October 1, 2020
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Fox School of Business faculty member Guntram Werther outlines how holistic forecasting can be applied to the current COVID-19 pandemic

PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 1, 2020 — Iceland has been using their national police to contact trace COVID-19. In Israel, they’ve used Shin Bet, the country’s internal security service. Here in the U.S., the response has differed, state to state.

According to Guntram Werther, none of this is all too surprising.

Professor Werther

Werther, a professor of marketing and supply chain management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, specializes in holistic forecasting. With previous work as a Senior Research Fellow in the intelligence field as well as at Fortune 100 corporate levels for 30-plus years, he has been described as the “best read theorist and practitioner of the art and science of futuring, and holistic intelligence forecasting.” 

Werther’s holistic approach to forecasting often allows one to foresee future outcomes missed by other approaches. 

Werther is now in the process of completing two books about holistic forecasting. The one, which will be published by the Society of Actuaries, outlines the processes for doing holistic forecasting. The other, which will be published by World Scientific, details best practices for forecasting from both an academic and theoretical point of view. World Scientific is one of the leaders in academic publishing, having published more than 100 Nobel Prize-winning authors.

We caught up with Werther to gain insight into holistic forecasting and learn how it can be especially applicable in a year like 2020.

Q: Broadly speaking, what makes a person a good holistic forecaster?

A: Holistic thinkers and good forecasters are almost always multidisciplinary. They think integratively combining insights from several fields in which they have experience and study. When I think of my personal story, I was always sort of a weird kid reading broadly and for fun across many fields from an early age: geography, history, cultures, wars, politics, religions, philosophies and various sciences. I think that’s true of a lot of holistic thinkers. 

The other thing is that you cannot really become a holistic forecaster until you age a bit; until you’re at least 35 to 40 years old. This has nothing to do with IQ, it just has to do with life experience. You need time and experience before you can really even think about holistically forecasting future events.

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic is going to be one of the topics discussed in your two new books. Were there parts of this pandemic that you foresaw?

A: I would not say I foresaw this, but what I have become very interested in is the reactions of different societies to COVID-19. The differing reactions are something that I will say could be forecast and is an area I had focussed on previously for different issues. For example, Iceland has used its national police to contact trace COVID-19, and that’s because citizens trust them and have a very good relationship with them. In fact, a recent Icelandic doctoral thesis showed 92% of the population had high trust in their police but far lower trust in their political institutions. Could you imagine the same thing happening here in the U.S.? It would never happen.

In Israel, thay have used Shin Bet, their internal security agency, for contract tracing. That’s also understandable because you don’t have to be an expert on Israel to know that the Israeli government believes that almost every major issue has national security implications. Here, in the U.S., we’re a federal system where power and formal authority is constitutionally dispersed, and where arguing among those levels is the norm. The COVID management response has differed considerably state by state, which has led to many states now seeing a multitude of lawsuits related to their specific response. With 1.33 million lawyers (Statistica 2020), the U.S. has “more by far than any other country, and more as a percentage of the national population than almost all others” (Boston Globe 2014). We typically use them. Again, no surprise.

Thus, I would say that different U.S. responses make sense. I would be very, very surprised if there was one single answer to this. For instance, we have no reason to believe that there is one best response that would benefit South Dakota and rural Montana in the same way it would benefit downtown Philadelphia or Boston. These are radically different areas with the formal authority to make their own local choices, so different responses should be expected.

Q: Is there anything else that stands out to you as something that could have been predicted with regard to COVID-19?

A: When this all started, one of the countries that we saw get hit hardest was Italy. I don’t know for sure whether this made an impact, but historically, Italy’s citizens often respond to laws and government directives as sort of advisory opinions since their trust in parliament and political parties is under 15%. That’s just one aspect in play there. The other thing to consider is that Italy is the second-oldest country in the world, and we know this particular disease is more deadly for older people. They also frequently live in multi-generational homes. I think those are some factors to think about with regard to what we saw happen in that country.

Q: Looking ahead, are there additional trends or changes that you foresee that will be a direct result of the pandemic?

A: I think you will see a lot of people who didn’t think they would like working remotely now find out that they like it. Roughly 30% or so don’t want to go back already, and I think that number will continue to grow. You may see both a demographic and behavioral shift in the number of people who want to go back to the office and change how they do. That could also lead to increased migration to suburban areas. There is some evidence this is already happening.

The other thing is that more and more parents will start thinking about homeschooling, both for health and other reasons. You’re seeing that already with people forming their own educational pods. For many firms and schools, enforced remote work and learning may end up being one of those “be careful what you wished for” things. Holistic thinking will be useful for figuring out the future of that.

ABOUT THE FOX SCHOOL OF BUSINESS

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Contact TracingCOVID-19Guntram WertherHolistic ForecastingIcelandIsraelMarketing and Supply Chain ManagementPoliticsSenior Research FellowSociety of Actuaries