The time to talk about the future is before you need it

The only way to prepare for difficult futures is to talk about them — in detail. In an extract from his new book 'How To Future' regular NEXT speaker Scott Smith argues that we need 'prehearsals' of the major challenges ahead.

One of the many difficult, disconcerting elements in the ongoing pandemic crisis is one that is often the most overlooked: a lack of preparedness to talk about this difficult future that we’ve found ourselves in.

I don’t mean talking about pandemics as a possibility, or the need to adapt government or business strategy, but just talking about the very, very new language we find ourselves in need of when trying to communicate about—and maybe get past—this global crisis. Just consider the myriad of new terms and phrases that we’ve had to wrap our heads around since February, many of which are literally about life-and-death: ‘contact tracing’, ’superspreader’, ’R-number’, ‘social distancing’, ’travel bubbles’, and the list goes on. These aren’t just terms thrown about by specialists, they are words we all need to understand so we can safely organize ourselves globally, nationally, locally, and within our own homes and families.

Amazingly, hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people have all taken on these new concepts and phrases in just a short few months. Ignoring their importance, or being slow to internalize them, or having difficulty in conversations about them can be life-threatening. At the beginning of 2020, these phrases were hardly used outside of medical and scientific practices. January wasn’t that long ago, but that was then, and this is now.

Putting Tomorrow Where Your Mouth Is

How do we deal with digesting these rapidly emergent new words and concepts? How do we get ourselves ready to use them—in this case, for critical care and safety, but perhaps moving forward for less terrifying situations? How, for example, might we become more comfortable with a new innovation, or new future rules or regulations that don’t exist at the moment? If we can imagine the scenarios these terms may arise in, something futurists like my colleagues and I do every day, we can imagine where and how this new language might pop up in the world, and do things to get comfortable with the language we will need to navigate these future possibilities.

For example, when thinking about rules and regulations for a specific future, you may recognize that proper terminology to describe what’s needed doesn’t yet exist. Likewise, you can’t advertise for staff or skills that don’t have a properly understood description (e.g. how can you hire contact tracers if people don’t even know what they are, or that they could be employed as one?). Or, you may see a need to begin signaling to or talking directly with partners about yet-to-emerge situations or risks. Likewise, you may have customers, members, users, partners, or constituents who aren’t yet aware of certain issues or challenges that lie ahead and their inputs are necessary to help achieve an inclusive vision of a preferred future.

The Future Is Now. Try It.

This is a good moment to begin thinking about long-term communication as a necessary prelude to future strategy. You may need to begin educating your network well in advance of a yet-to-emerge issue, to lay the groundwork for dialog, and create a basis on which to bring them into the future you’ve considered—a disruption in the market place, a new economic plan, a new business model, or yet another public health crisis. Part of the whiplash and disruption we face in dealing with unexpected futures is this stumble for useful language, use of outdated definitions, or the cultural dislocation that comes from the sudden emergence of unanticipated issues.

Take the time to consider how you will talk about various futures you might face. Write a mock press release, internal announcement, or social post, and see who understands. Test how to explain an unusual or emergent issue or condition to someone else. Run an internal poll within your organization looking for the best words and phrases to use for these new situations, roles, or needs. Create a fictional tip sheet for how to deal with new conditions, or write a job posting, seeking someone with the skills to manage this new type of change. These and other “prehearsals” can be useful for getting comfortable with communicating unexpected futures before they arrive.


This edited excerpt from How to Future: Leading and Sense-making in an Age of Hyperchange by Scott Smith with Madeline Ashby © 2020 is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd. 

Scott Smith is founder and managing partner of Changeist, a futures consulting firm based in The Hague. He was a speaker at NEXT14, NEXT15 and NEXT19.

Photo by Pierre Châtel-Innocenti on Unsplash