These 4 skills can make the world better after COVID-19

 The pandemic is first and foremost a human tragedy, but it is also shaking the pillars on which our society is based.

This shock to the planet has built an expectation of big changes that will lead us to a different and hopefully better world. But how should we get ready for these changes? Where should we intervene and with which priorities? What are the opportunities that we must seize and the risks to mitigate? What needs improving and what instead needs transformation?

In order for the hope of a better world to move beyond rhetorical optimism, we must be able to answer these questions. We must change the way we make decisions and become more knowledgeable about the future. Conventional approaches are no longer sufficient; new skills are needed.

But what are these new skills? Myself and seven friends, all alumni of the Universit√† di Trento’s Strategic Foresight MA degree, decided to use our expertise and the power of our collective intelligence to build a systemic analysis of the impact of COVID-19 in Italy. It was a challenging team exercise conducted remotely as we were all confined at home. The results of this analysis allowed us to picture the outlines of this phenomena and explain which new skills are needed to face this complexity and how to practice them.

The Global Risks Report 2020
The Global Risks Report 2020
Image: World Economic Forum

Skill 1: future literacy

In general terms, literacy is simply the ability to read and write, although it may be intended with a broader and more insightful meaning. The significant increase of literacy across many countries in the last two centuries together with the push of industrial revolutions has enabled a dramatic leap forward for civilization.

Now, however, we are living in a new era where the world is changing faster than ever and any change may have huge global consequences because we are increasingly connected to each other.

Perhaps it is time our society takes another step forward to cope with this new challenge, becoming a more “future literate” society. This is the skill that allows people to better imagine and make sense of the future. It’s important because it is images of the future that drive our expectations, disappointments, and willingness to invest or change.

UNESCO is building future literacy globally with local actors in more than 20 countries who organize Future Labs in schools and communities. The goal is to demonstrate that imagining the future is something that's accessible to everybody and that this capacity to imagine can be improved.

In December 2019 in Paris, UNESCO held the first Global Futures Literacy Design Forum with 28 different laboratories and people from all over the world. In Brazil, the recently launched #freethefuture movement is also pushing future literacy.

The question here is not to think of the future as an add-on; it should be integrated, like reading and writing, with what we do and what we think.

Skill 2: systems thinking

Almost all the challenges presented by the effects of COVID-19 relate to “systems”. Essentially a system consists of three things: a scope or function, parts, and relationships. In a system, the effect of interventions may appear distant in space and time.

Systems thinking is a mindset to think, communicate, and learn about systems to make the full patterns clearer, improve, and share the understanding of problems and see how to face them effectively.

In our exercise, through a method named “Futures Wheel”, we built a systemic picture of the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy, exploring its impact on different areas: social, technological, economic, environmental, and political. This was the magnifying glass which allowed us to spot the strategic themes that need to be faced.

Skill 3: anticipation

To explain this concept, we should reflect on a couple of things: in the present, there are signals of the future; and these signals are of something that is not yet evident but which has the potential to become empirical evidence if circumstances permit. Therefore, today there are futures in progress even if they are not clearly visible for most of us.

The anticipation skill requires us to learn how to recognize these possible futures and to use this augmented consciousness to shape our decisions and actions in the present.

This in practice means modifying our habits and behaviors to be better prepared for a continuously changing world.

Skill 4: strategic foresight

The disruptive changes in front of us will require choices and decisions and these will influence how the future world will evolve.

But how do we set our helm to first survive and then, hopefully, take advantage of the opportunities in this rough sea of change? This is a big challenge that requires a new strategic thinking attitude for governments, businesses, organizations, and people to better understand change and the future, as we will all be living and working in a future world that’s different from today in significant ways.

Strategic foresight and more generally “Futures Studies” are the disciplines that have broadened to an exploration of alternative futures and deepened to investigate the worldviews that underlie possible, plausible, probable, and preferred futures.

What skills will be in demand in 2022?
What skills will be in demand in 2022?
Image: Future of Jobs Report 2018, World Economic Forum

Moving from the assumption that the future will be a continuity of the present toward a better understanding of changes and multiplicity of the future will allow us to develop future-proof strategies that anticipate the consequences of alternative futures.

Ultimately, what we need is a cultural leap from a reactive approach to an anticipatory one. But we believe that this will only be possible if we manage to embed the competencies mentioned above into the skill sets of leaders, policy-makers, teachers, and every individual.

Today, we may grab the great chance for a breakthrough which could bring us to a better world, a more inclusive one with a sustainable economic system, an increased maturity of our society, and more conscious electors. A world where countries cooperate to make people safer, happier, and healthier and to treat them as equals.

If you want to dive deeper into this topic, please download our report from the Italian Institute for the Future.

Meet the team:

Stefano Oliveri, Digital Transformation Director

Joice Preira, Futurist & Foresight Strategist

Roberto Calzà, Social Welfare Manager

Carla Comper, Social Services Manager

Matej Iscra, Migrants and Refugees Case Manager

Emilio Iannarelli, Government Civil Servant

Mattia Rossi, Executive Coach & Futurist

Francesca Paini, Community Development & Welfare Specialist

Maria Balbin, Software Analyst