Sohail Inayatullah on envisaging the post-pandemic future

You don't predict the post-pandemic future - you create it. That was Sohail Inayatullah's thesis as our latest guest on What's NEXT, gave us the tools we need to build the narrative of a better future.

Sohail Inayatullah is a political scientist. He is a Professor at Tamkang University and Associate, Melbourne Business School. In 2015, Professor Inayatullah was awarded the first UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies, and he is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Future Studies.

In our fifth episode of What’s NEXT, he explored how changing your narrative of the present opens the door to a series of alternative futures, giving you the opportunity to choose the ones you want – and work towards it.

Has there ever been a greater challenge for students of the future than predicting the world after the pandemic? That was the calling we put to Professor Inayatullah – and he gently refused it. In their work, he explained, they tend to shy away from predictions, because things are changing so rapidly. They prefer to present people with options. They have developed four options — four alternative futures, if you like — for what comes next. And some of them aren’t very pleasant.

The Zombie Apocalypse

For example, there’s the “zombie apocalypse”, where the pandemic creates wave after wave of fear, and nobody trusts anyone anymore. Nations start to fracture.

The Great Pause

Scenario 2 is more calming: it’s a great pause, with a return to business as normal. Our year of rest – no flights, no workshops all over the world. People slow down, reconnect with self and reconnect with family. They then reconnect with nature when they can leave the lockdown. And then, next year, we go back to what we used to do. This is a chance for rest.

The Global Health Awakening

Scenario 3 is the the global health awakening, where we slow down to transform. People are forced to do things differently, and realise that they don’t want to go back to the way things were before. What do we need to keep from this period of our lives?

The Great Despair

But if you thought Scenario 1 was bad, wait until your hear their scenario 4: the Great Despair. The gaps between ethnicities and nations widen. We plunge into a seven year depression. The virus mutates and the horrible sci-fi movie continues. Be ready for seven years of depression.

You want to use the vision of the future you choose to change today. Talking about today is too entangled with the politics of the moment, but if a leader can articulate where we need to be in 2030, you can determine what you need to do today to create that.

“Your vision informs your actions,” he suggested. “From every morning, when you wake up: who you talk to, who you connect with.”

The What Works Perspective

Inayatullah outlined a simple framework that will allow each of us to explore how we might build towards the future that we want:

  1. Move from prediction to the future as an asset, something you can use.
  2. What’s the used future? What’s the one thing I keep on doing, but isn’t worth it? Is it endless hours in a car? Identify it – and get rid of it.
  3. What’s coming down the road? What changes are coming that will change how we live?
  4. Don’t think about a future, think about alternatives. This reduces conflict and gives more opportunities for products and services. Focus on the vision of where you want to be in 2030 – what does it look like? What does it feel like?
  5. What’s the supportive narrative? The old narrative of cities was “I love my car”. The new metaphor could be “I love my city, I love nature, I love having it all in reach”. And then you design the city around that.

It’s worth seeing the pandemic as a portal you use to create the future you want to see, said Inayatullah. In the transition to that future, we’re being forced to face the contradictions in the way we’re living: between us and nature, between ethnicities, between economies that are only based on growth or ones that are more balanced. This is an opportunity to look at these – and transform them.

The factory model of education, the factory model of farming: they were great in the 19th century. In 2020, they are less great, he suggested. To get us to the portal, we have to let them go.

Data + Story

If you live in a data world, you have the inofrmation you need but you are unable to communicate or influence others. If you live in a story world, you have wonderful vision and ideas, but you don’t connect with the real world. Bring the two together, and you can reshape the world.

What’s the inner story people are telling themselves? If somebody complains of having no time, the usual response would be to tell them to read a book on time management. But where do they find the time to do that? If you dig, you find that the narrative is actually about time as an enemy. Change that narrative. Time is your friend. Time creates purpose. What gives purpose to your time? What gives joy?

Change the narrative, and you start to create a cycle of alternative futures – and empirical research shows that to be the case.

This is a summary of an interview with Sohail Inayatullah, conducted by David Mattin during the NEXT Show on June 4th 2020. You can catch up with Inayatullah and his work on LinkedIn or on his blog.