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WorldChanging Scenarios

Scenarios are powerful tools for getting people's attention. That's something we need to remember as the Pentagon's sudden climate change report continues to stir controversy. A purely factual, present-knowledge-based report to the Department of Defense about the possibility of a whiplash ice age would not have sparked the same kind of public reaction that the scenario did. Scenarios bring issues to life in a way that straight reportage often cannot.

But the real point of using scenarios is not publicity, but foresight: we build scenarios not to hype an idea or predict the future, but in order to see more clearly the choices we will be facing. By building a model of how the future could turn out, we can then explore how our plans and goals would be challenged and strengthened in such a world. To that end, nearly all scenario projects result in a small number (3-5) of divergent narratives, giving the readers a broad set of perspectives on possible outcomes.

Scenario narratives are more powerful than detailed checklists of possible outcomes in large part because they paint a picture of what we would find outside our window (or on our computer screen) if we actually lived in that world. Some more elaborate scenario projects use representational artifacts -- videotaped news reports, magazine articles, even advertisements purporting to be from the scenaric future -- as ways of changing the scenarios from something one reads into something one experiences. By making the possible futures more than a simple listing of assertions, scenarios make it easier to imagine how one would react, and what one can do now to prevent -- or encourage -- such outcomes.

Useful scenarios have a number of aspects in common:

  • They're provocative -- they push the readers to think about possibilities they'd often rather not face. While this often means confronting unpleasant outcomes, it can also mean admitting the possibility of success, what it would take to get there, and what one would do if it happened.
  • They're plausible -- they make use of real-world facts and models to construct a set of futures that could actually come about. This is important, especially for organizations trying to make the world face up to the challenges in front of it.
  • They're broad -- while they usually have a specific issue as a focal question, they can't simply look at the actions of the organization or group at the issue's heart. Good scenarios look at the context of an issue, and examine changes across a wide spectrum of concerns.
  • They're diverse -- they acknowledge that the future is ultimately unknowable, so the best way to plan for what will really happen is to think about broadly different possibilities. This was, for me, the singular failing of the Pentagon abrupt climate change scenario -- it only told one story.
  • Finally, they're open -- even readers not directly involved with the issue at hand can start thinking about their own choices and plans as shaped by the scenario narratives.

    Good scenarios are open in another way, connecting back to plausibility. Good scenarios "show their work" -- that is, are complete with references (and, if web-based, links) to material supporting the demographic, scientific, technological, etc., projections made in the narratives. This allows readers to understand why a scenario story turned out in a given way, but more importantly, allows readers to assemble their own, alternative scenarios.

    Over the last decade or so, scenarios came into relatively common use in business and government. Until recently, their use has generally been limited to large institutions -- which is too bad, as the grassroots needs foresight at least as much as the Fortune 500 . This may be changing. I and other colleagues have been working on a model of collaborative scenarios which would make the tools of strategic anticipation available to a much wider audience. Stay tuned for more...

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    » Scenario Planning: an important tool for networked movements from Movement as Network
    Jamais Cascio has a nice article that outlines the basics of scenario-based planning. He hits a number of important points, and ends with a great insight: Over the last decade or so, scenarios came into relatively common use in business... [Read More]

    Comments (1)

    The ecological community is increasing using scenarios to improve local ecological decision making.

    I am participating in an effort to use scenarios to think about the future in Northern Wisconsin. See: http://lakefutures.wisc.edu/

    And there is a large global project, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (http://www.millenniumassessment.org/), that is trying to figure out the current state and possible future condition of the world's ecosystem services (the benefits people obtain from ecosystems). One of the main components of this project is the creation of four global social-ecological scenarios. This project also includes a number of regional ecological assessments that also include sets of local scenarios.

    People at the Center for International Forestry Research ( CIFOR) have been using scenarios to improve local forest management:


    Also, scenarios are being used extensively in the Netherlands for local and regional planning.

    Some examples:




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