Scenarios in a Time of Urgency

Shifting Temporality and Technology

in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale
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Limor Samimian-DarashHebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel Limor.darash@mail.huji.ac.il

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Abstract

This article explores the connection between technology and temporality, and discusses specifically scenario technology and the temporality of urgency, in the context of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. It illustrates how, despite the inherent orientation toward the future potentiality in this technology, once an actual event occurs and the temporality of preparedness is overridden by a temporality of urgency, the scenario technology is adapted to the new temporality in terms of its form and content. In correspondence with the scholarship of ‘the anthropology of the future’, the article focuses on changes in temporal orientations – specifically, with a shift from a temporality of (future) preparedness to a temporal orientation of (immediate) urgency and how such a shift in temporality affects the technology of the scenario. Moving from preparing for potential future uncertainties to responding to an urgent event set in a present that is unfolding into an uncertain, immediate future provokes a new temporal orientation, for which the initial temporality of the scenario technology becomes its limitation.

Cet article explore le lien entre technologie et temporalité, et discute spécifiquement de la technologie des scénarios et de la temporalité de l'urgence, dans le contexte de la pandémie de coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19). Il illustre comment, malgré l'orientation inhérente de cette technologie vers la potentialité future, une fois qu'un événement réel se produit et que la temporalité de la préparation est remplacée par une temporalité d'urgence, la technologie du scénario est adaptée à la nouvelle temporalité en termes de forme et de contenu. En correspondance avec la recherche de “l'anthropologie du futur, l'article s'intéresse aux changements d'orientations temporelles — plus précisément, au passage d'une temporalité de préparation (future) à une orientation temporelle d'urgence (immédiate) et à la manière dont un tel changement de temporalité affecte la technologie du scénario. Passer de la préparation à des incertitudes futures potentielles à la réponse à un événement urgent dans un présent qui se déroule dans un futur incertain et immédiat provoque une nouvelle orientation temporelle, pour laquelle la temporalité initiale de la technologie du scénario devient sa limite.

In this article,1 I focus on the connection between technology and temporality, and discuss specifically scenario technology and the temporality of urgency, in the context of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. I illustrate how, despite the inherent orientation toward the future potentiality in this technology, once an actual event occurs and the temporality of preparedness is overridden by a temporality of urgency, the scenario technology is adapted to the new temporality in terms of its form and content. In correspondence with the scholarship of ‘the anthropology of the future’, my concern within this article is with changes in temporal orientations – specifically, with a shift from a temporality of (future) preparedness to a temporal orientation of (immediate) urgency and how such a shift in temporality affects the technology of the scenario.

Historically, scenario technology2 emerged during the early days of the Cold War and in the context of civil defence planning, where experts and scientists were required to decide which future situations were more probable than others. A range of techniques emerged in response to this challenge that aimed to create ‘realistic’ future situations in which actions would be required – namely, war-game simulations and exercises (Ghamari-Tabrizi 2005: 161–174). Over time, however, and to address some of the limitations of these initial techniques, another technology was developed – that of scenarios. Perhaps the most well-known figure in this context is RAND's (Research and Development, a California-based think-tank that worked with the US Air Force) physicist and strategist Herman Kahn, who developed a scenario technique that would become highly influential.3

Accepting that it was impossible to predict or accurately know uncertain futures, Kahn promoted the use of the imagination as a way of rendering unknown future events thinkable in the present. Rather than seeing the question as being a matter of ways of knowing the future – that is, how to get more information in the present in order to know what the future will be – he saw it as being a matter of how to think about the future. Moreover, it involved accepting that the uncertainty of the future was not just about acknowledging that the future is unknown, but also a critique of how existing concepts and frameworks of thinking about the future render it ‘unthought-of’ (Samimian-Darash 2022a: 29). In Kahn's approach, interactions between continuities (e.g. demographic growth) and new trends (e.g. technological developments) in the past and present were considered, analysed in relation to uncertainties and imaginatively extrapolated into different future scenarios through narration. In his work, scenarios would thus be used as a speculative framework, a machine for generating what was hitherto ‘unthinkable’ or ‘unimaginable’ in order to make it possible to prepare for such future potentialities in the present.

Within the sociocultural scholarship addressing scenarios, scholars have often referred to them as part of future preparedness and anticipation technologies (Adey and Anderson 2012; Anderson 2010; Cooper 2010; Keck 2018; Lakoff 2007, 2008; Lentzos and Rose 2009; Mathews and Barnes 2016; Opitz and Tellmann 2015), looking at the concrete aspects of preparing for future uncertainties, discussing the problem of the time gap between present actions (of preparedness) and the future potential threat – that is, the legitimacy of preparedness actions for an event or crisis that is yet to happen (Weszkalnys 2014), or studying the emergence of a site of knowledge production that fills the ‘gap between present and future’ (Krasmann 2015: 187). In such studies, scenarios are often connected to the ‘future present’ (that will happen in the real future) rather than to that which is actualised (i.e. an already happening event). The scenario addresses potential future events not by accurately describing them, but by encouraging imagination and considering various plausibilities and dynamics that cannot be anticipated (Samimian-Darash 2016, 2022b). While illuminating, this body of work has rarely examined in depth what happens to scenarios when the future potential event for which we sought to prepare – a pandemic in the present case – actualises. Addressing this, I explore the relationship between temporality and technology by focusing on the particular temporality of urgency in the context of the use of scenario technology (which is ‘originally’ a preparedness tool for future potential uncertainty) in an urgent event.

In this article, I examine developments in scenario technology in response to the urgency that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. I show how the cohesion of the future and the present into the temporality of immediacy and urgency promoted four different adaptations in the way the technology was used in this case, two of which relate to the form of the scenario technology, and two to the narrative of the event. Since the orientation to immediacy and urgency that occurred here inherently stands in contrast to the relationality and temporality of scenarios, the way in which the technology was modified illustrates how the form and content of the technology was affected by the temporal shift that accompanied the emergency event.

Time, Temporality and the Future

Moving from the notion of time to that of temporality, scholars have recommended that we differentiate between time as an ‘objective’ figure (past/present/future tenses) and temporality as time perception based on subjective measurements, as well as between historical and social time (Hodges 2008). In her analysis, Laura Bear (2016) shows how an examination of different aspects of temporality should form part of any sociocultural inquiry, as tracing each of these can help deepen our understanding of the problems that we investigate. She also recommends that we examine temporality by looking at different dimensions – such as knowledge, technology and ethics – that are better observed together and analysed simultaneously. In addition to Bear's work, several other studies (e.g. Ahmann 2018; Antonello and Carey 2017; D'Angelo and Pijpers 2018) have put forward the idea that by considering different aspects of temporality, we can use it as a lens through which to better understand society, culture or the economy.

Until recently, the anthropological study of time and temporality has focused more on the past and present than on the future (Bryant and Knight 2019: 7; Munn 1992: 115–116). Yet, even as anthropologists have become more interested in the future, they have tended to understand it from a ‘presentist’ perspective (Ringel 2016), where futures are essentially ‘imaginary presents’ (Gell 1992).4 By contrast, Rebecca Bryant and Daniel M. Knight (2019) have proposed ‘orientations’ as a concept for studying how we orient ourselves to futures as ‘indefinite teleologies’ – that is, a concern for ends (plural) in everyday life (Bryant and Knight 2019: 19). They propose to examine the temporal dynamism and potential temporal stasis of acts of planning, hoping about and imagining the future, along with ‘the collapse of those efforts’, and argue that ‘presents and pasts are always and inevitably shaped by the ends for which we strive’ (Bryant and Knight 2019: 20).

Paul Kockelman and Anya Bernstein (2012) have distinguished between different modes of temporality and focused on one of those modes – ‘temporality as reckoning’ (i.e. the determination of the time of an event or its interval) – while seeking to reassess the notion that ‘modern’ temporalities are abstract. As part of their study, they analysed how semiotic technologies (e.g. calendars, clocks) and the ‘privileged’ periods and reference points they embed construct modes of temporality. In this article, however, I suggest that the relationship between temporality and technology is a mutual one: not only does the use of a particular technology affect the way in which the future is perceived and governed, but the temporality of a particular event also affects the expression of the technology. Rather than seeing technology merely as a lens through which to examine sociocultural temporalities (Bear 2016) or address how technology (and especially future technologies) operates as a tool that both emphasises and promotes a particular temporal orientation in society (Bryant and Knight 2019), I suggest that we should also consider temporality as a key part in the development of social technologies and their concrete expressions.

As previous works have implied (e.g. Caduff 2015; Kaufmann 2016) and this special issue explicitly suggests (Andreas Bandak and Paul Anderson, this issue), the notion of urgency offers a promising direction for efforts to study the relationship between temporality and social technologies, especially in the context of emergency events. Indeed, in some cases, the enactment of emergency exercises relies on and cultivates ‘power to respond to urgency with action’ (Kaufmann 2016: 100). Urgency may also appear in chronic fashion in times of social, political and economic turbulence through concerns about: the preservation of ethno-religious dominance through national unity (Joseph Webster, this issue); fulfilling one's destiny at the end of time (Charlotte Al-Khalili, this issue); and making decisions in the inescapable present of a permanent crisis and a potentially worse future (Daniel M. Knight, this issue).

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging across the world, the implications of urgency – for better (Mikkel Bille and Mikkel Thelle, this issue) or worse (Laurence McFalls and Mariella Pandolfi, this issue) – are both important and illuminating. As a temporality, urgency refers to either an affect – the call for action (Kaufmann 2016) and the ‘urge of urgency’ (Bandak and Anderson, this issue) – or to a particular time dimension – the very immediate present or near future. In this article, however, I propose to look at the temporality of urgency beyond the imperative to act immediately and at the perceived permanence of emergency (as a dominant temporal orientation that has its ends set between the present and the immediate future). I argue that the temporality of urgency (in comparison to the temporality of preparedness) is also very much related to the definition and manifestation of an event. In examining the use of scenario exercises in the case of COVID-19, for example, we observe a shift from a potential (future) unknown event (i.e. potential uncertainty) – which is inherently uncertain, and therefore preparing for it is not about knowing it in advance but about thinking about the gaps in the system of preparedness – to an event that is in its actualisation, emerging – which calls for immediate action and more knowledge.

The event of urgency is thus neither the potential uncertain future nor the already ‘known’ past crisis. Urgency as an event is in-becoming, in actualisation, and thus embeds new uncertainties related to the unfolding of the event in the very near future. I further argue that the scenario technology, which embeds a particular temporal disposition towards preparedness for future (potential) uncertainties, is affected by the temporal shift to urgency. In other words, as a result of a shift in the temporality of the event, certain changes are observed in the technology and how it is used.

Scenario Technology and Preparedness

Scholars have identified preparedness as an increasingly dominant form of governing, including in the contexts of public health (Lakoff 2007) and pandemic discourse (Caduff 2015). Preparedness addresses uncertainties that cannot be calculated or assessed, and is aimed at unpreventable future catastrophic events that can only be managed once they happen. Preparedness interventions such as vulnerability mapping, exercises and stockpiling therefore seek to reduce or control damage rather than to prevent particular threats (Collier and Lakoff 2008; Cooper 2006; Diprose et al 2008; Samimian-Darash 2009, 2013; Stephenson and Jamieson 2009). Indeed, a central assumption in preparedness thinking is that, while they cannot be calculated, disastrous events will certainly occur (Diprose et al 2008; Schoch-Spana 2004). Accordingly, and whereas actuarial and statistical forms of governance usually involve calculations and analyses of risk, preparedness involves practices of imaginative enactment (Samimian-Darash 2016) as a way of identifying and addressing vulnerabilities in the system.

Scholars have shown how, when an actual disease outbreak event begins to unfold, preparedness thinking frames developments in a way that strengthens the sense of the likelihood that a pandemic will eventually occur (Caduff 2015; Stephenson and Jamieson 2009). During an outbreak event, then, discourses that draw on past events and narrate the future are employed to convey certainty that a pandemic will occur (now or later) and that we must therefore prepare for it. Nevertheless, here, too, a problem of uncertainty persists: the event might not (or cannot) actualise as expected. Until the full extent of the outbreak is realised, it is impossible to know whether it will unfold into a disastrous epidemic or pandemic and, if so, exactly how. How, then, do technologies that are driven by a temporal orientation of preparedness for future uncertainty respond in such situations? And how does scenario technology work in the light of this temporal shift?

Urgency: the COVID-19 Pandemic

In late December 2019 and early January 2020, reports began to accumulate about a mysterious viral pneumonia outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan. On 31 December 2019, Wuhan health authorities reported that twenty-seven people (seven of them in a serious condition), mostly people working at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, had been admitted to hospital with an unidentified Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus. According to the reports, Chinese authorities began to conduct tests to identify the virus, commenced the implementation of public health measures (e.g. closure of the market) and contacted the World Health Organization (WHO) to update it on the outbreak (Huang 2020; ProMED-mail 2019).

In the following days, the number of people diagnosed with the unknown pneumonia disease continued to rise, reaching forty-four by 3 January 2020, and Chinese authorities began to arrest people for spreading rumours on social media about an outbreak of SARS. Noting the urgency of the situation, countries in the local region that had imported cases of SARS from China in 2002–2003 began to take precautionary measures. Singapore began to apply temperature-screening and isolation measures for all incoming travellers from Wuhan, and Hong Kong and Taiwan deployed thermal-imaging systems at boundary checkpoints (Gale 2020; ProMED-mail 2020a).

By 8 January, with fifty-nine people diagnosed in China, Chinese scientists managed to genetically sequence the virus (using a sample from a patient) and identified the cause of illness (in some of the patients) as a novel strain of coronavirus (Khan 2020). Coronaviruses are enveloped, positive-sense single-stranded RNA genome viruses with helically symmetrical nucleocapsids. They have a spike protein (S-protein) that enables their viral entry into target cells as the S-protein binds to a cellular receptor and are part of the subfamily Coronavirinae in the family Coronaviridae (several members of this family constantly circulate in human populations, causing mild respiratory disease). In general, coronaviruses cause respiratory and gastrointestinal-tract infections, and, while various kinds of coronaviruses are known to exist, only some of them affect humans by causing illnesses, most importantly SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) (Hoffmann et al 2020; ProMED-mail 2020b; Wu et al 2020).

In 2019–2020, then, potential uncertainty eventually actualised into a pandemic, an event that prompted urgency. It is in this context of a present state of uncertainty around the immediate future that I examine the dynamics between scenarios and temporality.

Shifting Temporality within the Same Structure

As the virus continued to spread, preparedness became an effort of urgency (WHO 2020a), first, through the use of scenario exercises in regions that were not yet infected. On 30 January 2020, WHO's Emergency Committee convened and emphasised that ‘global coordinated effort is needed to enhance preparedness in other regions of the world that may need additional support for that’ (WHO 2020b: np). Similarly, WHO called for global efforts to help preparedness where support was needed. In response, several simulation exercises in preparation for COVID-19 were conducted by national health authorities with support from WHO. For example, on 5–6 March, Ethiopia held a table-top exercise to review plans and procedures for the eventual emergence of COVID-19 in that country (WHO 2020e).

Further, WHO developed and published ‘a generic COVID-19 table top exercise’ (WHO 2020c) among a suite of table-top exercises packages. This was developed for countries’ national health authorities and included a participants’ guide, a facilitators’ guide, reference documents and technical guidance on COVID-19, and a PowerPoint presentation to facilitate the exercise and subsequent debriefing. The exercise was divided into two parts (in the schedule provided in the package, each part stretches over half a day) and involved a group discussion to enable information-sharing, identification of interdependencies between health actors and other sectors, conducting a gap analysis using WHO's COVID-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, and the creation of a national action plan (WHO 2020d).

This simulated scenario exercise was designed in a way that made it possible to practise existing preparedness plans in accordance with the actual emerging event. Its main aim was to ‘examine and strengthen existing plans, procedures and capabilities to manage an imported case of 2019-nCov’ (WHO 2020c: np). In other words, it used already existing plans and instruments but reoriented them toward the actually occurring event.

The exercise was also built on scripted injects, narrative updates designed ‘to make participants consider the impact of a potential health emergency on existing plans, procedures and capacities’ (WHO 2020d). Moreover, the exercise was adaptable to different localities: ‘The package highlights clearly where some minor adaptions are needed to make the simulation country-specific and more relevant to the participants’ (WHO 2020c: np). With some adaptations to time and place, the exercise, which was originally designed in accordance with WHO's guidelines for building simulation exercises, was directed towards practising a particular set of preordained responses and allowed very little room for sudden changes and developments in the script. As Julian Strauss,5 a simulation exercise expert who has worked for international organisations and was involved in the development of WHO's guidelines, explained: ‘An exercise is well planned, and it's planned so that we can control things . . . . We're trying to trigger a response, and we are also anticipating a certain outcome’. However, as part of the process of planning the exercise, the exercise manager also has to prepare for unexpected disturbances. As Strauss further explained, it is crucial that the exercise and the scenario that drives its progress continue as planned, even ‘if people do not deliver what you are anticipating’. Although the exercise management team cannot know in advance how people will respond, in order to ensure that an exercise will continue as planned, they use different measures. For instance:

Sometimes we have . . . injects in the back of our pockets because if we expect the ministry of health to deliver talking points, but they don't send it to us, what do you do as exercise controller? Well, you pick up the phone and you say . . . ‘I am exercise control. I'm playing now the ministry of health, and I'm requesting talking points here. Can you please send me your talking points in ten minutes?’

Participants in the preparedness exercise are supposed to carry out certain functions as if they were in an actual situation. This is not to test how well those specific individuals perform tasks but to examine how the system functions as a whole. The scripted scenario and the exercise should continue to unfold as planned regardless of individual participants’ responses.

Accordingly, in the COVID-19 exercise, the questions that follow injects are supposed to provoke a discussion on the appropriate actions and known solutions for the types of situations described in the updates: ‘What actions would be triggered by this new event information?’, ‘How would this event be coordinated and managed?’, ‘Where would the funding come from to implement the response?’ and ‘What support would you request from WHO and other partners?’ (WHO 2020d: np). The expected effect of practising preordained responses is that systems will be better prepared for an actual event. Therefore, as part of the exercise process, for instance, participants check that they have no technical problems (e.g. by making sure that their email communications are functioning properly); ensure they have clear guidance regarding who they should contact in an actual event (e.g. the regional WHO contact point) and how to do this; and practise conducting a risk assessment.

In such a context, the urgent event is translated (at different levels) into existing scenario exercises and manuals in order to manage the event as though it were part of an ongoing preparedness process, directed towards providing some level of reassurance (Krasmann 2015) and certainty (Tellmann 2009), rather than to follow its emerging actual uncertainty.

A New Cycle of Preparedness

Exercises in the context of public health were among the many exercises that were postponed or cancelled as a result of the evolving COVID-19 emergency, and far fewer new plans were made to conduct preparedness exercises for infectious-disease outbreaks. The reason for that, as several exercise experts from public health organisations noted during interviews, is that an actual situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic provides a real opportunity for responses and reflection, which means there is no need for a simulated event. More specifically, as Dan Hazelton, an exercise expert from a European public health organisation, explained, exercises are usually part of the broader ‘preparedness cycle’, and when such events occur ‘you stop doing the simulations because you don't need to simulate. You've got the real thing going on’. Furthermore, he continued, in an event such as the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘the people that you would want at your exercise are not available’. That is, they are busy responding to the ‘real’ event. This also applies to exercise experts such as himself:

I'm sucked into the response as well to help inform the response. Because the one thing about planning for exercises is it helps you really understand how mechanisms and systems work, so you really are useful when it's the real thing because you've got that knowledge as an exercise planner.

During and following the ‘real’ event, the knowledge of exercise experts becomes relevant, and instruments such ‘after-action reviews’ are deployed instead of simulation exercises. The reason for this preference for after-action reviews, as Julian Strauss explained, is that:

An after-action review is basically exactly the same as a simulation exercise. The purpose and objectives are exactly the same as a simulation exercise because what we want to achieve using a simulation exercise or an after-action review is to learn something to strengthen or increase, or make our response better for the future.

Strauss further explained that, rather than learning from a simulated event, the idea of the after-action review is to promote learning from the ‘real’ event, from what is happening (or has recently happened) in the present:

You can use the COVID response to learn something from it. You don't need to simulate that, because you just went through it or are going through that. You can use an after-action review, which is a similar methodology that we use doing the debriefing in an exercise to extract the lessons learned, the strengths and the weaknesses from that real emergency, and then implement those in an action plan.

In a presently unfolding emergency, as in the case of COVID-19, the urgency of the situation thus means not only that key personnel are unavailable to participate and conduct an exercise, but also that imaginary scenarios are cast aside as an instrument for preparing for the future. The only kind of ‘scenario’ that is relevant for the revision of plans for future health emergency events is the one that is occurring now – in other words, the ‘real’ event.

The urgency that accompanied the actualisation of the COVID-19 pandemic, then, embedded/fostered a certain temporal reorientation towards the immediate. This immediate urgency promotes and thrives on projections of short-term possibilities, knowledge and particular understandings of the present ‘reality’. However, it also tends to avoid, sidestep or even reject potentiality, future uncertainty and imagination – which have traditionally been crucial elements of the scenario technology.

Narratives: From Means to End

As noted earlier, WHO's COVID-19 simulation exercise was created in accordance with the organisation's guidance and manuals for developing and using simulation exercises. To a large extent, therefore, this simulation exercise is indeed similar to previous simulation exercises that have been conducted by or with the involvement of the organisation.

Nevertheless, there is at least one important difference between the COVID-19 simulation exercise and previous simulation exercises at WHO. During interviews, simulation exercise experts who have worked in or with health organisations such as WHO repeatedly emphasised that the first and most important step in any exercise is to determine its specific aims and objectives, this being ‘the foundation of any exercise regardless of the type of exercise’, as Julian Strauss put it. In order to determine the aims and objectives, according to Strauss, it is first necessary to ask ‘what do you want to exercise, and why?’ The answers to these questions will then help to decide what type of exercise should be used, who will be invited to participate and what scenario to use:

Sometimes this is a mistake that is being made – that people start with the scenario . . . . The scenario [narrative] is just the story. The question is which functions or which systems do you want to test or practise? And then, later, the scenario comes into play.

The scenario, Strauss continued to explain, can technically correspond with or reflect a real event – for instance, ‘it can be Ebola if there's Ebola in neighbouring countries’. However, such an approach is not mandatory and can in some cases even be counterproductive. Scenario designers therefore usually prefer to use an imaginary event that would be suitable for achieving the specific objectives of a particular exercise. In this regard, he added: ‘The only importance that is for the scenario [narrative] is that it has to be realistic so that participants can imagine themselves in such a situation’.

It is therefore the aims and objectives that should shape the scenario and exercise rather than the particular content of the narrative. By contrast, in the case of the COVID-19 exercise, the exercise and the scenario were based on a currently unfolding outbreak event and reflected an urgent need to prepare for a very specific and ‘real’ scenario. John Clarke, another simulation exercise expert who has worked in international organisations and is familiar with the details of how this COVID-19 exercise was developed, explained that this ‘generic’ exercise was initially developed at the request of WHO's Regional Office for Europe, where personnel ‘were monitoring the situation closely’ and quickly realised ‘that there was a risk of the spreading [of COVID-19] to the region’. Accordingly, they sought to help countries ‘to prepare’ by developing various ‘preparedness tools and resources’, including simulation exercises that would be ‘based on what we know now – the information we had at the time’. The development of the scenario for this exercise, Clarke further explained, involved an ‘amalgamation’ of what the team that created it saw ‘happening in multiple countries as the virus spread’ and ‘the latest information’ available at the time. The team wrote the scenario while identifying and discussing ‘key issues’ that seemed important for countries, and then built the exercise around those issues. Through this process, and on the basis of the available information on ‘how the disease was spreading at that time’, they developed a scenario in which the virus was ‘imported to Europe’ by plane.

Here, then, a specific scenario narrative determines the aims and objectives of the exercise. The scenario exercise is driven by what appear to be the most urgent immediate future issues that need to be addressed in the present. Further, as Julian Strauss replied in response to a question about the use of exercises during a present event, exercises are still necessary in such a situation because the event is ‘constantly evolving. It's changing’. Taking COVID-19 as an example, he elaborated:

I mean, look at the variants that are emerging. With Delta, okay, it spreads more easily, but imagine a situation where we, all of a sudden, have a variant that is not just more easily spread, but maybe the vaccine doesn't work any longer. You can imagine situations that will change. That's what we're saying: Don't assume that things will stay the same they are like now and you have everything under control.

From this perspective, then, the ‘reality’ of the urgent event can be addressed through and in the simulation exercise. However, the exercise and the immediate future scenario that is simulated within it must be repeatedly updated in the light of new knowledge and new developments in the ‘real’ event.

As the urgent event seems to constantly develop and change, and new uncertainties are generated by the prospects of the near future, the scenario technology – with its temporal orientation towards ‘preparedness’ – is significantly affected by the temporality of ‘urgency’. Once the temporal orientation shifts from ‘preparedness’ to ‘urgency’, the exercise shifts to follow the narrative (instead of vice versa). That is, rather than the future narrative remaining simply a means for creating plausible (invented) stories for the exercise, when the temporal orientation shifts, the structure of the technology also changes, and at this point updating and tracing the true narrative (of the urgent event) becomes an end goal of the technology.

Past Narratives Representing the Present

In the following example, we see another shift in the technology, whereby the scenario remains the same but is rendered into a possible representation of a ‘real’ event to be reflected on. This dynamic appeared in the specific case of the Event 201 exercise that involved an imaginary scenario that eventually turned out to be similar to the actual COVID-19 pandemic.

On 18 October 2019, Johns Hopkins University's Center for Health Security, together with the World Economic Forum and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, conducted a table-top exercise known as ‘Event 201’. This exercise lasted for 3.5 hours and involved:

a series of dramatic, scenario-based facilitated discussions, confronting difficult, true-to-life dilemmas associated with response to a hypothetical, but scientifically plausible, pandemic. (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020a: np)

The exercise brought together fifteen actors from the public and private sectors (global businesses, government officials and public health personnel, mainly from the United States) to practise a potential scenario where public–private partnerships would be required in the response to a pandemic with a significant socio-economic impact (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020a, 2020b). In this, the participants had to resolve ‘real-world policy and economic issues’ (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020a: np).

The rationale for this exercise and the pandemic scenario presented in it were based on the knowledge that ‘in recent years, the world has seen a growing number of epidemic events’ and that managing those increasingly frequent events ‘already strains global capacity, even absent a pandemic threat’ (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020b: np). Further, it was noted that ‘experts agree that it is only a matter of time before one of these epidemics becomes global – a pandemic with potentially catastrophic consequences’. The exercise was therefore an attempt to establish and promote the necessary ‘reliable cooperation among several industries, national governments, and key international institutions’ for such a situation (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020b: np).

As in other cases of preparedness planning for pandemics (see above), here, too, experts claimed that it was ‘only a matter of time’ before a pandemic occurred. However, this potential global pandemic, which would lead to severe health, social and economic disruption, could be managed if businesses, governments and international institutions were to cooperate.

As part of the exercise, different instruments were used to stimulate participation: pre-recorded news broadcasts and moderated discussions on different topics that were ‘carefully designed in a compelling narrative that educated the participants and the audience’ (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020a: np). Further, in building the scenario for the exercise, the organisers drew on an existing, known pathogen – SARS – yet modelled the simulated pathogen as more transmissible in the community, with mildly symptomatic cases able to pass on the infection. The scenario, then, focused on an outbreak of a novel zoonotic coronavirus that jumped from bats to pigs to people and then became transmissible from person to person, which eventually led to a pandemic (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020c).

The general narrative of the event describes the development of the pandemic by focusing on the transmission and spread of the virus: A disease that begins in pig farms in Brazil, ‘quietly and slowly at first’, soon spreads ‘rapidly in healthcare settings’ (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020c: np). It then begins to spread ‘efficiently from person to person in . . . densely packed neighborhoods’ across South America. Next, it is ‘exported by air travel’ to many other countries (initially to Portugal, the United States and China) and continues to spread until ‘eventually no country can maintain control’. Moreover, in this scenario, ‘there is no possibility of a vaccine being available in the first year’. And while ‘a fictional antiviral drug that can help the sick’ exists, it does not ‘significantly limit spread of the disease’ (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020c: np). The narrative then moves to the different consequences of the pandemic. For instance: ‘as the cases and deaths accumulate, the economic and societal consequences become increasingly severe’ (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020c: np). Finally, the long-lasting and overall impact of the pandemic is described:

The scenario ends at the 18-month point, with 65 million deaths . . . . The pandemic will continue at some rate until there is an effective vaccine or until 80–90 percent of the global population has been exposed. From that point on, it is likely to be an endemic childhood disease. (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020c: np)

According to the scenario narrative, then, after millions of deaths and when large amounts of people are no longer susceptible to the virus, the pandemic will eventually become an endemic disease.

Generally, this type of scenario-based exercise enables the management of potential uncertainty as participants think through and practise a response to a potential future event. Indeed, the premise of exercises such as this one is that the future is unpredictable, and their aim is not to predict or assess the possibility that a particular future might happen, but rather to prepare for the unpredictable, potential future event (see Lakoff 2017).

Just several months after the conclusion of the Event 201 exercise, however, as SARS-CoV2 started to spread internationally, the uncanny resemblance of its pandemic scenario to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) event was immediately noticed by the news media (e.g. Judd 2020). Inevitably, the scenario satisfied the urgent need for answers, for knowledge that could be used to explain the developing situation. It has thus provided fertile ground for various interpretations, including conspiracy theories that have spread on the internet, treating this (past) scenario as a prediction or – even worse – as a plan for the future. In this sense, the scenario turned into a representation of the present event, and its unfolding into the immediate future.

In response to such interpretations, however, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security released an announcement. The Center first rejected the notion that they had predicted the future and explained that, to develop the scenario, they had ‘modeled a fictional coronavirus pandemic’, while ‘explicitly’ noting that this was ‘not a prediction’ but a way to identify ‘preparedness and response challenges that would likely arise in a very severe pandemic’ (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020d: np). Moreover, the announcement declared, the epidemiologic inputs at the basis of the model that had been used to simulate the consequences of the virus in the scenario were different from those seen in the actual 2020 coronavirus pandemic, and the Center further emphasised that it was not currently predicting ‘that the nCoV-2019 outbreak will kill 65 million people’ (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020d: np).

In other words, the Center sought to correct people's interpretation of the Event 201 scenario as a past story that predicted the (present-)future, emphasising that it was only a simulated event used as a way to prepare for a potential future virus that they could not – and, indeed, did not – predict. The Center thus insisted that the scenario should not be used as a map for the present event. Nevertheless, according to some of those who worked on the exercise, lessons from it could be used to guide the response in the present event.

For example, Dr Eric Toner, a biosecurity preparedness expert at the Center, pointed out that the scenario and the actual COVID-19 event presently unfolding shared several similarities, such as ‘that a slow response when the number of cases is very small can lead to an outbreak that is hard to contain’ and ‘cascading economic and societal consequences’ (Judd 2020: np). Those similarities also meant that lessons learned from the exercise could be used to guide the response in the present event, as Toner continued to explain. For instance: ‘Countries need to ramp up testing capacity as quickly as possible’ (Judd 2020: np).

In this case, then, when the scenario that was developed in the past to prepare for future events was similar to the presently unfolding event, those who created the scenario-based exercise insisted that the exercise scenario should not be taken as an image or representation of the present, as a past-future map that one might follow in a time of urgency. At the most, they might unintentionally render it as such a representation by identifying similarities to the past-future scenario and suggesting certain measures on that basis.

From a Shadow of the Future to a Shadow of the Present: Scenarios and their Limitation

Scenarios and their (exercised) narratives are created neither as a future prediction tool nor as a set of assessable possibilities (based on past information); instead, they promote imagination processes through which one can create plausible future stories, envisage new future complexities and draw multiple pathways back to the present. As instruments for preparedness, scenarios are used to extract (not yet known) problems, to reflect on potential future uncertainties, and to discern new observations and conceptions of that which is yet to emerge. However, both during and following actual events, especially when these events prompt urgency, scenarios are used in different ways.

Through analysing how scenarios have been used in the case of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, one can see that in an actual, presently occurring event that may unfold in uncertain ways in the immediate future, this technology, with its temporal orientation toward preparedness for future uncertainty and potentiality, is significantly affected by a temporality of urgency. In the current case, this became evident in two kinds of responses.

In the first, the scenario technology underwent a structural adaptation or modification in order to remain a useful way of preparing for a specific possibility in the immediate future of an actual event. Here, the actual event was tracked by scenario exercises that kept the same structure as if it were only a matter of a new story (almost ignoring its different temporality). Additionally, the urgent event was situated within a broad cycle of preparedness in which the future or the present event were only means for practising the system of preparedness in different cases rather than a problem to be addressed by that system (the problem of temporality). In the second type of response and the according technological change, the technology became dependent on the narrative of the urgent event. That is, the content of the specific scenario suddenly becomes important to its usage. In this case, either the scenario narrative was updated according to the new information collected about the unfolding event or that past narratives were used to represent the immediate very near future. In both cases, since the role of the scenario technology is not to predict the future or the very near future, those adaptations are inherently deemed impartial. Though the new temporality led to changes both to the structure and to the content of the technology, so as to better capture the immediate unknown, the gap between the actual event and the scenario narrative remains.

That is to say, the urgency of the present event and its immediate near future meant that the scenario, traditionally a tool for preparing for potential uncertainty through processes of imagination (wherein the future is seen as something that is dynamic and inherently emerging and unfinished), turned into a tool for either tracing (unsuccessfully) or representing (wrongly) the unfolding event. Plausible stories that were invented as a way of imagining the future are rendered into possibilities and judged by their use as maps or images for navigating the present. The scenario thus shifts from a shadow of the future into a shadow of the present. This is not because scenarios are not relevant for the actual, but because, when the scenario is driven by a temporality of urgency, the immediate near future takes over the potential and the uncertain future, and therefore the technology of preparedness (scenario technology) and its plausible narratives become either irrelevant or need to be changed. Put differently, moving from preparing for potential future uncertainties to responding to an urgent event set in a present that is unfolding into an uncertain, immediate future provokes a new temporal orientation, for which the initial temporality of the scenario technology becomes its limitation.

Acknowledgements

This research was funded by the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 1120/19).

Notes

1

This article draws on my long-term (2018–2022), multi-sited ethnographic research on scenario planning in the fields of security, energy and health (which consists of various periods of fieldwork, dozens of interviews and hundreds of related documents). It is particularly based on my analysis of the use of scenarios and simulation exercises in health organisations, and interviews with experts and practitioners with experience in that area.

2

Some of the main properties of scenario technology, such as the creation of imaginary future narratives, are rooted in practices that have their own histories (Samimian-Darash 2022: 25–27). However, as used in this article, ‘scenario technology’ is an umbrella term for various methodological applications of scenarios that are rooted in the mid-twentieth-century development of scenarios as a distinct approach for thinking and planning for uncertain futures.

3

Though Kahn's scenario technique is probably the most prominent approach in the field of scenario planning (following Pierre Wack's approach), I do not mean to imply that this was the only scenario approach developed at the time (for example, another scenario approach was developed in parallel in France). Instead, I use it as an example to illustrate the kinds of problems that the scenario technology was designed to address.

4

There have, however, been some exceptions to this (see Valentine and Hassoun 2019).

5

All of the names used for interviewees in the article are pseudonyms.

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Contributor Notes

LIMOR SAMIMIAN-DARASH is associate professor at the Federmann School of Public Policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has studied the topics of preparedness for future risks and uncertainties in health and security fields. In the past few years, she has focused on the scenario technology as a dominant way to address future uncertainties through imagination and narration, particularly by exploring nationwide emergency exercises and the design and practice of scenarios in global organisations in health and energy. She is the author of Uncertainty by Design: Preparing for the Future with Scenario Technology (Cornell University Press, 2022). ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2659-5829. Email: Limor.darash@mail.huji.ac.il

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  • Adey, P. and B. Anderson 2012. ‘Anticipating emergencies: technologies of preparedness and the matter of security’, Security Dialogue 43: 99117.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ahmann, C. 2018. ‘“It's exhausting to create an event out of nothing”: slow violence and the manipulation of time’, Cultural Anthropology 33: 142171.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Al-Khalili, C. 2022. ‘Martyrdom and destiny in time of revolution: urgent actions and imminent endings in Syria’, Social Anthropology 30(4): 7089.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Anderson, B. 2010. ‘Preemption, precaution, preparedness: anticipatory action and future geographies’, Progress in Human Geography 34: 777798.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Antonello, A. and M. Carey 2017. ‘Ice cores and the temporalities of the global environment’, Environmental Humanities 9: 181203.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bandak, A. and P. Anderson 2022. ‘Urgency and imminence: the politics of the very near future’, Social Anthropology 30(4): 117.

  • Bear, L. 2016. ‘Time as technique’, Annual Review of Anthropology 45: 487502.

  • Bille, M. and M. Thelle 2022. ‘Engaged lingering: urban contingency in the pandemic present with COVID-19 in Denmark’, Social Anthropology 30(4): 110125.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bryant, R. and D. M. Knight 2019. The anthropology of the future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Caduff, C. 2015. The pandemic perhaps: dramatic events in a public culture of danger. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

  • Collier, S. J. and A. Lakoff 2008. ‘Distributed preparedness: the spatial logic of domestic security in the United States’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26: 728.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cooper, M. 2006. ‘Pre-empting emergence: the biological turn in the War on Terror’, Theory, Culture and Society 23: 113135.

  • Cooper, M. 2010. ‘Turbulent worlds’, Theory, Culture and Society 27: 167190.

  • D'Angelo, L. and R. J. Pijpers 2018. ‘Mining temporalities: an overview’, The Extractive Industries and Society 5: 215222.

  • Diprose, R., N. Stephenson, C. Mills, K. Race and G. Hawkins 2008. ‘Governing the future: the paradigm of prudence in political technologies of risk management’, Security Dialogue 39: 267288.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gale, J. 2020. ‘Pneumonia outbreak in China spurs fever checks from Singapore to Taiwan’, Bloomberg, 3 January (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-03/pneumonia-outbreak-spurs-fever-checks-from-singapore-to-taiwan) Accessed 22 March 2020.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gell, A. 1992. The anthropology of time: cultural constructions of temporal maps and images. Oxford: Berg.

  • Ghamari-Tabrizi, S. 2005. The worlds of Herman Kahn: the intuitive science of thermonuclear war. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hodges, M. 2008. ‘Rethinking time's arrow: Bergson, Deleuze and the anthropology of time’, Anthropological Theory 8: 399429.

  • Hoffmann, M., H. Kleine-Weber, N. Krüger, M. A. Mueller, C. Drosten and S. Pöhlmann 2020. ‘The novel coronavirus 2019 (2019-Ncov) uses the SARS-coronavirus receptor ACE2 and the cellular protease TMPRSS2 for entry into target cells’, BioRxiv https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.01.31.929042.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Huang, K. 2020. ‘World Health Organisation in touch with Beijing after mystery viral pneumonia outbreak’, South China Morning Post 1 January (https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3044207/china-shuts-seafood-market-linked-mystery-viral-pneumonia) Accessed 22 March 2020.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020a. ‘Event 201: about’ (http://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/event201/about) Accessed 30 March 2020.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020b. ‘Event 201’ (http://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/event201/) Accessed 30 March 2020.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020c. ‘Event 201: the Event 201 scenario’ (http://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/event201/scenario.html) Accessed 30 March 2020.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020d. ‘Statement about nCoV and our pandemic exercise’ (http://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/newsroom/center-news/2020-01-24-Statement-of-Clarification-Event201.html) Accessed 30 March 2020.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Judd, B. 2020. ‘Three months before the coronavirus outbreak, researchers simulated a global pandemic’, ABC News 31 January (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-01/coronavirus-outbreak-researchers-simulated-severe-pandemic/11906562?utm_campaign=abc_news_web&utm_content=link&utm_medium=content_shared&utm_source=abc_news_web) Accessed 13 February 2022.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kaufmann, M. 2016. ‘Exercising emergencies: resilience, affect and acting out security’, Security Dialogue 47: 99116.

  • Keck, F. 2018. ‘Avian preparedness: simulations of bird diseases and reverse scenarios of extinction in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 24: 330347.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Khan, N. 2020. ‘New virus discovered by Chinese scientists investigating pneumonia outbreak’, Wall Street Journal, 8 January (https://www.wsj.com/articles/new-virus-discovered-by-chinese-scientists-investigating-pneumonia-outbreak-11578485668) Accessed 22 March 2020.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Knight, D. M. 2022. ‘Vertigo and urgency: affective resonances of crisis’, Social Anthropology 30(4): 3753.

  • Kockelman, P. and A. Bernstein 2012. ‘Semiotic technologies, temporal reckoning, and the portability of meaning. Or: Modern modes of temporality – just how abstract are they?’, Anthropological Theory 12: 320348.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Krasmann, S. 2015. ‘On the boundaries of knowledge: security, the sensible, and the law’, InterDisciplines: Journal of History and Sociology 6: 187213.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lakoff, A. 2007. ‘Preparing for the next emergency’, Public Culture 19: 247271.

  • Lakoff, A. 2017. Unprepared: global health in a time of emergency. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

  • Lentzos, F. and N. Rose 2009. ‘Governing insecurity: contingency planning, protection, resilience’, Economy and Society 38: 230254.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mathews, A. S. and J. Barnes 2016. ‘Prognosis: visions of environmental futures’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22: 926.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McFalls, L. and M. Pandolfi 2022. ‘Waiting for the inevitable: permanent emergency, therapeutic domination and homo pandemicus’, Social Anthropology 30(4): 126142.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Munn, N. D. 1992. ‘The cultural anthropology of time: a critical essay’, Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 93123.

  • Opitz, S. and U. Tellmann 2015. ‘Future emergencies: temporal politics in law and economy’, Theory, Culture and Society 32: 107129.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ProMED-mail 2019. ‘Undiagnosed pneumonia – China (Hubei): request for information’, The International Society for Infectious Diseases, 30 December (https://promedmail.org/promed-post/?id=20191230.6864153) Accessed 22 March 2020.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ProMED-mail 2020a. ‘Undiagnosed pneumonia – China (Hubei) (02): updates, other country responses, request for information’, The International Society for Infectious Diseases 3 January (https://promedmail.org/promed-post/?id=20200103.6869668) Accessed 22 March 2020.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ProMED-mail 2020b. ‘Undiagnosed pneumonia – China (Hubei) (02): undiagnosed pneumonia – China (HU) (05): novel coronavirus identified’, The International Society for Infectious Diseases 8 January (https://promedmail.org/promed-post/?id=20200108.6877694) Accessed 22 March 2020.

    • Search Google Scholar
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