3 ground rules, 3 simple questions, and an artifact to help you think about your post-COVID futures
by Kate Ruff Assistant Professor, Sprott School of Business, Carleton University; Lead, Common Approach to Impact Measurement and Maggie Greyson MDes Strategic Foresight Designer and Futurist, Futures Present, School of International Futures Fellow
TLDR: Imagining your business, your work, and the markets that you serve in a post-COVID future can be easier than you think.
Futures and foresight work is something that mid- and large-sized businesses do to anticipate future trends so that they can be ready, respond, or lead into the brave new world. COVID19 has turned even small businesses — single location retailers, artists, studios and small charities — into futurists. Everyone is wondering ‘what now?’ ‘what next?’ and ‘where do I fit into this?’
Most futures and foresight work is data heavy. It requires reading widely, consulting widely and analyzing a lot of data. If you are up to that, you might want to start with reports from the World Economic Forum Global Future Councils, Policy Horizons Canada or Deloitte. The more data-intensive approaches can be
used alongside the Making Futures Present technique that we describe here.
The Making Futures Present technique is a lighter approach and introduction to foresight work. It is well suited to small organizations and individuals because it draws on the proprietor’s creativity and lived knowledge. It is a simple, structured process for helping individuals to tap-into their own expectations, understandings, desires and opportunities. The process involves setting some parameters that create a safe space to explore the future, answering three questions, and engaging your senses to help you to imagine the future you want to come to life in the present.
A: Set the scene
These three ground rules create a safe space to imagine futures post-COVID.
Ground rule #1: You are going to survive and thrive in the future. As you embark on your foresight journey, you are going to be asked to envision many possible futures. To keep this a space safe and to keep the ideas free-flowing, skip the anxiety. It cramps your creativity. Save the risk mitigation planning for another day. The first rule of Making Futures Present is that you take as given that you are going to survive and thrive in the future.
Ground rule # 2: Talk is safe. If years of business planning retreats have taught the world anything it is that no one has magical powers to manifest the future through simple utterances(1). Some say, “talk is cheap”. We say, “talk is safe”. Imagining and describing possible futures does not commit you to them. Nor does it magically will them into existence. Give yourself freedom to think wildly.
Ground rule # 3: There are no facts about the future. It is a truism. Futurists define the future as distant enough that there are no facts. The near-term future has facts. If the shipment you ordered is currently on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, it is a fact that it will not arrive within the hour. Look further out to a future that is emergent. In this more distant future, there are multiple possible scenarios. Some are likely and others unlikely. This means that your musings can’t be wrong, only some variation on the probable. Enjoy the freedom to go there.
Making Futures Present a personal experiential futures technique.
B: Imagine different futures
These three questions guide your foresight work. A way to make it easier is to pick a date, exactly 5 or 7 number of years away from today.
As you imagine these different futures using the questions below remember the ground rules: you are going to survive and thrive; talk is safe; and there are no facts about the future.
Question # 1: What do you expect the future to be like five years from today? This question is about surfacing your expectations about the future or your small business or charity. If you are working with colleagues or loved ones, these questions are an opportunity to learn about each other’s beliefs about what is probable. For example, Kate expects the post-COVID economy to embrace a more caring capitalism. Her friend who is an environmentalist expects that climate considerations will be cast-aside in a post-COVID push for job growth. We have heard others muse that post-COVID shoppers will be more inclined to shop local and that many parts of our lives that moved online for COVID will stay online after. This question is about articulating your thoughts about the future and naming them for what they are: expectations. Remember, there are no facts about the future.
Question # 2: What is unlikely to happen in five years from today? This question invites you to step away from what you believe to be probable and to brainstorm what might be. Let your mind flow and generate a long list. It’s key to think about many things happening, ranging from the somewhat unlikely to the very unlikely. It is okay and normal if your thoughts are not fully formed and if the ideas you generate are overlapping. The important part is to move away from what you believe to be probable or what you want to see and push your imagination to explore what is possible. Kate brainstormed 30 possible scenarios that she does not expect to happen including: social and environmental impact reporting is displayed on all products, similar to nutritional labels and increased representation of marginalized groups on social accounting standards bodies. As you consider your list of unlikely happenings, remember: you are going to survive and thrive in all these futures, talk is safe, and there are no facts about the future.
Questions # 3: What if the future is better than expected five years from today? This question engages you in a thought process about your values and preferences. You can reflect for yourself what good looks like for you. This is especially important if you are thinking about futures (plural) with a colleague or loved one. It allows you to learn about their hopes, fears, and desires. You can use this question to link your futures thinking to your futures planning and start working toward the future you want.
C: Make it real
This final step helps you connect emotionally to a specific future that you can work to bring to fruition.
If you want, you can blend your futures work into goal-setting work. If you identified a future, or a series of futures that were very desirable to you, spend some time getting real about the future and make it in the present. This can take the form of a long text describing the future or a sketch, but we recommend a more tactile 3-dimensional rendering. Find, assemble or create something that looks, feels and sounds like part of your envisioned future. The more specific the better. For example, pick a date and time — 2pm on April 18, 2025 — and imagine a task that you need to get done on that day in the future you like. Build a tool or object related to that task.
Getting started: Practice with something not-too-personal
A prototype exists in the present and creates an emotional connection to physical-tactile model in the future.
We recommend you begin your futures work by practicing on something that you are not too vested in, something concrete, something impersonal. Here is an example of futures work around a specific shrub next to a park bench beside Maggie’s house.
Q: What do you expect this shrub and park bench to be like at 2pm on April 18, 2025?
A: I think it will be pretty much the same. The bench will still be here. It will look the same. The shrub will be here. It will be a little bit healthier. (Assumptions have been surfaced.)
Q: What is unlikely to happen?
A: The park could be gone. The bench could be replaced with newspaper boxes, a tree could be planted. Maybe this park is entirely replaced by condos. Or, maybe the park becomes a site of a strip mall with a vibrant cafe centred around this bench. (The imagination is invited to step away from what is likely into a world of possibility.)
Q: What if the future is better than expected?
A: There would be public art in this park and lots of people. To sit on this bench would be to look at cool art and people are congregating around it; kids are playing on it. There is no graffiti. (This is moving from possible scenarios to normative ones. It is about articulating the future one wants.)
After this exploration, Maggie imagined something in the future park that she would like to see. She got a bit creative, picked up a pen top, and put it on the desk pretending that it was the bench. She held a marker vertically, pretending that it was a shade giving tree, and used a toy to represent the location of the new public art. This activity involved the generation of new thoughts, kinesthetic learning, and surfacing tacit knowledge. The physical-tactile model actually exists in the present and creates an emotional connection to something she wants in the future.
And now onto your organization
Thinking about your business, your work, and the markets that you serve in a post-COVID future:
3 simple questions
1. What do you expect the future to be like?
2. What is unlikely?
3. What if the future is better than expected?
Remember the ground rules
1. You are going to survive and thrive in the future
2. Talk is safe.
3. There are no facts about the future.
Pick something practical you would use in the future and create a quick sketch or physical-tactile model of it to help you connect emotionally to the future that you want in the present.
Make that future. Feel it in the present.
Footnote (1) Here we could digress into a discussion of Austin’s performative speech acts and the performative powers of discourse. There are times when words have the power to change the future. For our purposes here, we will simply note that in all of these theories, it takes a lot more than one person voicing a future to make a future. Words need institutional and societal conditions to act. And they need to be followed by action. Your private musings are safe.
Learn more about the primary research for Making Futures Present. It has been awarded Most Significant Futures Work by the Association of Professional Futurists for advancing the methodology and practice of foresight and futures studies. Contact Maggie, the co-founder of Futures Present, if you want a professional to lead you through your futures work. Contact Kate, if you are interested in learning more about the Common Approach to Impact Measurement for Canadian social purpose organizations.