Earlier this year we hosted more than 130 public sector and business leaders, innovators, academics, and designers from around the world in the BLOX-building on the Copenhagen waterfront. The purpose was to explore, then build, alternative future scenarios for societies and businesses in the year 2050. Currently our team is working hard to process and publicize the scenarios as a strategic output and a set of tools from the event. While the work has been delayed by the corona crisis, there is time for a bit of reflection on the link to the current situation.
See, we had no idea the conference participants would imagine and plan a scenario that would become eerily real just a few weeks later.
Four alternative futures
Through an intensive, single-day interactive workshop titled Experimentation by Design, the participants produced baseline scenarios and applied them to different domains such as the future of work, of cities, manufacturing, welfare, and mobility. The baseline scenarios were built across two axes of high uncertainty and high potential importance: Will our future society be mainly shaped by narrow market needs, or by broad, holistic, societal needs? And will our dominant governance model – for states as well as for enterprises – be mainly centralized or distributed? Crossing these two axes produced four general future outcomes, which could shape our world as we know it (e.g. “centralized and market-driven” or “distributed and driven by societal needs”). The resulting four domains became the overarching frame for discussion at the Copenhagen event.
Then came a virus
At the event in Copenhagen, a few participants had heard news of a strange airborn flu-like virus originating from a Chinese megacity and already causing disease and death in that country. Only six weeks later, the Danish capital and indeed the world was engulfed by a pandemic. On March 11th, 2020, the government of Denmark announced a near-total shut down of the country; followed by closed borders a few days later.
The overall response to the covid-19 pandemic around the world has been based on the same tenets: Strong centralized command and control, combined with a premium on health and security needs. Some observers, such as the Israeli academic and author of bestselling “Homo Deus” and “21 things you need to know about the 21st Century” Yuval Harari, soon noted how governments were installing emergency legal instruments that could potentially lead to mass surveillance and loss of privacy at an unprecedented level and scale. Meanwhile, global markets tanked and millions of people around their world became unemployed literally overnight.
Is this future happening?
One of the future scenarios developed on that chilly January day in Copenhagen reflects exactly that potential future: A world where power, especially, but not exclusively, of governments is highly centralized, and where market dynamics take a back seat to societal demands.
Named Beta, the scenario describes a world where systemic issues are destroying the planet and fueling unprecedented levels of inequality. But not anymore. People have put their trust in a political solution. Large monolithic structures with the power to not only resist but actually fight back. Governments have been empowered with a wide mandate to regulate society as needed to ensure society is socially and environmentally constructive.
“All around the world, states have consolidated their influence and efforts around centers of power — large cities with the solidity and strength to withstand the challenges of the outside world. Be it nature or geopolitics. It was necessary to move closer together, grab hold of each other, and stand fast. It wasn’t easy and we had to make sacrifices to get here: To lead more balanced lives, of course, but ultimately it was a matter of survival.”
As they developed this scenario in workshop processes, some participants talked about it as “Big Mother” overseeing and accommodating our every need; others warned of too much power in too few hands.
I recently read an opinion piece in a Danish newspaper, where the Danish PM was accused by the writer, a critical journalist, of acting as “Sister Number One” in the wake of the initial shutdown. I couldn’t help feeling that the future had now arrived.
The centralized/societally-focused future world has now been further developed and will soon be published, together with its three alternative futures, as part of a major scenario design toolkit. The kit will be an online resource for the Experimentation by Design participants, and others, to work systematically and hands-on with scenario design in their own context. The aim is to facilitate action in an uncertain present by looking at concrete, plausible outcomes for the future.
It is of course far too early to determine if we will be living in the “Beta” future scenario for long. One thing is that the future has arrived early. Another is if we are going to accept it. As the anthropologist David Rolfe Graber has said, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.”
Let’s hope so.
More on the Experimentation by Design conference here.