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COVID-19: Time to Put Strategic Foresight at the Heart of Leadership


The disruptive outbreak of COVID-19 and the ensuing global crisis continue to send shockwaves across the globe. Yet, it came as no surprise neither to virologists and epidemiologists nor to foresight practitioners. The initially slow and wavering responses by governments around the world resulted not only in the loss of human life and economic suffering, but also highlighted the importance of strategic foresight, anticipatory governance and a well-functioning link between science, data, and policy.

Strategic foresight and anticipatory governance in practice

Foresight is not about making numerous wild (and often vague) guesses about the future and it is very different from the dangerous doomsday predictions that have been shared like wildfire since the outbreak started. Instead, foresight uses sophisticated methods to develop, analyse, and contrast plausible, alternative stories of the future to support policymakers building up preparedness and resilience. By revealing and challenging deeply held assumptions, strategic foresight “enables leaders to ask better questions about the future, make strategic choices explicit and support the discovery, design and consideration of more and better options for action.”

Anticipatory governance or prospective leadership is the application of foresight and evidence-based planning to policymaking. This can happen via institutional innovation such as setting up dedicated foresight units, embedding foresight checks within the policy cycle, or placing the issue as a regular, reoccurring agenda item in cabinet sessions or c-suite meetings. It can also happen less explicitly, by leaders adopting and mainstreaming a ‘foresight mindset’ and internalising some of its fundamental principles.

We could have seen it coming

Could the COVID-19 pandemic been anticipated? Since the world has experienced pandemics before, from the 1918 Spanish flu to the more recent SARS outbreak, it should not come as a surprise that indeed experts have repeatedly raised the alarm about the potential risk of another pandemic, as have prominent figures such as Bill Gates.

Books such as “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs” by Michael Osterholm ‘predicted’ with remarkable accuracy how a global outbreak of a new infectious disease would play out. But most importantly, he and many other experts have not only warned against such crises – they also outlined ways to mitigate the potential damage. And this is where the link between anticipatory governance and actionable policymaking seems to have failed.

The missing link: why were we not better prepared

The many books dealing with pandemics often feature drastic titles to attract a wider readership, but arguably they did not manage to convince decision-makers of the need to prepare. This raises the question of whether the COVID-19 pandemic could have been mitigated with closer links between science and policy as well as better foresight systems in place.

A closer look at government-embedded foresight in the US and the EU shows that, while being on the radar of experts, the risk of a pandemic did not seemingly translate into policy action. The intelligence community, as well as specialised health or disaster prevention agencies, did warn about the dangers of such an outbreak. Yet, on both sides of the Atlantic, the issue seemingly received too little attention in the kind of high-level reports that senior decision-makers would be more likely to act upon.

Instead, many countries even decreased their preparedness to a pandemic (and to many other plausible black swan events). Cost pressures, amplified by the 2008 economic crisis, as well as changing threat perceptions and strategic considerations, led to dwindling medical stockpiles, shortages of PPE, and generally underfunded health systems that now struggle to cope with the dimensions of the pandemic. Ultimately, the slow and often clumsy responses of governments around the world in the weeks following the outbreak further aggravated shortages and coordination issues.

With all this in mind, what can be done to better prepare for future shocks?

Building preparedness and resilience

In the case of a global pandemic, options for enhanced preparedness range from improved collaboration and coordination to the creation of medical stockpiles and redundancies, reduction of import dependencies, standby diagnostics, deep antiviral libraries, early warning systems and contingency plans.

A global pandemic is not the only event with potentially catastrophic outcomes. To prepare for such incidents more generally, policymakers and institutions should integrate principles of strategic foresight and anticipatory governance into their rulebook. Foresight capabilities and functioning links between ‘foresighters’ and policy-planners should be fostered. Innovative, creative thinking and scenario planning exercises, as well as advanced crisis simulations should be encouraged during policy cycles and translated into concrete action to build preparedness and resilience.

Furthermore, structural deficits or institutional design flaws (e.g., unclear competences; division of responsibilities in a federal system or among government agencies; or policy silos) need to be addressed early on. Lastly, the crucial role of scientific advice and expert input in policy-making and governance needs to be acknowledged and promoted.

Ultimately, building resilience through strategic foresight and anticipatory governance can be expressed as a cost-benefit equation: The cost of preparedness, even for a variety of unlikely disruptive events, tends to be much lower than the costs incurred when such events do occur. The lesson applies to global health and pandemics as much as to other risks: Time to put strategic foresight and preparedness at the heart of leadership.

Ricardo Borges de Castro is Associate Fellow, Global Fellowship Initiative, Geneva Centre for Security Policy and former Adviser on Strategic Foresight to the European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC), the European Commission’s in-house think tank.

Lewin Schmitt is Pre-Doctoral Fellow at Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) and former Policy Analyst at the EPSC.

Also published on Geneva Center for Security Policy on September 30, 2020