In January 2020, as the coronavirus began making global headlines, Jane McGonigal’s inbox was flooded with emails from Silicon Valley executives, government officials, and nonprofit executives. They all had the same question: “Jane, didn’t you run a simulation of a respiratory pandemic?”
Yes she had. All the way back to 2010.
Jane is a game designer. She builds simulations that help players imagine the unimaginable. And in 2010, she invited nearly 20,000 people to immerse themselves in a future world ravaged by a global pandemic. “How would you change your habits?” she asked. “What social interactions would you avoid? Can you work from home?”
A decade later, as COVID went from a budding threat to a full-blown crisis, Jane began hearing from people who had taken part in the simulation. “I’m not freaking out,” one of them said, relieved. “I’ve already processed the panic and fear when we envisioned this ten years ago.”
According to the latest research in psychology and neuroscience, we can all learn to transition from panic to calm by training our brains to think about the unthinkable. But what does this training look like? In her new book Conceivable— and in today’s episode of the The next big idea Podcast – Jane shares evidence-based techniques to help you anticipate the future. Listen to the full episode below, or read some key highlights. And follow host Rufus Griscom on LinkedIn for a behind-the-scenes look at the show.
How Jane went from game designer to future forecaster.
Rufus: Her journey from studying and designing video games to working as a futurist – some would find that counterintuitive. I think you see this as a logical progression. Why does this order make sense?
Jane: What first really intrigued me about the gaming community was this trend I was seeing in gamers: They were developing real skills, real skills, collective intelligence and collective imagination that they wanted to apply in a larger context – maybe help, some real world problems to solve. world challenges.
That was in 2001 when I started my PhD. Work. And I thought, ‘This is incredible! It would be really good for humanity if we could bring these new skills coming from online gaming to problem-solving in the real world.” But back then, there weren’t many games that actually connected this community to real-world challenges .
After studying it for six years and writing my dissertation on the subject, I immediately thought, “I’m going to be the one developing games that help players apply those strengths in real-world contexts.” And the context in which I am What I ended up working with was trying to predict hard-to-predict futures, or using that collective imagination to see future scenarios from a great many angles — like we see a game world — so we could spot the outlier risks or unexpected opportunities. And I’ve been doing this for 15 years now.
Predicting COVID…in 2010.
Rufus: This mission of taking our interest in games and collective imagination exercises and using them to better understand possible future outcomes – you and your team have been at this for some time, and you have an amazingly impressive track record of anticipating possible future outcomes. Can you give us some details about what you all did?
Jane: 2020 has been a really strange year for a future forecaster as I have had the experience of living through a very difficult future that we had been predicting for a decade or more. My work at the Institute for the Future was to create these social simulations way back in 2008, 2010 where we invited thousands of people to spend weeks on a private social network. It would look like Twitter, Facebook, or Discord, but everything that was posted and shared was about a hypothetical future.
“There was this incredible proliferation of news and headlines using the word ‘unimaginable’ to describe the pandemic and its aftermath. But it was not inconceivably. We just didn’t have the critical mass of people who imagined that.”
Futurists love to look 10 years into the future because it gives us enough mental distance to think creatively. And if we envision problems that may not occur in 10 years, we have enough time to prepare for or prevent them. So we looked at 2019 and 2020 and back then our simulation was about, How would we survive and adapt to a respiratory pandemic that started in China and was also complicated by cascading crises? One of the things I specialize in is figuring out how different crises and disorders intersect. So we’re not just looking at it from a public health or epidemiological perspective. We have also considered how we would survive and adapt when we have supply chain disruptions, when misinformation and conspiracy theories about the pandemic are circulating on social media, when there are historic wildfires and extreme heat waves due to climate change. And that’s exactly what we experienced in 2020.
Which kind of freaked me out for a while and made me want to write the book Conceivable, is that there has been this incredible proliferation of news and headlines using the word ‘unimaginable’ to describe the pandemic and its aftermath. But it was not inconceivably. We just didn’t have the critical mass of people who imagined it. We had 20,000 people in one of our simulations and 8,000 in another. My goal is 20 million—I think that would really help us prepare for the future.
Why you should think 10 years into the future.
Jane: When we set ourselves those long, luxurious deadlines, we feel rich on time. And when we feel rich in time, we think, “I have all this time! I can do what I want. I can do what is important to me.”
When we have urgent deadlines or too many tasks on our to-do list for today, we feel like we’re running out of time, we’re running out of time — and then we just don’t use our time, because even though we still have just as much time, it feels like it closely.
Another thing researchers have found is that when we picture ourselves 10 years ahead, we tend to think about things that are more relevant to our core values — the kind of goals that would help us achieve a life to lead that we would actually consider to be truly authentic, conform to our dreams or what we consider to be meaningful and meaningful.
I give people this challenge. It’s not “Where do you want to be in 10 years?” or “What do you want to be different?” The challenge is to vividly imagine waking up on any given day. So pick a day of the week; is it a monday is it a saturday A Sunday? You picture yourself waking up and try to visualize every detail. Where are they? Are you in the same room you woke up in today or is it a different room? Where is it? Is someone with you? Is it a human? Is it a pet? Is it a different person or pet than today? And then imagine what mood you’re in. What mood would you like to wake up in? What would get you in that mood? What could be on your calendar that day that would put you in that mood?
“Because we’ve given ourselves 10 years, it allows us to dream bigger and also enjoy that sense of space in time to really make some changes or explore possibilities that we would dismiss as impossible today.”
And then I tell people, “Go put it on your calendar.” If you’ve just imagined doing that amazing thing that makes you feel a certain way, open your Google or Apple calendar – you go 10, 20, 30, 40 years into the future – and put it on your calendar. Better yet, invite someone. Invite a loved one.
It can spark some really interesting conversations about our true hopes and dreams. What does it take to get there? Because we’ve given ourselves 10 years, it allows us to dream bigger and also enjoy that sense of time to really make some changes or explore possibilities that we would dismiss as impossible today.
Future scenarios that everyone should consider.
Rufus: Are there other future scenarios that you think our listeners should consider?
Jane: Things to watch out for: Government-mandated internet shutdowns are a huge future force spreading globally. If you are unaware of this phenomenon and may not be willing to live for weeks or months when the government shuts down the internet, you should think about it.
Another is climate migration. We must be willing to think about the risks of our lives. Are we in a climate-proof, climate-resilient place that will likely welcome others migrating from climate-unsafe regions? If so, we should be ready to see higher housing densities, welcoming people who have been forcibly displaced. Are we emotionally ready for this? Are we economically prepared for this? Also think about our movement paths when we need to move. This is something every serious futurist I know ponders – ways of human movement within countries and across borders. How can we support people economically, socially, mentally and psychologically? How can we create a home? This is a problem area that requires so much imagination, innovation and creativity. If I could get all the brightest minds in the world to work on something, it would be to think about movement. This is the greatest future scenario that would benefit from our imagination and also from our innovation.
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