« Homesteading the Uncanny Valley | Main | Time Enough »

Futures Thinking: Mapping the Possibilities, and Writing Scenarios

(tap tap... this thing on? There's dust and cobwebs all over the place.)

My most recent three Fast Company pieces are all of a set, part of the Futures Thinking series. Mapping the Possibilities (Part One, Part Two) give some practical advice for coming up with differing scenarios as part of a futures thinking project. Writing Scenarios offers up a set of real-world scenarios as examples of different styles.

Part One offers some advice as to how to think about what you're going to do:

Foresight exercises that result in a single future story are rarely as useful as they appear, because we can't predict the future. The goal of futures thinking isn't to make predictions; the goal is to look for surprising implications. By crafting multiple futures (each focused on your core dilemma), you can look at your issues from differing perspectives, and try to dig out what happens when critical drivers collide in various ways.

Whatever you come up with, you'll be wrong. The future that does eventually emerge will almost certainly not look like the scenarios you construct. However, it's possible to be wrong in useful ways--good scenarios will trigger minor epiphanies (what more traditional consultants usually call "aha!" moments), giving you clues about what to keep an eye out for that you otherwise would have missed.

Part Two lays out the basics of world-building:

World-building is, in many ways, the mirror-opposite of a good science fiction story. With the latter, the reader only needs to see enough of the world to make the choices and challenges facing the characters comprehensible. The world is a scaffolding upon which the writer tells a story. Clumsy science fiction authors may over-explain the new technologies or behaviors--where they came from, why they're named as they are, etc.--but a good one will give you just enough to understand what's going on, and sometimes a little less than that (trusting that the astute reader can figure it out from the context).

Scenarios, conversely, are all about the context. Here, it's the story that's a scaffolding for the scenario--a canvas upon which to show the critical elements of the world you've built. A good scenario doesn't make a good science fiction story--but it's a setting within which a good science fiction story might be told.

And Writing Scenarios looks at the different styles that can be employed to tell a scenario story:

In Scenario-as-Story, the presentation is similar to that of a work of fiction. Named characters operate in a lightweight plot, but in doing so engage in behaviors that display key aspects of the scenario. [...]

The advantage of the Scenario-as-Story approach is that fiction is a familiar presentation language for readers, and they can more readily grasp the changes to one's life that emerge from the scenario. A story model lets you describe some of the more nuanced aspects of a scenaric future. The disadvantage is that, generally speaking, scenarios are lousy fiction. Even the best-written scenario stories generally wouldn't pass muster with a fiction editor.

The examples I use are from the project I did with Adaptive Path (for Mozilla) in 2008, looking at the future of the Internet. The full set of scenarios can be downloaded here (PDF).


Jamais, this is so awesome; your methods from years of practice. What an incredible resource for someone (me!) new to futures thinking. Thanks for writing, sharing, and posting here.

Post a comment

All comments go through moderation, so if it doesn't show up immediately, I'm not available to click the "okiedoke" button. Comments telling me that global warming isn't real, that evolution isn't real, that I really need to follow [insert religion here], that the world is flat, or similar bits of inanity are more likely to be deleted than approved. Yes, it's unfair. Deal. It's my blog, I make the rules, and I really don't have time to hand-hold people unwilling to face reality.


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered By MovableType 4.37