The Need for Futures Thinking in Humanitarian Scenarios

The Need for Futures Thinking in Humanitarian Scenarios

An example of highly intwined systems failing was the Tōhoku tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
By U.S. Navy photo – This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 110312-N-0000X-003 Public Domain

Dr Randolph Kent1 is a strong proponent of Futures Studies in Humanitarian Scenarios . Kent became an advocate for Futures through his experience during the relief effort after the Rwandan genocide [1994-1995] where he saw an enormous UN relief effort miss a sorely needed requirement of psychological and social-psychological assistance. He believed this assistance and support should have been anticipated and that organisations needed to start thinking different to do so.

This post looks at some of the headwinds facing the Humanitarianism sector as well as some of the scenarios Kent raises during his presentations. He calls out the lack of anticipatory attitudes within the sector and giving examples such as: the current lack of planning for complete failure of cybernetic infrastructure, and the lack of foresight around simultaneous major catastrophes; e.g. a huge tsunami in the Far East, a major drought in the Horn of Africa, and the ‘Big-One’ in San Fransisco – a massive West Coast earthquake – all at the same time. Who’s thinking about this? Who should be thinking about this? (Kent 2013). This short article will also look at other voices in this area to gain an idea of the importance of Futures in the Humanitarian2 context.

Another complicating factor to successful humanitarian response is that globally there has been a recent resurgence in stronger sovereignty. Politicians and government bodies now understand their security are dependent on their response to crises. More and more governments understand their political survival depends on the way they are seen to be taking action to these crises. In some countries a poor response can lead to rioting, and coups. Which leads to nations being reluctant to work with global actors (Kent 2013).

Bingley Floods 2015 Boxing Day | Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash

Adding further to this hindrance is the fact that disasters are becoming more complex, more widespread and are becoming more frequent. “Non-profit organisations are experiencing a growing demand for their services from increasingly diverse communities and increasing demands from governments and funders” (Lalande 2018). Coupled with reduction in traditional funding due to ageing populations leading to more project specific funding is squeezing organisations’ ability to cope.

To address these issues Kent suggests that organisations, as a whole, need to be more speculative and adaptive in attitude. To start asking ‘what-might-be’?

UNESCO’s 2018 publication, Transforming the Future; Anticipation in the 21st Century, Riel Miller head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO Paris writes, there is “the need and opportunity for significant innovation in human decision-making systems.” (Miller 2018). In the Foreword of the same publication Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO goes on “We see innovation occur when people face both terrible challenges and inspirational opportunities. In this context, I believe that understanding why and how to ‘use-the-future’ becomes all the more important.” (Miller 2018). 

These statements demonstrate the essentiality to popularise Futures Thinking to improve innovation and to change organisational mentalities to be more anticipatory and adaptive. But it also impresses that people in positions to influence solution processes, like design practitioners, need to adapt and accommodate Futures Thinking so they can be the harbingers for speculative methodologies in these organisations.

Let’s reflect for a moment on the differences between an Anticipatory System (for instance, in this context, an organisation where Futures Thinking is an embedded process) and the current way organisations are likely run, the Reactive System. 

“An anticipatory system is a natural system that contains an internal predictive model of itself and of its environment, which allows it to change state at an instant in accord with the model’s predictions pertaining to a later instant.

“[In contrast,] a reactive system can only react, in the present, to changes that have already occurred in the causal chain, while an anticipatory system’s present behaviour involves aspects of past, present, and future.” (Louie 2010).

Eyjafjallajökull eruption in April 2010 | By Boaworm – Own work, CC BY 3.0

Our collective future will deliver far more complex theatres of disasters. There will be closer interactions in disasters between the natural and the technological. Our reliance on technology and its interconnectedness to all services and infrastructure will will lead to greater disaster impact. Furthermore, Kent queries, how these disasters will not just impact a regional area, but the global system. And highlights how little discussion focusses on cross border solutions. An example of this was the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull eruption in April 2010, which clearly demonstrated impacts across all economies, brought about by built-in vulnerabilities of a tightly networked global economy with interconnected essential services.

In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler writes, ‘The inability to speak with precision and certainty about the future, however, is no excuse for silence‘ (Toffler 1971). Could this be sufficient reasoning as to why so many organisations disregard the ‘long now’ as part of their organisational and strategic process? Perhaps. But there are possibly other reasons why futures thinking isn’t utilised; ‘often the challenge isn’t lack of vision but short timeframes, competing priorities, and flawed delivery’ (Dobbs, Manyika et al. , Burke and Kent 2018).

In an interview FHbD had with Dr Kent, he also raises a paradoxical situation whereby organisations are caught in the complexity and uncertainty of the present and yet ‘close-down’ anything else that might add to that complexity (like the introduction of Futures Thinking). However, there is the beginning of an openness to new ideas such as the importance to enhance organisational anticipatory capacities  (Interview with Dr R. Kent 2019: Link to come).

In the IRIN presentation 2013, Kent calls for NGOs to investigate through Futures what type of partnerships the Humanitarian sector needs for success in future operations and to drive innovation. Not just other NGO’s and government aid organisations, but private enterprise, scientists, and the military all hold expertise that can offer strategic insights and collaboration efforts. Futures offers methods for this type of dialogue through roundtables and workshops. Kent acknowledges that the humanitarian sector is ‘really far’ from this type of thinking. An example given; how do you dialogue with scientists and then translate that information to communities? (IRIN 2013).

Nearly 50 years since the publication of Future Shock, where decades of unrelenting consumerism, unchecked development, and the disposable society has impacted the stability of the planet’s biosphere leaving many across the world with uncertain futures. This pleads the case for Kent’s stand that the Humanitarian sector now need to become willing to anticipate and adopt an adaptive attitude as we head to increasingly complex crises that will inevitably, but not predictably, occur (Kent 2013).

1. “Dr Randolph Kent is a Visiting Professor at the African Leadership Centre and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Prior to those appointments, he directed the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College London (2004-2016).”
Kent, D. R. “Professor Randolph Kent, Visiting Professor.” 2019, from

2.  FHbD expands the definition of Humanitarian to include ecological concerns. FHbD believes we can no longer simply put humans first above all else. We are inextricably connected to the natural world and many humanitarian scenarios revolve around environmental issues, either as a trigger for the scenario or it’s an element that exacerbates the situation.


BURKE, J. & KENT, R. 2018. Humanitarian Futures Toolkit. Humanitarian Futures.
DOBBS, R., MANYIKA, J. & WOETZEL, J. R. No ordinary disruption : the four global forces breaking all the trends.
IRIN 2013. An IRIN interview with Randolph Kent, King’s College London. YouTube: The New Humanitarian.
KENT, D. R. 2013. Randolph Kent’s presentation. Joint UN Environment OCHA Unit. YouTube:
LALANDE, L. 2018. Peering into the Future. Enabling Environment. Mowat Centre: Mowat NFP.
LOUIE, A. H. 2010. Robert Rosen’s anticipatory systems. Foresight, 12, 18-29.
MILLER, R. 2018. Transforming the Future, Anticipation in the 21st Century. In: MILLER, R. (ed.). UNESCO.
TOFFLER, A. 1971. Future Shock, Bantam Books.