Anticipating a pandemic
Here’s one thing about being a futurist. Sometimes the world confirms one of your scenarios or models, but it’s not something to celebrate. That’s because what you foresaw isn’t good news for anyone when it actually enters the real world.
Case in point: my newest book, Academia Next, came out from Johns Hopkins University Press in early January 2020. I wrote it in 2018–2019.
If you read chapter 14, the most forward-looking section, you’ll see pages of me anticipating a wide range of global changes that could hit higher education. Some of them appear fairly likely. Others, less so. On page 212 I offered some options:
…black swan possibilities also lurk. Historical examples abound, such as a leader’s sudden death by accident or assassination that unravels a political order. A new religious sect or the vigorous reformation of an existing faith can win adherents and upend societies. Beyond political and social causes, a pandemic that exceeds our medical containment capacity could not only constitute a humanitarian disaster but also sap regimes, shock economies, and electrify cultures. (emphases added)
I don’t think a reader mentioned this to me until February, once the coronavirus terrorized Hubei and began reaching out to the world.
Yet that passage is not the most telling bit. Much earlier in the book is a longer medication on disease and higher ed. It appears as an example of futures thinking within chapter 1. I invited readers to use their imaginations in order to see how academia could change under certain conditions. As an example, I offered this on page 23:
…imagine a future academy after a major pandemic has struck the world, perhaps along the lines of the early twentieth century’s Great Influenza. To envision the institution under such pressure, we would have to think through multiple disciplines and domains. We would have to consider, first, how such a thing would occur. This could involve delving into the history of disease, a look into graph theory for models of contagion, and a reflection on contemporary public health. We would then apply that learning to colleges and universities, a process that can ramify extensively depending on our awareness of the sector. Would distance learning grow rapidly as people fear face-to-face learning because of perceived contagion risk? Similarly, how would we take conferences and other forms of professional development online? Depending on the disease’s death toll, should we plan on depressed demographics within a generation, or would the birth rate bounce back? Would athletes refrain from practice and play from fear of contagion, or would both institutions and the general public demand more college sports as an inspirational sign of bodily vigor in the context of sickness and death? Which academic disciplines would be most likely to grow in the disease’s wake?
Note that I used the word “pandemic” in both instances.
Since COVID-19 seized our lives more than a few readers have asked me about these passages. They have all been kind and refrained from making warding off the evil eye gestures in my direction.
My students last summer were similarly kind when I posed a pandemic to them as a design challenge for the future of the university.
But please don’t think I’m bragging. I don’t mean to claim some oracular title for myself. As demonstrated last week, working through disease outbreak futures is an established, long-running scenario practice, both by professional futurists and those who don’t use the name.
Here’s the thing. Futurists generally want things to get better in their chosen domain. I want academia to thrive. But we have to look ahead across a full range of possibilities, from utopia to dystopia, as I like to say. We can’t avert our gaze from negative or even horrible futures in the hope of salvation. We have to consider the future as a whole, as objectively as possible, with an open mind.
I just hate getting this one right.
PS: Johns Hopkins University Press, this book’s publisher, made my book and many others available for free online, as a response to the pandemic. I’ve linked to the appropriate chapters up above. Kudos to them for doing this!