A Simple Paper Exercise for the Future

As we close out 2020, here’s a simple tool for reflecting on what’s to come

It’s now been one year since Dr. Li Wenliang warned the world of the respiratory disease that would change the world, eventually taking his life in the process. As we think about a decade hence, it’s worth considering the potential ripple effects of what we’re seeing now.

During times of crisis, it helps to look at three factors: the past and how it’s shaping us, the present conditions and reality, and what’s likely to come. This is particularly tricky with COVID-19. One thing worth noting, for instance, is the pandemic’s second order effects. In other words, there’s what the pandemic is causing — death, illness, anxiety — but also what it’s causing that’s causing other things. Take, for instance, the boom in the dog market, alongside a drop in calls to domestic violence hotlines. These second order effects are harder to assess in advance, but they’re often more consequential, as they affect more people both during a pandemic and after.

There’s an exercise I like to do in group facilitations. It involves a simple sheet of paper. Why paper? It’s important to write things down during times of tremendous change, because it keeps us grounded in our purpose and vision. It’s okay, of course, to change that purpose and vision, but by writing it down, we’re forced to reflect on why things might be changing.

A visual depiction of the World to Come exercise
A visual depiction of the World to Come exercise

There’s an exercise I like to do in group facilitations. It involves a simple sheet of paper:

  1. Fold up a sheet of paper in half and then half again, so you have four columns.
  2. Label the columns in order: (1), (2), (3), (4)
  3. Label the first two of these columns (1) World Before and (2) World Now.
  4. Skip a column, then label (3) World to Come.
  5. Pandemics and crises, while moments in themselves, are also moments of transition. In columns 1 and 3, write down, in bullet form, working assumptions about the World Before and the World Now in 3–5 bullet points. It should be simple and straightforward, aimed for a brief snapshot of what you’re thinking. You can journal things out first if you need more time to reflect and analyze. The goal here is to document the transition from our vantage points.
  6. In Column 4, write about what some new working assumptions might look like, taking into account some of the tremendous changes of the past year.
  7. Now back to that missing third column. Here, write (3) How We’ll Get There. This is where you capture what we need to do now to realize the world to come, or, if you sense is that things might get worse, to try to prepare.
  8. Keep this sheet of paper in a place visible at your desk, as a guide during the inevitable turmoil we should expect in 2021.
  9. Revisit your assumptions as needed.

Let me know what you learn.

This is an excerpt from Yellow Canary Land 🐤 , a monthly look at the future of global media and technology. It’s ostensibly about some distant tomorrow, but really, it’s about how the forces of our yesterdays and todays are likely to shape the times to come. Don’t expect a lot of emails, but do expect a lot of thought put into each one. Subscribe here.

author and technologist. words and commentary in ny times, bbc, atlantic, hyperallergic, etc. meedan. opinions my own.

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