Pragmatisch utopisch denken is aanzienlijk populair geworden in verschillende domeinen. De algemene houding van deze pragmatische utopische beweging is dat meta-narratieven en utopisch denken niet als blauwdruk voor de samenleving gebruikt moeten worden, maar moeten worden beschouwd als rudimentaire oriëntatiepunten voor het maken van beslissingen en als bron van hoop in onzekere tijden. Actuele ontwikkelingen in het genre horrorfilms bieden ons ook de extreme scenario’s waarmee we ‘veilig’ enkele duistere perspectieven kunnen verkennen.

  • Een flexibelere manier van kijken naar de toekomst is alleen mogelijk wanneer onzekerheid een structureel element is op de agenda van bijvoorbeeld beleidsmakers in het bedrijfsleven of de politiek. Nu meer aandacht besteed wordt aan onzekerheden, is het mogelijk dat een creatieve, meerzijdige toekomstvisie, die blijk geeft van voorbereidheid op meer dan een (voorkeurs)scenario, meer vertrouwen zal inboezemen dan een simpele oplossing met maar een enkel toekomstbeeld (denk aan Trumps ‘America first’ of de (oorspronkelijke) mission statement van Facebook ‘om mensen de macht te geven om te delen en de wereld meer open en verbonden te maken’).

What could a Post Corona society look like?

The Corona pandemic has resulted in an enormous setback and disillusion all over the world. Families find themselves in quarantine, health systems are under enormous pressure, and the level of global economic damage may be without precedent. Regardless of how long the pandemic will last, it is bound to leave a deep impression on societies around the world. Since we can only speculate its impact because there are a lot of uncertainties, scenario thinking seems to be the best tool to imagine how current developments will shape a post-corona society.

Our observations

  • Scenario reasoning is not based on a linear extrapolation of events today, rather it distinguishes factors that are most uncertain (and relevant) on a given time-scale and questions how those factors can shape the world, depending on how they develop in the future.
  • In our scenario exercises, and throughout all of our research, we focus on developments in geopolitics, technology and culture, which form the axes of our scenario models. In this case, the pandemic will impact geopolitics, the technology we develop (and put to use) and socio-cultural trends. By combining these three axes of uncertainty, we produce eight distinct scenarios in each of which a specific combination of (conceivable) outcomes of the pandemic takes effect.
  • While these outcomes are yet unpredictable, current developments inform us about the likeliness of specific scenarios actually becoming reality. As we noted in our previous edition for example, China’s apparent success in fighting the outbreak is likely to contribute to a wider acceptance of Chinese institutions and its use of technology. This, in combination with President Trump’s (supposed) attempt to buy a German vaccine developer, could very well sway geopolitical momentum for China.
  • As millions of people are living in some form of quarantine or lockdown, people are developing and embracing new (or already existing) practices such as teleworking and online education. Some of these are only temporary and can be discarded once the crisis is over, others may last longer and become part of our everyday routines.
  • The crisis lays bare existing problems and (some of) these can become a “target” for society to address in a post-Corona society. These problems can become visible either because they add to the spread of the virus itself (e.g. poor accessibility of healthcare in some countries) or because current measures against further spreading of the virus show us what the world could look like (e.g. clean air in Chinese cities and crystal-clear water in Venetian canals).

Connecting the dots

Once the Corona-crisis is over, the resulting deep social and economic wounds will take time to heal and, afterwards, the world probably looks a lot different from today’s. This does not necessarily mean that a full-blown paradigm shift will take place, but the personal suffering, months of societal disruption and a global economic crisis are likely to shake up geopolitical dynamics, change the way we use technology, challenge our worldview(s) and force us to redefine priorities in order to prevent or prepare for new crisis. In order to get a glimpse of such changes, we can start to think about the factors that are likely to have a major impact on the world as we knew it before the pandemic. We recognize three factors: cause, reaction and solution. First, how we will perceive the cause of the pandemic. For example, will China get the blame as a source of viruses came from there, or will we blame the global economy? The causes of the pandemic will be scrutinized, and possibly acted upon (e.g. specific health and safety regulations or a more critical stance on global flows of people and goods). Second, what happens during the crisis. Think for example about how individuals behave (e.g. widespread altruism or hoarding consumers) or how nations behave towards their citizens and towards each other (e.g. sharing resources or not). Also, we are already witnessing how new, and not-so-new, practices are gaining popularity and we may continue to behave like that in a post-corona world as well (e.g. teleworking and online education). Third, the way the crisis ends and how it ends.  For instance, specific nations, businesses or technologies (e.g. if China is the first to develop an effective vaccine) can save us. The axes in our scenario model express extremes of how the pandemic could change geopolitics, (our use of) technology and sociopolitical aspects. The greatest uncertainties, from our perspective, are whether this crisis will lead to further globalization or rather to (small steps towards) deglobalization, whether technology will be used (primarily) to prevent a new crisis or to be better prepared for the next one and whether people will aspire to an attitude of more individualism or collectivism. From a geopolitical perspective, the spread of the coronavirus is deeply intertwined with globalization. Ongoing globalization is justly portrayed as one of the major causes of the rapid global spread of the virus, as international economic and political interests made it near impossible to isolate it. The pandemic can directly influence global relations, depending on whether countries work together to control the outbreak and develop a solution or whether they choose to go about it alone and,

for instance, refuse to share scarce resources (or medicines) with each other. As a result, a post-corona world may be one in which globalization prevails (or even accelerates) or we may see (different forms of) de-globalization as multilateral institutions fall apart.
From a technological perspective, the question is how this crisis affects the kinds of technology we will develop and how we will put them to use. One outcome could be that we decide to put all of our technological weight behind preventing a new health (or another natural or man-made) crisis. Solutions may include a sensor-based economy for early detection of problems or technology that supports alternative consumer practices (e.g. facilitating meaningful interaction online). Another outcome of the crisis could be that we will focus on the preparation for future crises instead; e.g. the deployment of more scalable infrastructure to facilitate peak-demand or technology that supports autarkic lifestyles and local value chains. This reasoning, of more radical attempt to prevent or prepare for crises could very well apply to other looming crises as well (e.g. climate change or mass migration).
From a socio-cultural perspective, the crisis can lead to changes in world view(s). This can apply to the way we view each other, but also to our relationship with nature or the Earth. Failure to achieve effective social distancing or egotistic consumer behavior, for instance, could lead to further individualization as distrust and moral disapproval of others increases. The perceived human-nature dichotomy, to give another example, is likely to deepen if societies fail to address the pandemic. By contrast, the current crisis may also lead to more altruistic behavior when healthcare professionals and other (underpaid) critical workers are recognized and rewarded, which can also translate into broader attempts to reduce inequality. The result could be a society in which the collective prevails over individuals. As scenario thinking is not a predictive tool but rather a tool to navigate the future, it forces us to broaden our perspective and keep an open mind on future developments instead of, as happened during the Financial Crisis, fantasizing about a utopian world in which all the problems of the past are fixed. At the same time, we can speculate, and thus anticipate, which of the eight scenarios are more or less likely as the crisis unfolds. From a decision-making perspective, we can consider which actions fit best with one or (preferably) multiple scenarios. The above contours are the first sketches of the research model we will explore in depth in the coming period.

Implications

  • When exploring several scenarios about a post-corona society, the challenge is to do so as neutral and unbiased as possible. That is, thinking in terms of desirable and undesirable scenario’s prevents an in-depth exploration of the pros and cons in all scenarios. That is, when a crisis unfolds in a direction that was first perceived as undesirable, one is less capable to spot opportunities. Nevertheless, this is easier said than done as some scenarios seem dystopian at first glance and the most obvious opportunities seem rather cynical.

  • Because this crisis affects the whole world and all layers of society, it will probably be a formative experience for many. The concept of ‘formative experiences’, however, is mostly used in the discourse of generations, in which a worldview is formed by huge events or developments in someone’s youth. However, we have previously explored a different approach, allowing formative experiences throughout a lifetime. This might be a more interesting angle for this particular situation because this event has a deep impact on everyone around the globe, not just the young.

Conceptualizing the Corona Crisis

As the coronavirus rages across the world, we are struggling to understand what our future technological, political and economic systems will look like. Whereas the future of a post-corona society is uncertain, the only thing that is certain is that many things will change. Furthermore, the current coronavirus and its devastating effects should be understood from deeper transformations in the fabric of our societies, having to do with technological innovations, the process of modernization, as well as general cultural dynamics.

Our observations

  • In her book Meeting the Universe Halfway,Karen Barad recognizes agency of the nonhuman realm, based on a relational ontology and agential realism, in turn based on insights from quantum physics. The quantum entanglement means that there is no ontological separation between subject and object, but only intra-acting agencies between “entangled agencies”. As a result, phenomena of various sorts “emerge” between various agents. This relational ontology questions our ideas on causality, individuality, and agency in analyzing these complex phenomena (indeed it draws from insights of quantum mechanics, such as the measurement problem of quantum field theory, or the quantum entanglement).
  • Our world has become much more complex and interconnected in the past two decades, both in a material and more ethereal sense. For example, the number of people crossing national boundaries (measured as the number of outbound tourist departures) almost tripled to over 1 billion annually between 1995 and 2018. Likewise, global trade in merchandise exports almost quadrupled, to $20 trillion. And the stock of international migrants, i.e. people living outside the country where they were born, increased by almost 70% between 1995 and 2019, to 272 million international migrants. But the world has also become much more complex and interconnected from a social and political perspective (measured by the KOF Social Globalization and Political Globalization Index). In a less material sense but in terms of “flows” this holds as well. For example, international capitals flows has quadrupled (e.g. foreign direct investments, international portfolio flows) between 1995 and 2018, while cross-border data flows grew 45 times between 2005 and 2015 and will continue to grow at a rapid pace in the foreseeable future due to the emerging sensor-based economy.
  • We have written before that this integration and increased complexity of the world are driven by a deeper development of the idea of freedom in history and reality. By neoliberal politics, for example, which favors open borders and promotes economic integration between countries to benefit from comparative advantages and heterogeneous endowments of production factors; by digital technologies that help to dismantle borders and break open the small world of traditional societies to the “global village”, or by the end of the Cold War and the concurrent belief in the “end of history” that led to a huge wave of liberalization and democratization in many parts of the world that had thus far been unconnected and isolated.
  • Wicked problems, such as the climate or economic and financial systems, are difficult to define, hard to solve, unstable, multi-causal and have many unforeseen consequences. However, the current reality shows that our social, political and economic systems are not able to induce systemic change to tackle these problems (e.g. financial crises, ecological degradation). As such, we are increasingly in need of complexity thinking. Crucial to this approach is an understanding of the complex nature of the quantitative growth of systems, as well as their qualitative aspect. Fragile systems are those that break in times of chaos and stress, resilient systems are those that can survive negative stressors and absorb shocks, while anti-fragile systems go beyond fragile and robust systems in the sense that they show non-linear responses to crashes and crises by becoming better overall from stressors and shocks.
  • Examples of this are the human immune system, which becomes better when exposed to (small doses) of disease or the body of scientific knowledge, which increases in corroboration when confronted with anomalies. Antifragile design principles have been implemented in many fields, such as logistics, urban planning, software development, AI development, molecular biology, business economics, megastructure engineering.

Connecting the dots

Currently, the world is trying to deal with the coronavirus and its sweeping effects on human lives, the economy, political and social systems, and cultural habits. Indeed, we are in the midst of a full-blown “corona crisis”. Our word “crisis” is etymologically derived from the Greek krinein, meaning to separate and decide. This makes a period of crisis a moment of truth, a decisive moment in which we need to make judgments about what is truly important and what is not, about right and wrong, and about molding the present situation into a brighter and more positive future. As such, a crisis is always a deeply political and ethical period. So what can we learn from our current corona crisis? First, the corona crisis is a “transdisciplinary phenomenon” that is impossible to narrow down to a fixed and stable entity. One reason is that the corona virus is an exponent of our increasingly complex and interconnected world. Originating from China, it has spread rapidly across the world, as China itself has become much more interconnected with the world. Since the outbreak of the SARS virus, which swept across the world between 2002 and 2003 and is from the same corona virus family as the current Covid-19 disease, China’s GDP and outbound tourist flights have increased almost ten-fold, while China’s multi-trillion Belt and Road Initiative with investment and infrastructure projects across the world has made the country a heavily invested actor in global affairs and linkages. This has led to a much quicker spreading of the virus across the world (besides the fact that the current corona virus is more contagious than SARS) due to airplanes, international tourists in China or Chinese tourists overseas. As such, the coronavirus shows itself to be an exponent of our increasingly vulnerable world: as we all become much more dependent on and interconnected with global flows, trade, production systems, and so on, we also become more vulnerable when something goes wrong in any of these sub-systems. Similar to the failed harvests in Russia that led to the Arab Spring, transmitted via accelerating food inflation, a relatively unknown market in the city of Wuhan is now wreaking havoc across the world. Furthermore, the current corona crisis is beyond control and comprehension of a single field of knowledge. Following Barad’s relational ontology, we can say that the corona crisis is not only about the virus itself,  but an interaction of the coronavirus, the effects of COVID-19 on human and non-human actors such as human bodies, nurses and hospitals, our implicit beliefs about fundamental tradeoffs between economic costs and prevention, privacy and surveillance, as well as about national policies, feelings of fear, the state of medical technology, the funding of medical technology, global power politics and so on

This has led to a much quicker spreading of the virus across the world (besides the fact that the current corona virus is more contagious than SARS) due to airplanes, international tourists in China or Chinese tourists overseas. As such, the coronavirus shows itself to be an exponent of our increasingly vulnerable world: as we all become much more dependent on and interconnected with global flows, trade, production systems, and so on, we also become more vulnerable when something goes wrong in any of these sub-systems. Similar to the failed harvests in Russia that led to the Arab Spring, transmitted via accelerating food inflation, a relatively unknown market in the city of Wuhan is now wreaking havoc across the world. Furthermore, the current corona crisis is beyond control and comprehension of a single field of knowledge. Following Barad’s relational ontology, we can say that the corona crisis is not only about the virus itself,  but an interaction of the coronavirus, the effects of COVID-19 on human and non-human actors such as human bodies, nurses and hospitals, our implicit beliefs about fundamental tradeoffs between economic costs and prevention, privacy and surveillance, as well as about national policies, feelings of fear, the state of medical technology, the funding of medical technology, global power politics and so onThis goes against our determination to contain risks and our constant occupation with creating stability and security, or what Ulrich Beck has called a “risk society”. The only way to negotiate both issues appropriately, that of increasingly rapid and ubiquitous intra-acting agents and our risk society, is to take the notion of risk and uncertainty much more seriously. We should do this no longer ex post, but ex ante, by creating design from a precautionary strategy of perspective. This is incompatible with the proactionary principle that has been dominant in our political, economic and social views on systems, such as openness to trade, freedom of innovation, or our belief that the state should not be involved in private matters. We are already seeing the state assume such an active role, for example, in their banning the trade of wild animals and “wet markets” and even putting whole cities and countries on “lockdown”. But going beyond these measures, which are mostly reactionary and containing in nature, we should work on building anti-fragile systems that have enough space to deal with uncertainty, but also have enough feedback loops and intra-acting agents built in to deal with uncertainty in a proper way. Furthermore, containing and understanding the current corona crisis requires a transdisciplinary approach that shows that the subject and object of investigation are highly interconnected. Because this corona crisis will arguably leave a deep imprint on our individual and collective consciousness. As we wrote before, social patterns and cultural habits and norms are shaped by “formative experiences”. As such, the corona crisis is a kind of “shock therapy” for future systems in our increasingly vulnerable, interconnected and uncertain world.

Implications

  • Living in the Information Age, phenomena have a much more “viral” nature, just like the current corona virus. In a negative sense, this increases uncertainty and fragility, but it can also help to quickly contain risks and spread information. As such, a future digital virus can be dealt with much more quickly, with the right cultural, economic, (geo)political and technological systems in place.

  • Being a formative experience, the current corona crisis will induce many new practices, norms and habits, such as social distancing, teleworking, vegetarianism and so on. In a more abstract sense, these developments towards a post-corona society will be formulated in response to the current failures of containing and dealing with the corona crisis.

Scenario thinking: embracing uncertainty

When thinking about the future, one could employ two different strategies. The first is referred to as forecasting and is all about actually trying to predict the future. This strategy is often used by politicians or companies in order to persuade voters or consumers to join them (e.g. if you join us, this is what the future will look like). By contrast, the second strategy embraces the assumption that the future is inherently unpredictable because of structural uncertainties, and concentrates on developing various scenarios that are treated as equally possible. Today it seems we are increasingly aware of, and confronted with structural uncertainties such as climate change, virus outbreaks, rapid technological innovation or political instability. This might cause people to look for parties that embrace uncertainty rather than trying to solve it.

Our observations

  • Complexity is defined as the number of factors that we need to take into account, their variety and the relationships between them. The more factors, the greater their variety and the more they are interconnected, the more complex it becomes to predict the future.
  • With the rise of the internet and digitization, things that used to be isolated became connected, making the world more complex than it was before. Among other factors, technological and sociological changes took place: the digitization of massive amounts of information, smart systems communicating autonomously, the decreasing cost of computing power, the increasing ease of communicating “rich content” across space and time, and institutional innovation in terms of industry norms and business models. Because of such developments, it has become more difficult to predict the future as a single, well-defined and highly probable future.
  • According to Forbes, popular business press and academic literature are struggling to find terms that refer to an increasing inability to get a grip on the world and the events that occur. Uncertainty, turbulence, rapid change, dynamism, disruption, complexity, hyper-competition, high-velocity markets and flux are examples of such terms. The notion of “VUCA” (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) is gaining popularity as it covers the various dimensions of uncertainty we are facing.
  • According to BNY Mellon, some of the many consequences of the continuous technological disruptions is that companies are spending a much briefer period on leading positions in the stock markets, a change in traditional business models and a much shorter lifespan of companies. In 1965, for example, a company could spend 33 years on the U.S. stock market. By 1990 that average had fallen to 20 years – by 2026 that number is expected to have shrunk again to 14 years. This implies that over the next 10 years, about half of the 500 largest companies in the U.S. stock market will be replaced.
  • Portraying multiple scenarios has become a common way to explore the future for many. The World Economic Forum, for example, made four different scenarios for the future of energy, KPMG made four different scenarios on the future of Artificial Intelligence, Medium made four scenarios on the future of work, newspapers sometimes offer multiple scenarios  when important events have multiple plausible outcomes (e.g. The Guardian on Brexit), and Bloomberg Opinion recently offered three scenarios for investors on the impact of the coronavirus.

Connecting the dots

Forecasting the future in terms of a single outlook that is considered most probable, is a traditional way of strategic planning in organizations. It assumes that, in theory, it is possible to predict the future if only one has the right information and possesses the (human and/or automated) capabilities to process that data. In most cases this implies that an ongoing trend is extrapolated into the future. However, ever since the oil crisis in the early 1970’s, forecasting appeared to fail as a successful strategic planning tool in times of uncertainty. At that time, the oil price had remained one of the most stable features of the global economy and experts had predicted it would stay that way in the next decade or so. As we know now, these forecast were way off as prices rose explosively due to a number of Arab oil-producing countries taking action directed against the West. However, at the end of the 1960’s, before the oil crisis, Pierre Wack had introduced a new strategic tool at Royal Dutch Shell: scenario planning. Because of this tool, Shell successfully anticipated the oil crisis of the early 1970’s. They had included the oil crisis in one of their scenarios, so when the first signs of price changes occurred, they linked them to this scenario and where able to anticipate the sudden changes quickly.
Scenario planning assumes that the future is unpredictable and contains irreducible uncertainties. In his book Scenarios, Professor Van der Heijden distinguishes tree types of uncertainties: risks, structural uncertainties and unknowables. Risks can be modelled and extrapolated into the future, as they have enough historical precedent in the form of similar events that allow for probabilities to be formulated. Structural uncertainties concern trends or events that are unique and don’t allow for a perception of likelihood. Unknowables are events that we cannot imagine at all. Some of the current risks

are, for example, the trade tensions between the U.S. and China or aging populations in many countries. Current structural uncertainties are for example the disruption of many business models by technological change, the rapidly changing nature of work, climate change or feedback loops. The current coronavirus can be categorized as an occurrence of a structural uncertainty: although we couldn’t know how and when it would happen, the fact that we are confronted with a global virus outbreak every now and then is a given. An example of an unknowable is the Fukushima accident. The nuclear base seemed ready for almost anything, but when it was hit by a tsunami, three reactors had a meltdown. Scenario planning operates in the area of structural uncertainties.
As structural uncertainties cannot be reduced to probabilities, scenario planning aims to take into account multiple outcomes of known, or yet unknown, developments. Contrary to forecasting, the starting point is to consider these different outcomes as equally probable. As time unfolds, events and trends are monitored through the lens of these scenarios, looking for clues and question whether they might be weak signals for one particular scenario. Also, the developed scenarios are revisited on a regular basis, verifying whether they are still up-to-date as time goes by. They are so-called living documents that evolve over time as opposed to static strategies that hold on to one vision over time. Finally, before policies or projects are launched, they are analyzed vis-a-vis these scenarios in order to see whether they can be successful in one or more scenarios. As structural uncertainties such as technological disruption, the future of work and climate change are dominating the outlooks in business, many the world’s largest corporations, including Disney, Apple and Accenture are using scenario planning.

Implications

  • As we wrote before, uncertainty is increasingly accepted in our thinking about the future. Speculative design, for example, emerged as a new discipline in design, architecture and art. It takes the uncertainties and ambiguity of new technologies as a starting point and imagines possible outcomes. Pragmatic utopian thinking has gained considerable popularity in different domains. The general attitude within this pragmatic utopian movement is that grand narratives and utopian thinking should not be used as a blueprint for society, but instead should be perceived as tentative orientation points for our decision-making and as a source of hope in uncertain times. Current developments in the horror movie genre also seem to provide us with the extreme scenarios that allow us to ‘safely’ explore some of our dark horizons.

  • A more flexible way of looking at the future is only possible when uncertainty is a structural element on the agenda of, for example, policymakers in business or politics. As structural uncertainties are increasingly getting attention, trustworthiness might shift from offering voters or consumers simple solutions that envision just one future (e.g. Trump’s “America first” or Facebook’s (original) mission statement “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”) to presenting a creative and multiple outlook into the future, demonstrating to be prepared for more than one (preferred) scenario.