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2020: The year the future came early

14. May 2020

A future scenario developed in the beginning of 2020 by DDC captures our current political and economic reality in the covid-19 world almost too well

Long reads

Earlier this year we hosted more than 130 public sector and business leaders, innovators, academics, and designers from around the world in the BLOX-building on the Copenhagen waterfront. The purpose was to explore, then build, alternative future scenarios for societies and businesses in the year 2050. Our team is still hard at work processing the scenarios as a strategic output and a set of tools. While the work has been delayed by the corona crisis, there’s time for a bit of reflection on the link to the current situation.

See, we had no idea the conference participants would imagine and plan a scenario for 2050 that would become eerily real just a few weeks later.

Four alternative futures

Through an intensive, one-day interactive workshop titled Experimentation by Design, the participants produced baseline scenarios and applied them to different domains such as the future of work, of cities, manufacturing, welfare, and mobility. The baseline scenarios were built across two axes of high uncertainty and high potential importance: Will our future society be mainly shaped by narrow market needs, or by broad, holistic, societal needs? And will our dominant governance model – for states as well as for enterprises – be mainly centralized or distributed? Crossing these two axes produced four general future outcomes, which could shape our world as we know it (e.g. “centralized and market-driven” or “distributed and driven by societal needs”). The resulting four domains became the overarching frame for discussion at the event.

One very real present

At the time, a few participants had heard news of a strange airborne flu-like virus originating from a Chinese megacity and already wreaking havoc there. Fast forward six weeks, Copenhagen and most of the world was engulfed by a pandemic. On March 11th, 2020, the government of Denmark announced a near-total shut down of the country; followed by closed borders a few days later.

Is this future happening?

One of the future scenarios developed on that chilly January day in Copenhagen reflects exactly the situation we found ourselves in during lock-down this winter: A world where power, especially governmental, is highly centralized, and where market dynamics take a back seat to societal demands.

Named Beta, the scenario describes a world where systemic issues are destroying the planet and fueling unprecedented levels of inequality. To counter the issues, people put their trust in a political solution. Governments are empowered with a wide mandate to regulate society as needed to ensure society is socially and environmentally constructive.

As they developed this scenario, some participants talked about it as “Big Mother” overseeing and accommodating our every need; others warned of too much power in too few hands.

"All around the world, states have consolidated their influence and efforts around centers of power — large cities with the solidity and strength to withstand the challenges of the outside world. Be it nature or geopolitics. It was necessary to move closer together, grab hold of each other, and stand tall. It wasn’t easy and we had to make sacrifices to get here: To lead more balanced lives, of course, but ultimately it was a matter of survival."

Description of the Beta scenario

Description of the Beta scenario

Today, five months after the conference, and two months since the lock-down was announced, I read an opinion piece in a Danish newspaper, accusing the Danish PM of dismantling the fundamental freedoms of the Danish people and acting more and more like an Orwellian leader. I couldn’t help but feel that the future had now arrived.

The centralized/societally-focused future world has now been further developed and published, together with its three alternative futures, as part of a major scenario design toolkit. The kit is an online resource for the Experimentation by Design participants, and others, to work systematically and hands-on with scenario design in their own context. The aim is to facilitate action in an uncertain present by looking at concrete, plausible outcomes for the future.

It is of course far too early to determine if we’ll be living in the “Beta” future scenario for long. One thing is that the future came early. Another is if we’re going to accept it. As the anthropologist David Rolfe Graber has said, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.”

Let’s hope so.

More on the Experimentation by Design conference here.

Sara Gry Striegler

Program Director

Mail sgs@ddc.dk
Phone +45 6110 4778
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