From this month’s Humanitarian Futures newsletter:

  • Strategic foresight, anticipation and action
  • Immunisation and vaccine hesitancy
  • Pandemic drivers and emerging capabilities in neuroscience and neurotechnology
As we began to prepare for the February edition of the Humanitarian Futures newsletter, we hoped that we would not dwell on the recent coronavirus, or #COVID19 outbreak. As you will see however, from the perspective of futures and planning, it was an issue that we just couldn’t avoid.

One reason was that a colleague of ours, Beris Gwynne, who founded and chairs the strategic foresight organization called Incitare, was to head off to Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University in March to make a presentation on strategic foresight. Unfortunately, but understandably, the increasing spread of coronavirus meant that the event was postponed.

In a way there’s a certain irony in that decision, namely, that Beris’s presentation has particular relevance to the business of mitigating and anticipating an increasing range of threats. So, we thought that we would give you some thoughts from Beris about strategic foresight, and let you decide how it might affect the ways that potential crisis threats should be anticipated, including the prospect of pandemics.

Before you take a look at her presentation outline, we thought that we would share Beris’s compelling introduction about the practical importance of strategic foresight:

As uptake of “futures thinking” accelerates in governmental, private sector and academic and other civil society constituencies, the most pressing challenge is not the promotion of “futures literacy”, or the recognition of “used future” world views or mind-sets.  It is not the analysis of mega-trends that were well known in selected circles well before the days of AI, Big Data, and Deep or Machine learning, or the professionalisation of “scenario planning”, or even in the back-casting.  It is the transformation of these new “insights” into “strategic foresight”, engaging in more profound ways in collective intelligence and knowledge creation processes, and most importantly, turning “anticipation” in “action”.

This is where, local to global, change agents and thought leaders know the rubber hits the road.  This is where experience and observation over the centuries point us to the vagaries of individual and organisational behaviour.  This wouldn’t be noteworthy if it weren’t that many of the institutions of governance we have created and counted on to provide wise leadership and assure accountability for the greater good appear to have exceeded their use-by dates.

This is where we discover how hard it is to change deeply embedded prejudices and “popular” habits and confront powerful vested interests. It is where we realise how much easier it is to organise a conference or set up another SDG purposed “platform” than it is to find the resources to invest in developing the “soft skills” that will be essential to our success in charting a course of risk-managed experimentation to transition to preferred and more sustainable futures.

Earlier in the month, we found ourselves with another opportunity that related to the #COVID19 outbreak. That was a forum assembled to consider the challenges facing those who try to mitigate the impacts of potential health threats. In this instance, the issue was how to overcome what was called ‘vaccine hesitancy’. In a meeting in London organized by the US-based Centre for the Study of International Security and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, an interesting challenge was laid out. (See https://healthsecurity.csis.org/final-report)

In a reversal of nearly two decades of improvements in immunization coverage around the world, several vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and polio, are now resurgent. In 2018 there were more than 140,000 deaths worldwide from measles, an increase of 16,000 over the previous year. In 2019 the United States reported more than 1,270 cases, the highest number in the two decades since measles transmission was eliminated there. In Europe, there were over 83,500 measles cases in 2018, with the United Kingdom, Albania, the Czech Republic, and Greece all losing their elimination status in 2019. The number of wild polio cases reported globally last year, 156, was nearly five times higher than in 2018, even as the WHO declared in October that type 3 poliovirus had been eradicated.

The factors associated with vaccine hesitancy are highly context-specific. In places where vaccine-preventable diseases are no longer common, some individuals and health care providers have become complacent about the need for vaccination, leading to lower coverage. There is also a newer dynamic in which immunization efforts are disrupted by “digital wildfires’ – social media assaults that occur at moments of high political tension or the start of national vaccination campaigns. Earlier this year, in the Peshawar region of Pakistan, rumors that the polio vaccine contained poison circulated on social media and brought the immunization activity to a near standstill.

strategic foresight and pandemic drivers

If the recent coronavirus might have led you to think more generally about the implications of possible pandemic drivers in the future, you might want to take a look at other dimensions of what the journal, Prisms, describes in its Prism 8 No.3 edition about neuropharmacological agents. An article of particular relevance from a defense and security perspective is Joseph de Franco et al.’s, Redefining Neuroweapons: Emerging Capabilities in Neuroscience and Neurotechnology. The article is by no means only about threats, but also about steps towards dealing with them.

Before closing, the Humanitarian Futures team is very eager to know the sorts of issues that might concern you when it comes to thinking about longer term challenges and solutions which all of us as humanitarian actors need to consider.

Please stay in touch.

In the meantime, our thanks to you for continuing to show interest in our efforts to prepare for humanitarian challenges of the future,

The Humanitarian Futures team

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