‘What if...?’ Imagining the future for emergency service workforces | Natural Hazards Research Australia

‘What if...?’ Imagining the future for emergency service workforces

Release date

19 August 2022

The recently released Workforce 2030 report, now available via the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC website, brings together an overview picture of workforce-related challenges and opportunities likely to face emergency service organisations over the coming decade.

I was one of the contributors to the report. It was very much a team effort, bringing together the collective knowledge of several researchers from a range of fields, guided by the steady hand of our Research Fellow, Dr Jane Chong at Curtin University.

The report outlines three main ways that research might be used to inform workforce planning. One of these is:

To stimulate conversations amongst internal and external stakeholders about future workforce needs, challenges and opportunities and about strategic workforce planning priorities.

However, stimulating real conversations about the future requires more than a report. It also requires something to spark our imaginations.  

Getting people thinking about the future

With this in mind, my colleague from Curtin University’s Future of Work Institute, Associate Professor Pat Dunlop, suggested the report be accompanied by short animations that describe specific, hypothetical or ‘what if...’ workforce scenarios in 2030. When we discussed potential communication ideas to accompany the report with our sector advisory panel, panel members were particularly supportive of the animations. They instantly saw how powerful this could be to spur people to think outside the boundaries of the way things work today.

The four animations accompanying the report aren’t intended to convey a picture of what future workforce management practices should look like or predict what they will look like in 2030. Rather, they ask workers and managers alike to imagine ‘what if...’:

  • What if?... emergency services recruitment goes high tech?
  • What if?... volunteer socialisation gets more structured and sophisticated?
  • What if?... volunteers lead the redesign of local volunteer-based service delivery?
  • What if?...team leaders are empowered to unlock the skills and strengths of their age-diverse volunteers in 2030?

Why is ‘what if...’ thinking so powerful?

Most commonly, people envision the future in relation to where we currently are today. Yet, this can be incredibly limiting. When we do this, our minds go immediately to the barriers and challenges that sit between the reality of today and the potential of tomorrow. We are so embedded in the present that we fail to take a leap of imagination into what the future could possibly be, and how we could possibly enable it.

There are copious examples out there of organisations held back from proactively adapting to change by a failure of its people to imagine not only the potential of the future but also a pathway to unlock it. Who can forget the case of Eastman Kodak? Despite being responsible for the first ever digital camera, management at Eastman Kodak felt the company was too invested in its current operating model to pivot to a dramatically different one, and thus they failed to find a path forward for the company in the face of the digital photography revolution. As a result, Kodak wound up as one of the major losers in the shift to digital cameras and smartphones.

Thinking about this lesson in the emergency management context, I wonder what could happen if emergency service organisations – like Eastman Kodak – struggle to find a path forward to adapt to the transformation in modern day volunteering while other, more agile organisations stride ahead?

By contrast, ‘what if...’ thinking makes the leap of imagination and asks us to work back from what is possible in the potential future towards the reality of today. It switches the conversation from ‘what currently stands in our way and what prevents us from moving forward?’, to ‘what enables us to find a way and what propels us forward?’

The four animations accompanying the Workforce 2030 report are just small examples of ‘what if...’ thinking. More substantial ‘what if...’ thinking can be unlocked through scenario-planning – where multiple plausible futures states are explored to inform ‘future-proof’ strategic planning. Positively, the use of scenario-planning in emergency management is growing (see here and here for examples), although it has not yet penetrated deeply into workforce planning.

Circling back to the importance of imagination in preparing for an uncertain future, I’d like to leave you with a quote by CRC researcher Steve Sutton from Charles Darwin University and colleagues that we might all do well to think on now and again:

"The key problem faced in preparing for future disasters is a problem of imagination. It is a problem embedded in the stories we tell about what we imagine might happen. [...]

This is a dynamic and ongoing process. The story is never finished, nor is it complete, as we selectively incorporate or reject information depending on its source, content, and compatibility with the existing narrative. […]

If certain narratives are allowed to flourish uncontested within an organisation an ironic consequence can be a failure of imagination and coping. A failure to be future ready.”

1 Sutton et al., (2019). Are we future ready? It depends on who you ask. Paper presented at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC Research Day AFAC19, Melbourne, Australia. [See 13, abstract]