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Anticipating Possible Futures

Comprehending the present is incredibly challenging. Predicting the future is nearly impossible. Yet the current pandemic crisis means people are looking for answers, not just about what is happening today, but why we didn’t properly predict the magnitude of the virus, and how we could do a better job of predicting future pandemics.

As graduates from the School of Sustainability, one of the five core competencies you have learned is futures-thinking.  All of you know that futures-thinking is not about predicting the future, but anticipating possible and plausible futures, creating scenarios for a brighter future, and then developing strategies to achieve those futures.

In a hyper-connected world, people can travel to just about anywhere in a single day, potentially transmitting disease far and wide. On an urban planet, high-density living permits quick spread of illness (witness New York). Increasing global temperatures may give rise to new viruses and bacteria harmful to human health. Destruction of wildlife habitat will bring species into greater contact with people and increase the potential for lethal diseases that jump species. Enduring poverty will put the most vulnerable at great risk of disease, threatening communities everywhere.

In other words, the pandemic crisis is a sustainability crisis. Anticipating future crises and being ready for them will require a systems approach that integrates the social-ecological-technical factors and dynamics that you learned about in SOS.

The infrastructure that connects us can be a force for readiness and resilience. We cannot turn back the clock on globalization, on urbanization, or on the telecommunications revolution. These are powerful forces that can do harm, but they can also be harnessed to do great good. How to align these and other forces to achieve the future we want will require a great deal of care, imagination, creativity, and energy. My hope is that we have equipped you with the skills, knowledge, competencies, and—most  importantly—the mindset to anticipate not only possible futures, but desired futures that minimize suffering, maximize well-being, and take care of the environment on which we all depend.

Now more than ever, the world needs this kind of thinking and these kind of thinkers. It needs you. Congratulations Class of 2020!