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Language has the power to shape the way we think – and the way we plan for the future. As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic world, we need to challenge our use of old metaphors to allow for new narratives and better futures to emerge.

Words matter

Recently my colleague Ruth Hannan wrote about why we shouldn’t use war metaphors to talk about healthcare during this present crisis. She rightfully stated that the normalisation of this language will have ripple effects on how we deal with the immediate response and frames our current expectations.

This is not unique to the UK. The collective war framing used by all – politicians, heads of government and especially the media – harks back to familiar metaphors and histories. Words that tap into old victories and a need for a common enemy. Although this may be effective for the present  what of the future?

Why do we use militaristic language and war framing to describe global crises? Is it because battles have been won before? Or does a collective mass mobilization of this magnitude only happen in times of war? Or because it bolsters public opinion of government officials when they are part of a ‘war cabinet’ or wartime government’?

Perhaps the system in place only responds to a crisis of this scale as part of a war effort. Those words signal to the public sector what is required and the entire public service architecture rises to meet that challenge.

What would happen if we use different words?  Would there be a different outcome or better yet a different response?

It is odd to think of alternative futures when at present the future is anything but certain.

"The future is not an empty space but like the past it is an active aspect of the present." - Professor Ivana Milojevic, Futurist

I am sure over the past months many of you have seen or explored various post-pandemic scenarios. We are all, either personally or in our professional lives, playing out different scenarios in our head or on paper. We have been individually creating alternative futures and secretly assessing what is needed in the present should any of those futures become a reality.

By doing so we have unwittingly been using a widely popular tool used within the foresight community known as scenario planning.

What is foresight? Why is it important?

Foresight is defined as the capacity to think systematically about the future by using a toolbox of methods and approaches. It is a ‘participatory future intelligence gathering and medium- to long-term vision building process aimed at present decisions and mobilising joint actions.’ 

As a practice, foresight is as old as time; mystics, griots and shamans would hold the histories of their tribe or people and pass it on from generation to generation, and in so doing also conserved the cycles of change and futures within their societies. As the practice of foresight evolved over time it has also been influenced by macro historians, science fiction, systems thinking, human consciousness and philosophy.

Scenario planning is a widely deployed foresight methodology, first made popular by the Shell strategy team in the 1970s. It is used (both then and now) to develop and examine alternative futures based on drivers of change in order to better prepare ourselves in the present.

Even though scenario planning is currently widely practiced and deployed in varied organizational contexts, I believe the transformative moment of the present demands a sharper tool. One that challenges our use of language in addition to scenario planning.

Within the foresight community, there is a methodology known as Causal Layered Analysis. Created by Sohail Inayatullah, a world-renowned Futurist, it analyses and challenges narratives and discourses used to explain the past, present and futures. It is deeply occupied with examining the social and cultural substructures that inform the futures through four distinct layers: 1) the litany (headlines); 2) the causes (social, political, economic); 3) discourse which supports the structure (worldview or culture) and 4) stories, metaphors, myths.

In this methodology, the myths and metaphors are the bedrock which inform the entire structure –and only by interrogating and shifting metaphors can we imagine another future. New narratives and systems which support these stories will ultimately create new futures. It is also critical for new measurements to be implemented to make sure that stories are rooted in reality.

Imagine if we used an alternative metaphor – seeing the virus as part of an ecosystem, where the advent of new viruses is itself a signal that much is out of balance and urgent corrective action is needed. By bringing much needed attention to deforestation and climate change as contributing factors, and by addressing both, we could therefore begin to curb the incidence of pandemics.

By replacing the militaristic language with metaphors rooted in ecology, underlying assumptions are challenged, and a new way of thinking emerges.

So yes, words matter – and so storytelling holds an implicit power to create alternative futures in the present.

Imagine the alternative futures we could create if we changed our language in other areas – ‘low-skilled’ worker to ‘essential’ worker, or Gross Domestic Product to Gross National Happiness.

Just imagine.


I am interested in hearing from Fellows who are futurists, involved in foresight, those who are emerging foresight practitioners. I am keen to get your insight and perspective. Please do not hesitate to drop me a line at Lab@rsa.org.uk

Find out more about our project exploring what benefits foresight methods offer to support policy-makers and practitioners, and to stimulate public dialogue on key issues.

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