One thing is sure—we’re going to need new stories. Stories help us make sense of the world. And our world now is turned upside down in a way we haven’t seen for generations. How do we go forward from our lockdown societies?
That’s where storytelling comes in. Scenario thinking accepts we can’t predict what’s going to happen. Instead, it looks at the forces that are driving change and constructs several alternative visions of what the future might look like. This allows us to rehearse what we might do in each of these futures. It may also allow us to make better choices now.
So, I built four scenarios of where we might end up. These feature in my book, The Scheherazade Code, about the power of story-telling.
Drivers of change
The first step was to identify the drivers of change.
||· A mixture of nationalist competition and globalist cooperation. In some countries, leaders make use of the pandemic to introduce greater measures of control and surveillance
· An increased awareness of who we depend on and support for a new dispensation. There is growing pressure to improve the wages and conditions for agricultural workers, nurses, care workers, delivery drivers, cleaners, and retail staff. This is strongly resisted by the corporations. In the end, expectations of cheap goods provide an easy lure to accept only token changes in wages. There is a much stronger support for decent social care and welfare systems.
· Citizens’ acceptance of a more interventionist role for the state may be enhanced, though this is counter-balanced by growing distrust and opposition to restrictions
· The EU will be further weakened by the beggar-my-neighbour initial response, though this may be mitigated by sharing of the pain on the route to recovery
· Geo-politically, China emerges stronger and more expansionist from the crisis. This may make the US more bellicose and Russia more adventurous
||· Short term very sharp economic decline (worse than any previous crisis). Best outcome would be a V-shaped recover with a quick rebound. Equally possible is a U-shaped recover. Since there were no major underlying problems, an L-shaped curve is unlikely
· The long period of the “new normal” favours sectors of the economy which don’t require mass gatherings (such as home entertainment). Mass communication technologies receive a huge boost, including in education. Much more retail goes online, spurring growth in delivery and logistics systems. Much more working from home in office jobs, though the renewed emphasis on national self-reliance also boosts industrial investment in critical areas
· In the developed world, any hint of return to austerity is unacceptable. Higher levels of national debt and taxation are accepted
· A renewed focus on national self-reliance in key areas such as food, energy, and critical technology
· Countries that locked down on time and engaged in testing and tracing emerge early and have a competitive advantage. The US suffers long-term decline.
||· A sense of social solidarity from the pandemic persists afterwards and demand to properly reward those we depend on leads to a new social contract
· Conversely, a growing distrust of strangers provides fertile ground for nationalism and racism
· A sense of guilt at that the way the elderly and the poor were abandoned. But also the young, ejected from the economy in the recession, form a lost generation. Age politics grows, as the young refuse to bear the burden of recovery.
· A sense of pride at having come through the crisis by collective effort
· Possession and wealth are no longer the mark of status and there is less celebrity culture and more celebration of ordinary people
· A renewed respect for expertise and wider dreams among children of becoming a scientist. An increasing understanding that “the science” is a state of enquiring mind, not a definitive yes/no answer that politicians favour.
· An awareness of the need to take care of the future and prepare for future threats. A willingness to debate more long-term issues.
||· Rapid growth in communications and distribution technology
· Enhanced decline of the high street with long-term closure of pubs, restaurants, cinemas and gyms
· A resurgence of some engineering industries
· Enhanced public-private investment in epidemic preparedness
||· Dramatically reduced carbon release during the pandemic, cleaner air and environment, rebound of the natural world.
· The valuing of nature and the belief that collective effort lead, especially among the young, to a willingness to take on the challenge of confronting the climate crisis
||· Covid 19 is not eliminated, though societies learn to coexist with it by developing better systems of health surveillance. Poorer countries remain breeding grounds for the virus.
· Treatments will become available, lessening the threat of the virus
· Though there are positive signs that a vaccine could be developed (say by mid-2021) lasting immunity is not characteristic of other coronaviruses
· Lasting mental health challenges and physical health complications
Analysing these drivers allows identification of the key axes of uncertainty about the direction the future might take.
Globalism versus Nationalism
Social change versus Business-As-Usual
Combining these leads to four possible futures:
Spur is a world in which the pandemic has prompted a sense of interdependence and cooperation, rebalancing values. The coronavirus response showed that rapid action is possible to decisively face challenges. There’s a renewed focus on the welfare of people and of the planet. Preparation for future pandemics us underway, as are efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Introduction of a universal basic income grant in many developed societies means nobody goes hungry, while international aid is helping to build a more equal world. This is a kinder, greener world.
Fortresses is a divided world. Walls that went up during the pandemic stay up. While there is a greater emphasis on social welfare within national boundaries, fear and distrust remain. There’s little international cooperation beyond that necessary for trade. There are only token attempts at tackling the environment crisis. This is an “I’m alright, Jack” world.
Return to Normality is, as the name suggests, a world in a hurry to return to things as they were. The welfare of capital takes precedence in efforts to get the economy restarted. The free market benefits the rich, leaving the poor behind. This is the world most like the one we left in 2019. It’s as if the pandemic never happened.
Beggar Thy Neighbour is a world based on fear. In an upsurge of new populism, autocratic rulers in many parts of the world have used the pandemic as cover for introducing tighter social control. Dissent is seen as “unpatriotic” and heavily policed. This is a devil take the hindmost world in which most of the benefits accrue to elite.
Of course, the real world may turn out to be a patchwork of all of these tendencies.
Which future will you opt to live in?