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Volunteering - the future is different and hard to predict

Page updated: 29 December 2020

The future for New Zealand looks very different indeed from the past.

However, perhaps the question 'what is the future of SAR volunteering' is not the right one. 

Instead, given the likelihood of more rapid global change looking ahead, and more shocks, perhaps our workforce planning should be based on scenarios rather than straight line extrapolation.

How scenarios might support better workforce planning

As we have already commented, one of the fundamental characteristics of the current environment is that it is characterised by increased volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Consequently, planning a future workforce using a simple straight-line extrapolation from current trends is a highly risky thing to do. 

Partly because the world is so connected now, we see small changes turn into world-changing ones rapidly. We need to consider this - and potentially do more scenario planning to facilitate adapability and organisational resilience - when thinking about the workforce of the future.  Here is one example to illustrate.

Example: Will we need a workforce that can deal with more people wandering...or not?

As an illustrative example, we have seen above that population ageing (and rises in associated wandering activity) could continue to be a significant driver of demand for search and rescue. 

However, the spectre of 50 million people with dementia globally in future is driving huge investment in research in this area. For example, researchers from UC Davis and UC San Francisco recently developed a new artificial intelligence tool to scale up Alzheimer’s research. 

They have created a deep learning system to identify amyloid plaques in brain slices of patients, spotting specific subtypes of Alzheimer’s disease, in the process enabling precision medicine and faster research (Medgadget 2019). This is an example of ‘convergence’ between IT and healthcare, which can significantly increase the speed of improvement. 

If successful, efforts like this could significantly reduce the rates of dementia, commensurate rates of wandering and thus demand for search and rescue. Such marvellous progress in tackling dementia would immediately render the trend data highlight in this updated scan obsolete.

So perhaps we should plan to adapt

The lesson from the example above is that the future is becoming increasingly difficult to predict. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly difficult to plan a specific kind of workforce to match future demands - since it's very unclear exactly what the demand for SAR will look like.  

Perhaps the emphasis should not be on developing a static workforce plan, with or without volunteers. Perhaps instead the plan should involve preparing to move quickly based on constantly updating our understanding of SAR demand and supply drivers.

In this context, it is worth noting that this does not mean we cannot or should not bother planning our future workforce now. However, it might mean that our planning should keep the likely future need to adapt firmly in mind. In particular, this takes us back to the critical point that a more diverse workforce is likely to be better equipped to respond adaptively to future challenges than one where everyone holds similar worldviews, assumptions and reflexes. 

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