Smart thinking: shaping different futures

Certainties trap us in the past with what has been, under the assumption that the future will be like that too

By Bryan Greetham

In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb asks us to imagine how little our understanding of the world in 1914 would have helped us guess what was about to happen. He uses this to explain the concept of a Black Swan: an ‘unknown unknown’; an unforeseen event, the impact of which is extreme and dramatic, and which, with the benefit of hindsight, was obvious. Think only of the financial crash in 2007/8. Neither the Bank of England nor political leaders, like Gordon Brown and David Cameron, had any idea what was about to happen.

The possibility of a global pandemic did not register, even though cases of Covid 19 had already been reported in China and Europe.

Dominic Alves from Brighton, England – Northern Rock Queue

Nevertheless, we comfort ourselves with the belief that such crises happen infrequently. And yet, little over ten years later, we find ourselves in the middle of another. With the signs of the pandemic beginning to appear, in mid January 2020 the World Economic Forum that organises the Davos meeting of the global business elite released its annual global risks report: the collective wisdom of hundreds of experts about possible threats. The top five concerns over the next decade were all environmental. The possibility of a global pandemic did not register, even though cases of Covid 19 had already been reported in China and Europe.

‘That’s all very well,’ you might say, ‘we can all be wise after the event.’ Yet, there were those who had been sending out warnings for years that this was not only likely, but inevitable. In his 2015 TedTalk, Bill Gates said that in 2014 the world avoided a global outbreak of Ebola, thanks to thousands of selfless health workers and, quite simply, luck.

Demonstration of a nasopharyngeal swab for COVID-19 testing, Raimond Spekking

In hindsight, he said, we should have done better, so now’s the time to put all our good ideas into practice from scenario planning to vaccine research to health worker training: ‘There’s no need to panic … but we need to get going.’ Instead the Trump administration, in 2018, disbanded the National Security Council’s pandemic response team at the White House charged with preparing for when, not if, another pandemic strikes.

there are those who are ideologically committed, locked within their own universe of facts and self-reinforcing arguments; intellectually insulated from any evidence that might threaten what they believe.

In this lies the story of two types of thinking. On the one hand there are the smart thinkers: those who have made the great breakthroughs in science, like Ignaz Semmelweis and Albert Einstein, and those whose ideas have transformed our modern lives, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They are able to set aside what they would like to believe, ask naïve questions and generate ideas, new concepts and novel solutions for the most challenging problems. On the other hand there are those who are ideologically committed, locked within their own universe of facts and self-reinforcing arguments; intellectually insulated from any evidence that might threaten what they believe.

how can we develop our abilities to interpret and shape the future

When, finally, President Trump could no longer ignore the seriousness of the pandemic, he claimed that it ‘came out of nowhere’ and it ‘blindsided the world’. But are we really such blind victims of fate? Some thinkers appear to be able to visualise different futures with a clear idea how we can avoid the worst of them. So, how can we develop our abilities to interpret and shape the future in this way?


Poster for the recent UNESCO Futures Literacy Summit

To do this means embracing a new form of thinking, one that enables us to move beyond our dependency on the illusion of certainty and the fragilities this creates, and teaches us instead how to cope with uncertainties and shape the future. There are already initiatives designed to promote this form of thinking. UNESCO has its Futures Literacy programme1 and The Futures School is producing certified ‘Foresight Practitioners’2. But convincing the rest of the world that this is what we must do is an uphill task. 

UNESCO has its Futures Literacy programme1 and The Futures School is producing certified ‘Foresight Practitioners’2.

Unfortunately our education systems are designed to teach students certainties, knowledge endorsed by authorities in their subjects. This leaves no opportunity to develop the abilities we need. As Paul Tillich said,

Once an authority declares something to be a fact there is nowhere to go, no room for speculation, which we need to develop these essential abilities. Only by suspending our judgement can we create the room we need to learn how to generate ideas, analyse and create concepts, synthesise ideas, design solutions, assess risk and, finally, make our own decisions.

‘The passion for truth is silenced by answers which have the weight of undisputed authority.’3

Paul Tillich

Equally significant, certainties trap us in the past with what has been, under the assumption that the future will be like that too. In contrast, learning to create different models of the future involves surrendering the illusion of certainty and accepting the opportunity and the challenge of exploring for ourselves the amazing complexity of the world. We learn to cope with what doesn’t exist, but could – innovation, novelty, new and original ideas. By teaching students to suspend their judgement and live confidently with uncertainty, they learn to speculate, to create new models of reality they can use to predict the future.

Use SMART thinking

As in the natural sciences, students come to realise that there is no one theory about reality and no one set of predictions for the future. This is what Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow4 describe as ‘model-dependent realism’, where different theories using different conceptual frameworks can successfully describe the same phenomenon. So, how do we teach students to create different predictive frameworks through which to see the world differently, with different futures? 

The answer is smart thinking. This radically different style of thinking teaches us to:

  • generate our own ideas by looking at problems from different perspectives and on different levels;
  • analyse concepts to unravel the different principles they contain to find alternative meaning;
  • create new concepts with the capacity to see more in different futures;
  • synthesise ideas in new original ways to create new meaning and see the wider significance of ideas we take for granted;
  • design different solutions to problems by learning to adapt the structures we use to understand the world.

UNESCO maintains that in promoting Futures Literacy as a ‘universally accessible skill’ we are building on ‘the innate human capacity to imagine the future.’

When people are capable of deciding why and how to use the future, they …  are more at ease with novelty and experimentation. Less anxious about uncertainty. Humbler about controlling the future. More confident about being able to comprehend and appreciate the potential opened up by change.

There are, no doubt, many black swans that lie ahead: unforeseen financial crises, new pandemics, catastrophic events, the result of climate change, and many more. How many will remain ‘unknown unknowns’ depends on whether we continue to study the certainties of the past, rather than the uncertainties that that will shape the future. 


1https://en.unesco.org/futuresliteracy/about#:~:text=Futures%20Literacy%20is%20a%20capability,present%20(Miller%2C%202015).

2 https://thefuturesschool.com/certified-foresight-practitioner/

3 Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, (1949; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), pp. 118-21.

4 Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, (London: Bantam Press, 2010), p. 7.


Bryan Greetham was born in Faversham, Kent, in England. He was educated at the University of Kent, where he gained a BA Hons in History, and at the University of Sussex, where he completed his MA in Intellectual History. He was awarded his PhD at the University of Newcastle in Australia for his work in moral thinking.

Currently Bryan is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Durham. Much of his work has been in moral thinking, applied and professional ethics and in complex adaptive systems. His current research involves what we can learn about moral thinking from the perpetrators, victims, rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust.

He is the author of How to Write Better EssaysHow to Write your Undergraduate Dissertation, both on writing and thinking skills, Philosophyan introduction to philosophy for undergraduates, Thinking Skills for Professionals and his latest book, Smart Thinking, all published by Palgrave, Macmillan.