COVID-19 The Future of Society

May 6, 2020

WendySchultz color smileThis key post in our COVID series has been written by our long term partner and friend Wendy Schultz a major thought leader in the Futures Community.  It describes the critical importance of starting to think about the future now, not once the crisis is over.

The site is now open for public capture, but we have an additional option for organisations.  If you want to distribute this link to your own networks or community we can create a unique URL so you can look at that data as a distinct set.  If you are interested in this email us and we will respond (see link below).   This system is going to open for the next couple of weeks, but a week Friday will see us write the key reports which are aimed at securing both an understanding of possible future states, but also to seek funding to make this a much wider programme.

We need to seize the day, imagine a future transformed, not a continuation of what came before.  COVID-19 is a wake up call for humanity and we need to respond using multiple sources.  Cognitive, cultural and experiential diversity are critical to sensing possibilities beyond the conventional and we all need to be a part of that.

Dave Snowden
Director Cynefin Centre


In Wendy’s Voice

Arundhati Roy has famously described the pandemic as a portal:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

This campaign is an effort to explore what new world – good, bad, indifferent, surprising – might lie on the other side of that portal.

COVID is creating turbulence across many of the world’s systems – it is decoupling some, destroying some, amplifying others. It is shaking things up. It’s a good time to exercise our imaginations about what we personally think might be the results – upside scenarios, downside scenarios, really weird scenarios, whatever people are imagining. Because the future that emerges will evolve from the collisions, the intersections, and the negotiations among all those futures and our ideas about them.

Mass media right now is a supersaturated torrent of pundits shouting expert analyses and forecasts. understanding the turbulence of evolving futures. To adapt to challenge, complex systems require input diversity: to move beyond any individual expert’s insights to the highly granular, multi-perspective global imagination, with competing, contrasting, and collaborative futures drawn from people around the world. Resilience cannot rely on the expert rockstar hedgehog alone (with apologies to Isaiah Berlin -; resilience demands a multiplicity of foxes.

A base assumption of Futures Studies is that people’s internal images of the future affect their behaviour. The images act as attractors. It should be important not only to scholars of the future, but also to everyone in the global community to know what the people around us think the future might be. People’s images of the future are the ONLY actual future facts we can collect in the present; their images of the future a) frame their assumptions about change; b) filter the changes they perceive; and c) compete cognitively with other futures – either images of the future embedded in culture, or formally constructed scenarios and forecasts.

Everyone is imagining a range of possibilities once we emerge from the pandemic. Some people may be thinking what the world might be like in 18 months. Some people might be imagining how the world will transform over the next 20 years, or 50 years. What are those stories of possible futures? How can we collect them, map them, compare them, make sense of what they mean in relation to each other?

Questions the stories might illuminate:

  1. Will the world re-set to patterns of the past? Will the world find a new normal? Will post-normal conditions and turbulence continue?
  2. What from the past will persist? What will fade away? What will we need to get rid of?
  3. Who will work to constrain change? Who will evolve with it? Who will accelerate it?
  4. What’s the time horizon of this future – short-term, medium-term, long-term?
  5. What does this future make you feel – sad, fear, frustration, anxiety, content, happy?

The ‘Futures of Society’ campaign

This Sensemaker initiative is designed to collect stories of possible futures for society – your society, my society, global society – after the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. These stories are in effect mini-scenarios – a short description that illustrates what participants think might be one possible future after the COVID19 pandemic. The time horizon is up to each participant: near-term, medium-term, long-term – from a few months to decades. The crowdsourcer will ask what time horizon the story illustrates. These are the ideas we all have in our heads – indeed, that we’ve all been discussing – about what might happen to our communities, our countries, and the world as a whole.

People are of course uncertain about what might happen. That is another core assumption of futures studies: from any given present moment, multiple futures are possible. What are all the futures we can imagine? Participants can choose to enter as many different stories about different possibilities for the future as they can imagine.

In terms of empowerment, this Sensemaker campaign emphatically puts people themselves in the spotlight, rather than all the forecasters, facilitators, designers, analysts, or spec fic authors in the media at the moment. It can also serve as an ongoing temperature check: the only way to know if the various policy or foresight interventions have any impact is to compare people’s ideas about possible futures after the intervention to their ideas before. Sensemaker crowdsourcers are designed to extend over time, in order to observe how various events or interventions or actions change people’s mental landscapes over time.

Request for the Micro-scenarios

COVID-19 has rumbled like an earthquake all around the world. Every system from governance to business to leisure, arts, and sports show fault lines from stress.  Systems are uncoupling and fragmenting – opening up space for dramatic changes and transformations

On the other side of this pandemic, the world may not be the same. Every country may be technically bankrupt in 3 months. The current form of capitalism may not survive – what might be the future of society in a context where money has become meaningless? What might a complexity-based governance system look like? How might social interactions, manners, and ethics transform? Who might be the winners, and who the losers? What might the new arts of post-COVID society be? The new sports?

  1. Where does your mind take you when you think about the future of society post-COVID-19?
  2. What imagined story is gripping your mind about what the world might be like over the next five years?

To take part in this programme please enter your scenario here

To request a unique URL please email us 


unsplash-logoFateme Alaie

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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