Scenario Based Futuring and the Environment

Long time readers of this blog may recall my interest in a technique called scenario based futuring, invented by Arie de Geus (1930-) in Shell Oil, and popularized in Peter Schwartz’s (1946-) marvelous book ‘The Art of the Long View‘. The technique suggests we cannot know the future in detail, but we can learn a lot about it by developing three or four competing scenarios or stories about how the future might evolve, and then figuring out which is starting to happen. It allows us to rehearse what we might do if any of the scenarios starts to come true, so it is less of a surprise, and we might even have a contingency plan for each scenario. That is how I first came to use the approach: preparing my company strategically for different possible futures in its industry.

And I worked with people in Land Rover at one stage, who had a scenario they had prepped for in 2000 that assumed a major terrorist attack rocked the world economy…18 months before 9/11. It wasn’t the only scenario they had considered but they had a business strategy for each one ready to go or be modified according to the emerging detail.

I was recently in a debate on the environmental future of our planet and posted the following applying the scenario based approach:

Schwartze thinks it a mistake to have just one view of the future, an ‘official future’ because it is too uncertain; and thinks we should have 3 or 4 contrasting stories about what might happen based on the main forces at work, if we are to ‘learn from the future’ and have some impact on it. He suggests we should have scenarios around: ‘more of the same’, ‘a lot worse’, ‘a lot better’ and ‘now for something completely different’.

For instance, in this discussion on the environmental future of the planet, we could have:

  • Business as Usual scenario: we do nothing different and somehow muddle through.
  • Choke would be if the trends we are discussing tip us into major negative territory.
  • Phase Transition would be if we really work on our lifestyles and change society socially.
  • Techno- Fix would be if we find a real power source breakthrough and change in a lot of different ways, via technology, as the car saved us from drowning in horse shit.

In Schwartz’s mind, you don’t try to put probabilities on these stories, but like a boxer moving his/her weight around between front and back feet, they might suggest ways to assess which scenario is coming true or tripwires as Schwartz calls them. You might also consider which scenarios would benefit from a strategy or nudge to make it more or less likely.

That said, and breaking his rule, I think the first scenario Business as Usual is the most likely because of inertia and fear of facing reality, and this will probably turn into Choke when we will be forced to do something more like Phase Transition when it may be much harder and we will feel more blamey and likely to start resource wars. Techno Fix is the most difficult to predict the how and the when….

But actually, it is probably better if we stick with the four scenarios and use them to better prepare, strategize and ‘learn from the future.’ Or maybe you can suggest four different scenarios that are equally generative of thinking, for the scenarios are to provoke thought not end it or make us think we have a crystal ball. The future is not yet decided and our scenarios are factors in how we face it.

This is Peter and see also:


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, Environmental Conflict, Philosophy of Conflict, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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