The blackest of swans
The future is a kaleidoscope. What we can see depends on where we are
Toronto was under siege by SARS when my daughter was born; in fact, it was in the hospital where we had Paige. As a result, we were quarantined a couple of days after bringing her home. This meant we all had to sleep in separate bedrooms, wear face-masks all day, and could not go out. Nobody could visit us, either, so we had a lonely week just when we should have had people pouring through the house.
I remembered this when digging through my foresight work from several years ago. Around 2005-2007, public worry about the future wasn't about the economy; it was about bird flu. If this strikes you as funny now, after one economic meltdown and as we balance on the edge of another, consider this: bird flu is back. It made a return in central Asia this summer, and may spread.
The future we imagine usually mirrors our concerns of the day. That's one reason we get blind-sided by events: we're looking one way and a crisis comes at us from another. This is why in foresight we look for what we call 'critical uncertainties,' which are trends or possible events whose occurrence or effects are highly uncertain, but whose importance would be high if they occurred. Right now, another global economic meltdown is not a critical uncertainty, because, well, it's highly likely and thus not uncertain at all. Lots of people are paying attention to it, and that means that foresighters (futurists? forecasters? still struggling with my terminology) don't have to.
No, in terms of near-future disruptions--particularly 'black swan' events--my money's on bird flu again. Don't forget, this is a disease with a 50% mortality rate, as high as Ebola's, but which is a hundred times more communicable than Ebola. If half your office comes down with bird flu, a quarter of your office-mates will be dead in a week. But we have no idea whether it'll break out the way SARS did, so it's one of our most critical uncertainties.
SARS was a lesson for me; I lived it and I know what a city under quarantine would look like. People dropped food baskets on our porch and then ran for their cars. On the other hand, disciplined efforts in Toronto, Ottawa and San Francisco eliminated the North American outbreak, and thus helped prevent a pandemic.
It's good to feel prepared. The problem is, now that I know about this roving blindspot we all have towards the future, I find myself constantly wondering: what other critical issues have fallen off our radar because we've become distracted?