At The Rockefeller Foundation, we’ve always tried to stay one step ahead – imagining futures that inspire bold action and making catalytic bets that can lead to long-term change. As an institution deeply rooted in science and technology, we understand their transformational power to address today’s challenges – and help plan for those we haven’t yet envisioned.
In the 1930s, Warren Weaver, who led The Rockefeller Foundation’s programs in natural sciences, had a hunch that chemical and physical explanations of life would lead to a whole new world of research and discovery. He coined the term “molecular biology” and a field was born.
In 1956, The Rockefeller Foundation supported the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence, which was the first use of “artificial intelligence” as well. After some fits and starts, that field exploded too.
And now, artificial intelligence has combined with molecular biology to accelerate the development of vaccines and therapeutics for the world’s worst pandemic since 1918.
Could any of this have been predicted? Absolutely not. However, both molecular biology and artificial intelligence were guided by visions of positive futures where both fields contributed to improving people’s well-being.
Unfortunately, we must also plan for futures that aren’t as bright – be it due to a disease outbreak or natural disaster – to minimize harm and prepare for recovery.
In 2009, The Rockefeller Foundation conducted an exercise to explore the future of technology in development and identify ways to better respond to emerging challenges. The results were captured in a report that includes several plausible scenarios that could impact millions of people around the world. One such scenario, “Lock Step,” described a fictional pandemic that would infect 20% of the world in 2012, killing eight million people in just seven months.
Now that we’re well into a real pandemic, we see some chilling similarities between our current Zoom-centered world and Lock Step. The report predicted that telepresence technologies would “respond to the demand for less-expensive, lower bandwidth, sophisticated communications systems for populations whose travel is restricted.” Other predictions were off, including the emergence of MRI technologies to detect abnormal behavior with anti-social intent.
While baseless posts have circulated recently calling the exercise part of a “diabolical plan for world domination,” we see it as further evidence of the importance of scenario planning in helping governments, institutions and others navigate near-term decisions that can have long-term impact. Our hope then – as it is now – was to focus on what we don’t know so we could make better plans to address a real pandemic, such as the one we’re facing today.