How science fiction can help improve our long term thinking skills to address an age of external disruption
The State of Israel, and Israelis in general, are not known for our long-term strategic planning skills. This has always surprised me, since the State itself was inspired by Altneuland, Theodore Herzl’s work of science fiction. Since those early, heady days of Zionist visioning, it seems the reality of building a country in a harsh environment of great uncertainty shortened our foresight and trained our focus heavily on the here-and-now.
Perhaps it is because of this weakness that we now find Israel in the second week of 2022, experiencing a moment of almost greater uncertainty than when the virus was first discovered. After two years of living in a pandemic-colored world, we’ve lost the ability to track the spread following a complete failure of our testing infrastructure. It seems we literally couldn’t imagine – and thereby plan for – any future variation of the original virus that would spread more than Delta. Just as many cannot seem to imagine a future variant more harmful than Omicron. Our hospitals were so busy putting out the immediate fires of today’s respiratory cases that we are ignoring increasingly frequent warnings by immunologists about the long-term implications of the virus on the brain.
After two years of pandemic, we’ve lost the ability to track the spread following a complete failure of our testing infrastructure. We couldn’t imagine any future variation of the original virus that would spread more than Delta
Now that cases of Omicron are nearing their zenith, we need to find time, davka in the eye of the storm, to take a step back and assess how we lost control of the pandemic at this relatively mature stage. More importantly, we need to try to imagine all of the possible pathways leading outwards from this moment of mass infection.
The task seems monumental. How can so many unknowns possibly be assessed in any way even remotely useful? As it turns out, we can take a cue from Herzl’s own genre, and learn to use the tools of science fiction.
With cases at their zenith, we need to find time, davka in the eye of the storm, to take a step back and assess and plan our future response. We can take a cue from Herzl’s own genre, and learn to use the tools of science fiction
While science fiction has a reputation as a nerdy pastime, countries such as China and the United States have looked to the educated guesses of science fiction writers for decades to explore emerging opportunities and threats. Courses on how to use Science Fiction are taught in universities, and science fiction is often used as a means of preparing the public for a possible future that they find either especially threatening, or whetting the public’s appetite to mobilize towards opportunities that require collective action.
Most of all, science fiction is a powerful tool for thinking about our present moment and whether it is prepared for the future. Uri Aviv, the founder of the Utopia Festival, points out that science fiction is a tool that enables us to ensure that “tomorrow will be different than yesterday.” In contrast to scenario planning – a tool widely used in military organizations – science fiction uses the power of narrative to enable readers to explore how they believe society would respond to a set of developments, to give themselves perspective to judge the present, and potentially course correct if they do not like the outcome.
For example, it would be very helpful for our government to imagine an Israel celebrating its 100th birthday with 2% of our population debilitated by the immunological and neurological consequences of COVID infection. What should be done now to prepare us if this is indeed a possibility? If this future Israel is still beset from time-to-time by infectious diseases made more prevalent due to climate change, as scientists predict with high certainty, what tools are necessary to prevent further damage from occurring to our population?
For example, it would be very helpful for our government to imagine an Israel celebrating its 100th birthday with 2% of our population debilitated by the immunological and neurological consequences of COVID infection. What policies should we put in place now to address this risk?
Or alternatively, what if Omicron does, in fact, give an overwhelming number of Israelis some level of immunity against future variants, and the government’s throw-oil-on-the-fire strategy works to provide some, but not complete, immunity? Do we accept an Israel that periodically endures mass infection as a way to protect the economy? How many children and elderly are we willing to sacrifice annually, if this is the strategy our government decides to continue to pursue? And do we compensate those who suffer as a result of this strategy, as we compensate victims of Hamas rockets and residents of Otef Aza?
Looking back at our present moment from that probable future, we would recognize an opportunity to mobilize our expertise in advanced materials, electro-optics, and cybersecurity to invest in new preventative infrastructure that would enable us to better weather the coming storms. We would learn from these past two years that it took massive public investment to build adequate responses for the pandemic, and we would develop an aligned innovation infrastructure to build an industry that can prepare our people to respond better to future threats.
While it doesn’t take science fiction to recognize we have at least another year in this pandemic, if not three, adopting the tools of science fiction could help us better elucidate the opportunities and threats we face, and how we can address them
While it doesn’t take science fiction to recognize that we have at least another year in this current pandemic, if not three, adopting the tools of science fiction could help us better elucidate the opportunities and threats we face, and how we can address them. Just imagine if back in March 2020 the Ministry of Education would have envisioned a school system resilient in the face of pandemics, upgraded our classrooms to be less conducive to airborne disease, and invested in remote learning technologies without the limitations of Zoom to support quarantined kids? By now we could have pioneered a Roblox for learning, enabling digital interaction between students, adding resilience to our social fabric, allowing us to make more level-headed decisions about the public health ramifications of cutting quarantine requirements for kids. That sounds utopian right about now. It is still possible for the next round, if only we set our eyes on the future.