Foresight and Scenarios in Times of COVID-19

Foresight and Scenarios in Times of COVID-19

COVID-19 is a deep disruption to human systems. The world is having to muddle through huge uncertainties about the consequences and longer-term impacts.  This requires ‘thinking the unthinkable’ and exploring ‘neglected nexuses’. A key issue is how food system recovery pathways might unfold, especially given the “Build Back Better” mantra now being voiced by many leading decision makers.

Even before the outbreak it was clear that a profound a transform of food systems is needed for good nutrition, inclusive development and environmental sustainability. This combined with major concerns about the resilience of food systems, particularly in the face of climate change, led the UN Secretary General to call for a Food Systems Summit in 2021.

The current economic and social crisis induced by COVID-19 underscores the critical need for food systems that are resilient to shocks (particularly given underlying stresses), and which in times of crisis can protect the welfare of all, especially poor and vulnerable food producers and consumers.  

Over the last months many assumptions and projections about poverty levels, nutrition, food trade, vulnerability of different groups and achievement of the SDGs have gone out the window. Scenarios of increased poverty and inequality are seeming far more likely. Updated perspectives, framing and insight are urgently needed. Leadership, decision making, and advocacy have a critical need for rapid “collective intelligence” gathering and synthesis about what is happening to food systems, emerging risks, opportunities, and the options for responding.

However, in these times of turbulence, uncertainty, novelty and ambiguity (TUNA), conventional data collection, modelling and analytical mechanisms are not enough.  They need to be be complemented by greater attention for existing scenarios and analysis that highlight the risks of global disruptions, and by additional intelligence gathering to provide rapid and meaningful insights into what post COVID-19 futures might look like.

This calls for sense making and decision processes appropriate to high levels of complexity and uncertainty. Such processes need to draw on human capabilities for perceiving, communicating and recognising complex patterns, which can be connected into networks for collective intelligence and adaptive responses. There is well developed theory and methodology to support such an approach.  In essence it involves:

  1. Creating heightened and rapid ‘situational awareness’ through sensing methods that ‘probe’ for critical changes in systems using peoples experience to judge what is important and significant, while using diverse perspectives and dissent to also detect ‘weak signals’.
  2. Sense making through opening up spaces for structured collective deliberation by actors with diverse backgrounds, experience, perspectives and interests, and making use of rapidly sourced coherently structured ‘narrative information’.
  3. Engaging stakeholders and decision makers in well informed scenario thinking about risks, opportunities and transformative pathways.
  4. Reconfiguring decision making and innovation through more inclusive and diverse forums that engage decision makers in processes built around principles of complexity analysis and scenario thinking.

Over the coming weeks Foresight4Food will be working with the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) to provide an online webinar series to help practitioners use foresight and scenario approaches to assess the potential impacts of COVID-19 on food and agriculture.

Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead