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Why Foresight Trumps Resilience

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My LinkedIn feed is awash with talk of resilience these days. The ability to bounce back from adversity stronger than ever is understandably appealing when we’ve been blindsided by an unexpected, and unexpectedly severe, event. And there’s nothing wrong with developing resilience – a focus on efficiency and productivity has left us very little slack with which to be resilient.

But resilience is a curative rather than preventive medicine, and it leaves us open to further unexpected and unpleasant events. While you can’t prepare for every eventuality, it is nevertheless possible to develop skills and tools to anticipate the future. A resilient dog will get up quickly each time it is knocked down by a car. A dog with foresight will take another route.

“But,” you say, “it’s impossible to know what will happen in the future, so we can’t prepare for it. The pandemic is a great example of that.” Foresight is indeed not about predicting the future – that activity is left to mystics and fortune-tellers. Yet that doesn’t mean the future isn’t worth thinking about. In fact, we do it all the time. Planning for a holiday or putting a budget together are both future-oriented activities that require, in theory at least, some expectation of what is to come.

The pandemic is in fact a good example of something that could, to some extent, be anticipated. Writing in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the Spanish influenza pandemic, the World Economic Forum wrote: “It is tempting to believe the world has already witnessed the worst epidemics … however … the number and diversity of epidemic events has been increasing over the past 30 years, a trend that is expected to intensify.” Covid-19 has forced the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to be delayed, but we shouldn’t forget the panic that Zika virus caused in the run-up to the previous Games in Rio de Janeiro. No one wants to hear it, but the seeds of the next pandemic may already have been sown.

But anticipation isn’t about communicable disease. It’s about identifying trends. These could include the decline in global poverty, the increase in global communications, demographics, and climate change. These trends may shift over time, but they are also consistent enough that we can be reasonable confident where they’re heading in the future. Anticipation is also about using our imaginations to conceive of what is possible beyond the trends, both good and bad. In technology, society, politics and beyond, there are countless activities that will combine to create unpredictable, wonderful and terrifying futures. Finally, anticipation is about forming an opinion about what we want to happen. The future hasn’t happened yet, so it is still open to our influence.

So by all means embrace resilience and its ability to help you recover from the setbacks you can’t avoid. Yet don’t underestimate your ability to make sense of the murky and confusing world of the future, and take action now not just to prepare for it, but to influence it in your favor. The future may currently seem more uncertain than ever, and that makes it all the more important to explore it. You may find it’s not as uncertain as you think.

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