Strategic Foresight and Fragmentation
Scenario pluralism should shape our worldview post Covid19
by Nicholas Dungan
Too many strategic foresight scenarios share the flaw of trying to gauge everything through the lens of one paramount explanation from which all findings flow.
Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his essay ‘The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will’, wrote:
If I may be permitted an almost unpardonable degree of simplification and generalisation, I should like to suggest that the central core of the intellectual tradition in the West has, since Plato…rested upon three unquestioned dogmas:
(a) that to all genuine questions there is one true answer and one only…;
(b) that the true answers to such questions are in principle knowable;
(c) that these true answers cannot clash with one another….2
Berlin’s purpose in articulating these dogmas was to refute them. Isaiah Berlin was a proponent of ‘value pluralism’. As Joshua Cherniss and Henry Hardy explain in their contribution on Berlin to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: ‘According to Berlin’s pluralism, genuine values are many, and may—and often do—come into conflict with one another. When two or more values clash, it does not mean that one or another has been misunderstood; nor can it be said, a priori, that any one value is always more important than another.’
Fragmentation works better than concentration
In attempting to arrive at a strategic forecast of the world post-Covid19, we would do well to apply Berlin’s intellectual legacy of value pluralism to the construction of our scenarios. We might consider this, and we might call this, ‘scenario pluralism’, which would consist in the recognition that no single over-arching scenario will prevail, that seemingly contradictory actions and reactions will coexist alongside each other and that recognising those contradictions, far from undermining the credibility of our scenarios, actually makes them more realistic and thereby more robust.
Another way to illustrate this scenario pluralism would be to apply the principle of ‘transformation
maps’ used by the World Economic Forum, which are designed to ‘help users to explore and make sense of the complex and interlinked forces that are transforming economies, industries and global issues’. In this case the transformation maps would apply not to the interrelated issues of today but to the hypotheses about tomorrow.
To keep the terminology simple, we might merely designate this strategic forecasting principle as ‘fragmentation’.
Why the Covid19 crisis produces greater fragmentation
While Covid19 has affected everyone in the world, it has affected many people differently. The multiplicity of government responses stems from radically different constitutional and political structures, governance bodies and healthcare systems in different places. The effect on business organisations depends on their particular characteristics and their industry sector; and policy support for businesses and employees varies in the same way.
Fragmentation also originates in the plurality of the crisis. In the Covid19 crisis multiple forms of crisis are overlaid upon each other, with the health and public safety crisis cast atop them all. So perceptions and policies respond here to the health issues, there to the economic or financial consequences, elsewhere to the impact on society.
The Sense of Reality
Where does this lead us, then? It can only lead to one place: a heightened sense of reality which must be incorporated into our strategic foresight. And for that we may turn, once again, to Sir Isaiah Berlin, this time in his essays ‘The Sense of Reality’ and especially ‘Political Judgement’. This sense of reality, he writes: ‘entails, above all, a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicoloured, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data, too many, too swift, too intermingled to be caught and pinned down and labelled like so many individual butterflies. … To seize a situation in this sense one needs to see … what the result is likely to be in a concrete situation of the interplay of human beings and impersonal forces—geographical or biological or psychological or whatever they may be. It is a sense for what is qualitative rather than quantitative. (3)
The sense of reality, combined with the recognition of fragmentation and an increased tolerance for scenario pluralism—rather than seeking a one-size-fits-all solution—will then lead us to strategic solutions of greater robustness and resilience.
(1) This issue brief is an abridged and updated version of a paper initially published in April 2020.
(2) Isaiah Berlin. The Proper Study of Mankind. London: Vintage Books. 2013. p.555.
(3) Isaiah Berlin. The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1996. pp. 46-47.