Imagine this. You see a photograph of a horse. A snapshot. This horse looks like it’s suspended in the air, hooves not touching the ground in mid-stride. Pure levitation.
This is one frame of the animal running at full speed. But with the understanding of movement removed, we only see and appreciate that particular moment.
That frame is what change often looks like.
We think of change as an end state that is different to the original state. For example, the horse reaching a finish line versus the start of the race. The transition to an end state is made up of an infinite number of micro-changes, so small that they are not noticeable. The horse in that photo in mid-air is a step, a change in position, towards the end state of crossing the finish line.
Were it not for our knowledge of what the end state looks like – in this case, crossing the finish line – we would find it hard to understand that change is afoot. But it’s precisely because we know what the end state is, that we are excited about the change in a race.
Let’s think of the opposite situation, when we don’t know what the end state is going to be and we risk not grasping that change is happening. Have we ever been in such a situation? Or, have we ever not been?
In life and in politics there are often moments when we may be unsure about the future, and at the same time not realise that things are in flux.
I’m thinking of consequential episodes in history, such as those that caused conflict or initiated powerful social movements. Closer to us as individuals, a birth, the news of illness or the knowledge of unexpected opportunities will set our lives on new paths.
Sudden changes require us to rethink the fundamentals that we held to be true. They challenge our assumptions.
Alas, often there is an asymmetry of information: a social activist imagines one kind of future. A terrorist aims for another. A doctor informing someone about an illness has a course of treatment in mind and information about the life that might ensue. Even as a child is born, we have a social and cultural image of what life as a family would or should look like.
Here is the crux of this piece.
What if we know that change is happening, but nobody knows what the future will hold and how we will change? I would argue that we are in the middle of such a situation right now.
And although our collective horse-like levitation has lasted for well over a year, we are none the wiser. Don’t misunderstand. Businesses have digitised, schools moved online, support schemes started and so much more. We have thought, spoken and written about the new normal.
And yet, on a very practical level, we have all settled into habits that the situation seems to demand, without really, or sufficiently, examining and challenging whether this is what we want. Without critically exploring what future will follow.
As countries have more or less shut down again, are we actually clear about the way we will emerge as a society from this lockdown and globally shared experience? Have you sat down with your family, friends or colleagues to ask how you see the future 10 or 20 years from now? What will the new normal look and feel like? What will it sound and smell like? How will our children interact as adults with other adults? What will be lost and gained? It is hard to understate the significance of this moment and its implication for the future.
At the best of times the future is uncertain. Saying that now is a platitude.
So, this is a call to action. An expression for the need to take stock and acknowledge that life is changing – that we are changing and that there is urgent need to collectively design what we and our world will change into.
This is not a fork in the road, no switch to be flicked: Covid-19 is with us for the long haul, perhaps for the majority of this decade.
So what could 2030 look like?
This is different to asking what you want the world to look like in 2030. But, if you have a compelling answer to both, we stand a better chance to come out of this with our collective sanity intact. It will also ensure that the suspended horse lands on solid ground, ready to take the next step. Unless we think about it, we will never know where this change is leading and can only hope that the horse is not in the middle of a jump off a cliff. And you know how I feel about hope as a strategy for the future.
Dr Patrick Noack is the executive director of future, foresight and imagination at the Dubai Future Foundation