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Friday, May 14, 2021

Foresight, not just experience, can steady us during disruptions like a pandemic

Deploying foresight helps us to make intentional choices with a larger awareness than if we were just projecting our experience into the future in a linear fashion

Written by Mutha Ashok Jain |
Updated: April 22, 2021 8:51:12 am
Should we be diverting more resources towards strengthening health infrastructure to deal with future health emergencies?

As new waves of the COVID-19 pandemic hit us, the world as we have known lies in tatters. The systems we had built up over decades are disrupted. We cannot travel at will, we cannot send our children to school, and we cannot get our sick treated quickly enough. There is uncertainty, panic and fear. Interventions by the government and other institutions do not seem to be succeeding yet.

These convulsions are a result of unforeseen changes happening all around. The process of change did not start with the virus, but it has accelerated with the pandemic. Whether it is the destruction of the Twin Towers or the recession of 2008 or the Fukushima nuclear disaster, our world has been witnessing numerous big and small events that are changing it beyond recognition. Climate change, social polarisation, technology and many other factors are contributing immensely to this process. However, till now, change was noticed in isolation in different walks of life and did not touch all human beings in a uniform and so devastating a fashion.

The extent of change is so much that it is estimated that whole sectors and industries may be either obliterated or refashioned beyond recognition. Areas of our personal and social lives have been badly impacted and will have to be redrawn. If one were to list out the rules that we used to live by and have discarded since the pandemic started, it will fill volumes. In our response to this change, we are using the tools and techniques that we developed while dealing with earlier challenges. We are trying to repurpose them in our attempts to see what works. These tools are based on our experience in the past. They are rooted in hindsight.

Hindsight is a tool to understand the past post facto. Operating from hindsight is a reflex action that is undertaken in response to an event that has already happened. It helps to cut down the risk of failure when we face a similar situation in the future. It is useful for dealing with incremental change. When it comes to disruptive change, hindsight provides no comparable example to fall back on and hence falls short. This we have experienced in many ways during the pandemic. When people let their guard down or the authorities relaxed the restrictions, we have been hit again by a new wave, with mutations in the virus thrown in. To take another example, hindsight does not provide much guidance in dealing with climate change. Tools based on hindsight are proving insufficient to deal with change at a planetary scale.

So, what do we do? We need a new framework that can help us avoid making choices that may lead to unintended and uncomfortable consequences. A tool that takes advantage of the learnings from hindsight but is not limited by it. A tool that allows more of us to collaborate, whether we have the relevant experience or not, considering that nobody really has the experience of dealing with such massive change. A tool that helps us to visualise worst-case scenarios and avoid them. We need foresight.

As nobody can predict with certainty what will happen in the future, we must deploy our foresight to visualise multiple possible choices in every situation. For example, knowing what we know about climate change and the expected rise in sea levels, should we build our infrastructure away from the coasts? Should we be diverting more resources towards strengthening health infrastructure to deal with future health emergencies?

Deploying foresight helps us to make intentional choices with a larger awareness than if we were just projecting our experience into the future in a linear fashion. Hindsight-based decisions are reflex actions whereas foresight can lead to conscious creation. It enlists our creativity to look beyond the current challenge by allowing us to visualise where we want to be. It allows us to choose the direction we want to move into. When we see what we are doing as an intentional choice rather than merely as a response to an event, then from the perspective of that choice, we will be able to understand where we are heading. We will be able to open the doors that we want to open rather than be surprised by the sudden opening of doors that we did not intend to open. Foresight is the tool we should invest in for the sake of our future.

We are trained to use our hindsight in navigating our day-to-day life. Usually, we can make do with projecting our hindsight into the future and decide our course of action, which is good enough. However, in the face of accelerating and unpredictable change, hindsight alone is no longer sufficient. Foresight, based on creative visualisation of possible consequences of our choices and then deciding which choice is most beneficial, is the tool that can steady our rocking boat.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 22, 2021 under the title ‘Wisdom for extraordinary times’. The writer is a serving IPS officer. Views are personal

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