Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale
(2022) 30.4: 90–109 © e Author(s)
Published on behalf of the European Association of Social Anthropologists
Scenarios in a Time of Urgency
Shi ing Temporality and Technology
Abstract: is article explores the connection between technology and temporality, and
discusses speci cally scenario technology and the temporality of urgency, in the context of
the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. It illustrates how, despite the inher-
ent 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 correspon-
dence with the scholarship of ‘the anthropology of the future’, the article focuses on changes
in temporal orientations – speci cally, with a shi from a temporality of (future) preparedness
to a temporal orientation of (immediate) urgency and how such a shi in temporality a ects
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.
Keywords: preparedness, scenario, temporality, uncertainty, urgency
In this article,1 I focus on the connection between technology and temporality,
and discuss speci cally 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 tech-
nology, once an actual event occurs and the temporality of preparedness is over-
ridden 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 – speci cally, with a shi from a tempo-
rality of (future) preparedness to a temporal orientation of (immediate) urgency
and how such a shi in temporality a ects 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 technol-
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SCENARIOS IN A TIME OF URGENCY 91
ogy was developed – that of scenarios. Perhaps the most well-known gure 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 in uential.3
Accepting that it was impossible to predict or accurately know uncer-
tain 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 infor-
mation 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 think-
ing 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 di erent future scenarios through narration. In his work, scenarios would
thus be used as a speculative framework, a machine for generating what was hith-
erto ‘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
o en referred to them as part of future preparedness and anticipation technolo-
gies (Adey and Anderson 2012; Anderson 2010; Cooper 2010; Keck 2018; Lako
2007, 2008; Lentzos and Rose 2009; Mathews and Barnes 2016; Opitz and Tell-
mann 2015), looking at the concrete aspects of preparing for future uncertainties,
discussing the problem of the time gap between present actions (of prepared-
ness) 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 lls the ‘gap between pres-
ent and future’ (Krasmann 2015: 187). In such studies, scenarios are o en con-
nected to the ‘future present’ (that will happen in the real future) rather than to
that which is actualised (i.e. an already happening event). e 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
92 LIMOR SAMIMIAN-DARASH
cohesion of the future and the present into the temporality of immediacy and
urgency promoted four di erent 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 tempo-
rality of scenarios, the way in which the technology was modi ed illustrates how
the form and content of the technology was a ected by the temporal shi that
accompanied the emergency event.
Time, Temporality and the Future
Moving from the notion of time to that of temporality, scholars have recom-
mended that we di erentiate between time as an ‘objective’ gure (past/pres-
ent/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 di erent aspects of
temporality should form part of any sociocultural inquir y, 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 di erent 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 di erent 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 ‘orienta-
tions’ as a concept for studying how we orient ourselves to futures as ‘inde nite
teleologies’ – that is, a concern for ends (plural) in everyday life (Bryant and
Knight 2019: 19). ey propose to examine the temporal dynamism and poten-
tial temporal stasis of acts of planning, hoping about and imagining the future,
along with ‘the collapse of those e orts’, and argue that ‘presents and pasts are
always and inevitably shaped by the ends for which we strive’ (Bryant and Knight
Paul Kockelman and Anya Bernstein (2012) have distinguished between dif-
ferent 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)
SCENARIOS IN A TIME OF URGENCY 93
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 a ect the way in which the future is perceived and governed, but the
temporality of a particular event also a ects the expression of the technology.
Rather than seeing technology merely as a lens through which to examine socio-
cultural temporalities (Bear 2016) or address how technology (and especially
future technologies) operates as a tool that both emphasises and promotes a par-
ticular 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. Cadu 2015; Kaufmann 2016) and
this special issue explicitly suggests (Andreas Bandak and Paul Anderson, this
issue), the notion of urgency o ers a promising direction for e orts to study the
relationship between temporality and social technologies, especially in the con-
text 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 preser-
vation of ethno-religious dominance through national unity ( Joseph Webster,
this issue); ful lling 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 elle, this issue) or worse (Lau-
rence McFalls and Mariella Pandol , this issue) – are both important and illumi-
nating. As a temporality, urgency refers to either an a ect – 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 de nition and
manifestation of an event. In examining the use of scenario exercises in the case
of COVID-19, for example, we observe a shi 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, emerg-
ing – which calls for immediate action and more knowledge.
e 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
94 LIMOR SAMIMIAN-DARASH
very near future. I further argue that the scenario technology, which embeds
a particular temporal disposition towards preparedness for future (potential)
uncertainties, is a ected by the temporal shi to urgency. In other words, as a
result of a shi in the temporality of the event, certain changes are observed in
the technology and how it is used.
Scenario Technology and Preparedness
Scholars have identi ed preparedness as an increasingly dominant form of gov-
erning, including in the contexts of public health (Lako 2007) and pandemic
discourse (Cadu 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 con-
trol damage rather than to prevent particular threats (Collier and Lako 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 statis-
tical forms of governance usually involve calculations and analyses of risk, pre-
paredness 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 (Cadu 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 tempo-
ral orientation of preparedness for future uncertainty respond in such situations?
And how does scenario technology work in the light of this temporal shi ?
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
SCENARIOS IN A TIME OF URGENCY 95
Seafood Wholesale Market, had been admitted to hospital with an unidenti ed
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 y-nine people diagnosed in China, Chinese scientists
managed to genetically sequence the virus (using a sample from a patient) and
identi ed the cause of illness (in some of the patients) as a novel strain of corona-
virus (Khan 2020). Coronaviruses are enveloped, positive-sense single-stranded
RNA genome viruses with helically symmetrical nucleocapsids. ey 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, coronavi-
ruses cause respiratory and gastrointestinal-tract infections, and, while various
kinds of coronaviruses are known to exist, only some of them a ect humans by
causing illnesses, most importantly SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syn-
drome (MERS) (Ho mann et al 2020; ProMED-mail 2020b; Wu et al 2020).
In 2019–2020, then, potential uncertainty eventually actualised into a pan-
demic, 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 e ort of urgency
(WHO 2020a), rst, 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 e ort is needed to enhance prepared-
ness in other regions of the world that may need additional support for that’
(WHO 2020b: np). Similarly, WHO called for global e orts to help preparedness
where support was needed. In response, several simulation exercises in prepara-
tion for COVID-19 were conducted by national health authorities with support
96 LIMOR SAMIMIAN-DARASH
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 exer-
cise’ (WHO 2020c) among a suite of table-top exercises packages. is was devel-
oped 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 debrief-
ing. e 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, identi cation of interdependencies between health
actors and other sectors, conducting a gap analysis using WHO’s COVID-19 Stra-
tegic Preparedness and Response Plan, and the creation of a national action plan
is 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.
e 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 di erent localities: ‘ e package highlights clearly where some
minor adaptions are needed to make the simulation country-speci c 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 can-
not know in advance how people will respond, in order to ensure that an exercise
will continue as planned, they use di erent measures. For instance:
Sometimes we have . . . injects in the back of our pockets because if we ex-
pect the ministry of health to deliver talking points, but they don’t send it to
SCENARIOS IN A TIME OF URGENCY 97
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
Participants in the preparedness exercise are supposed to carry out certain
functions as if they were in an actual situation. is is not to test how well those
speci c individuals perform tasks but to examine how the system functions as
a whole. e 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 appropr iate actions and known solutions
for the types of situations described in the updates: ‘What actions would be trig-
gered 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). e expected e ect of practising preordained responses is that sys-
tems will be better prepared for an actual event. erefore, 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 di erent levels) into exist-
ing 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 emer-
gency, and far fewer new plans were made to conduct preparedness exercises for
infectious-disease outbreaks. e 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
re ection, which means there is no need for a simulated event. More speci cally,
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
98 LIMOR SAMIMIAN-DARASH
exercise are not available’. at is, they are busy responding to the ‘real’ event.
is 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 mecha-
nisms 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 ‘a er-action reviews’ are deployed instead of sim-
ulation exercises. e reason for this preference for a er-action reviews, as Julian
Strauss explained, is that:
An a er-action review is basically exactly the same as a simulation exercise. e
purpose and objectives are exactly the same as a simulation exercise because what
we want to achieve using a simulation exercise or an a er-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 a er-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 a er-action review, which is a similar methodology that we use doing the
debrie ng in an exercise to extract the lessons learned, the strengths and the weak-
nesses 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 partici-
pate and conduct an exercise, but also that imaginary scenarios are cast aside as
an instrument for preparing for the future. e only kind of ‘scenario’ that is rel-
evant for the revision of plans for future health emergency events is the one that
is occurring now – in other words, the ‘real’ event.
e urgency that accompanied the actualisation of the COVID-19 pandemic,
then, embedded/fostered a certain temporal reorientation towards the immedi-
ate. is 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 uncer-
tainty and imagination – which have traditionally been crucial elements of the
Narratives: From Means to End
As noted earlier, WHO’s COVID-19 simulation exercise was created in accor-
dance with the organisation’s guidance and manuals for developing and using
SCENARIOS IN A TIME OF URGENCY 99
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 di erence between the COVID-
19 simulation exercise and previous simulation exercises at WHO. During
interviews, simulation exercise experts who have worked in or with health organ-
isations such as WHO repeatedly emphasised that the rst and most important
step in any exercise is to determine its speci c 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 rst
necessary to ask ‘what do you want to exercise, and why?’ e 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 . . . . e scenario [narrative] is just the story. e question is which
functions or which systems do you want to test or practise? And then, later, the
scenario comes into play.
e scenario, Strauss continued to explain, can technically correspond with or
re ect 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 speci c objectives of a
particular exercise. In this regard, he added: ‘ e 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 re ected an urgent need to prepare for a
very speci c 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’ exer-
cise was initially developed at the request of WHO’s Regional O ce 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’. e 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. e team wrote the
scenario while identifying and discussing ‘key issues’ that seemed important for
100 LIMOR SAMIMIAN-DARASH
countries, and then built the exercise around those issues. rough 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’
Here, then, a speci c scenario narrative determines the aims and objectives
of the exercise. e scenario exercise is driven by what appear to be the most
urgent immediate future issues that need to be addressed in the present. Fur-
ther, 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,
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. at’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 un-
certainties are generated by the prospects of the near future, the scenario tech-
nology – with its temporal orientation towards ‘preparedness’ – is signi cantly
a ected by the temporality of ‘urgency’. Once the temporal orientation shi s
from ‘preparedness’ to ‘urgency’, the exercise shi s to follow the narrative
(instead of vice versa). at is, rather than the future narrative remaining simply
a means for creating plausible (invented) stories for the exercise, when the tem-
poral orientation shi s, 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 shi in the technology, whereby the
scenario remains the same but is rendered into a possible representation of a
‘real’ event to be re ected on. is dynamic appeared in the speci c 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 Foun-
dation, conducted a table-top exercise known as ‘Event 201’. is exercise lasted
for 3.5 hours and involved:
SCENARIOS IN A TIME OF URGENCY 101
a series of dramatic, scenario-based facilitated discussions, confronting di cult,
true-to-life dilemmas associated with response to a hypothetical, but scientif-
ically plausible, pandemic. ( Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020a:
e exercise brought together een actors from the public and private sectors
(global businesses, government o cials 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 signi -
cant 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).
e 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 num-
ber 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’. e exercise was there-
fore an attempt to establish and promote the necessary ‘reliable cooperation
among several industries, national governments, and key international institu-
tions’ 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, govern-
ments and international institutions were to cooperate.
As part of the exercise, di erent instruments were used to stimulate partic-
ipation: pre-recorded news broadcasts and moderated discussions on di erent
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. e 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).
e 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 rst’, soon spreads ‘rapidly in healthcare
settings’ ( Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020c: np). It then begins to
spread ‘e ciently from person to person in . . . densely packed neighborhoods’
across South America. Next, it is ‘exported by air travel’ to many other countries
102 LIMOR SAMIMIAN-DARASH
(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 rst year’. And while ‘a ctional
antiviral drug that can help the sick’ exists, it does not ‘signi cantly limit spread
of the disease’ ( Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security 2020c: np). e nar-
rative then moves to the di erent 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:
e scenario ends at the 18-month point, with 65 million deaths . . . . e pan-
demic will continue at some rate until there is an e ective 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
According to the scenario narrative, then, a er millions of deaths and when large
amounts of people are no longer susceptible to the virus, the pandemic will even-
tually 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 unpredict-
able, potential future event (see Lako 2017).
Just several months a er 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
satis ed the urgent need for answers, for knowledge that could be used to explain
the developing situation. It has thus provided fertile ground for various interpre-
tations, 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. e Center rst rejected the notion
that they had predicted the future and explained that, to develop the scenario,
they had ‘modeled a ctional 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 ver y 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 di erent from those seen in
SCENARIOS IN A TIME OF URGENCY 103
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, empha-
sising 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. e Center thus
insisted that the scenario should not be used as a map for the present event. Nev-
ertheless, 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 eco-
nomic and societal consequences’ ( Judd 2020: np). ose 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 pre-
pare 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 pre-
diction tool nor as a set of assessable possibilities (based on past information);
instead, they promote imagination processes through which one can create plau-
sible future stories, envisage new future complexities and draw multiple path-
ways back to the present. As instruments for preparedness, scenarios are used
to extract (not yet known) problems, to re ect 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 di erent ways.
rough 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 potenti-
104 LIMOR SAMIMIAN-DARASH
ality, is signi cantly a ected by a temporality of urgency. In the current case, this
became evident in two kinds of responses.
In the rst, the scenario technology underwent a structural adaptation or
modi cation in order to remain a useful way of preparing for a speci c 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 di erent 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 dif-
ferent 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.
at is, the content of the speci c 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. ough 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 sce-
nario narrative remains.
at 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 uncer-
tainty through processes of imagination (wherein the future is seen as something
that is dynamic and inherently emerging and un nished), 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 ren-
dered into possibilities and judged by their use as maps or images for navigating
the present. e scenario thus shi s from a shadow of the future into a shadow
of the present. is 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 di erently, 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.
is research was funded by the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 1120/19).
SCENARIOS IN A TIME OF URGENCY 105
LIMOR SAMIMIAN-DARASH is associate professor at the Federmann School of Pub-
lic Policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has studied the topics of
preparedness for future risks and uncertainties in health and security elds. In
the past few years, she has focused on the scenario technology as a dominant
way to address future uncertainties through imagination and narration, particu-
larly 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.
1. is article draws on my long-term (2018–2022), multi-sited ethnographic research on
scenario planning in the elds of security, energy and health (which consists of various
periods of eldwork, 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
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’ i s 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 plan-
ning for uncertain futures.
3. ough Kahn’s scenario technique is probably the most prominent approach in the eld
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. ere 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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SCENARIOS IN A TIME OF URGENCY 109
Scénarios dans un temps d’urgence :
déplacement de la temporalité et de la technologie
Cet article explore le lien entre technologie et temporalité, et discute spéci quement de la
technologie des scénarios et de la temporalité de lurgence, dans le contexte de la pandémie
de coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19). Il illustre comment, malgré lorientation inhérente de cette
technologie vers la potentialité future, une fois quun événement réel se produit et que la
temporalité de la préparation est remplacée par une temporalité durgence, la technologie
du scénario est adaptée à la nouvelle temporalité en termes de forme et de contenu. En cor-
respondance avec la recherche de“lanthropologie du futur”, larticle sintéresse aux chan-
gements dorientations temporelles — plus précisément, au passage dune temporalité de
préparation (future) à une orientation temporelle durgence (immédiate) et à la manière dont
un tel changement de temporalité a ecte 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.
Mots clés : incertitude, préparation, scénario, temporalité, urgence