Scenarios are the most powerful vehicles I know for challenging our ‘mental models’ about the world, and lifting the ‘blinders’ that limit our creativity and resourcefulness. -Peter Schwartz

Title Photo: See the future. (Fipp News)

Given Silicon Valley’s reputation as a hub of disruption and innovation, the future is often taken for granted, particularly given how central technology is to our digital era. Views on the future tend to alternate between prediction/certainty and the idea that future is largely unknowable. Given the rapidly changing nature of technology, it is important that designers, researchers, and product managers examine an array of potential futures. Focusing on the future can be difficult, but it is worthwhile: companies that manage for the long term outperform their peers with increased revenue, earnings, and market capitalization. 


Image 1: Multiple Futures. (Lloyd Walker). 

Scenario planning offers a way to examine multiple futures. In UX, design narratives (or "scenarios") are used in combination with personas to communicate vision, generate solutions, and drive empathy. In this context, we are using the word “scenarios” slightly differently; scenarios refer to the output of the scenario planning process. Compared to a more focused, design-driven use, scenario planning offers a way to peer into a broader set of futures.  

The Future as Category of Analysis

Scenario planning has a long history. The RAND Corporation employed it in planning for potential U.S. responses to nuclear war, and it was pioneered to great success by Shell. By design, scenario planning does not produce single point predictions. Instead, it surfaces a range of broad possibilities to help prepare for the unexpected. The scenario planning process can tackle broad issues like “what will the US economy look like in 2040?” and “what will work look like in the future?” It is equally capable of addressing sector-specific issues such as “What will social media look like over the next decade?” or “what will wearables look like in the post-smartphone era?” Scenario planning creates a space to critically examine assumptions and emerging challenges related to products, users, competitors, or industries. 

Scenario planning is designed to help one think beyond the status quo. The process begins by identifying drivers of change in the world. Next, drivers are combined in different ways to create a set of diverse stories—or scenarios—about how the future could evolve. Scenarios are designed to stretch our thinking about both the opportunities and obstacles that the future might hold. Scenarios explore, through narratives, the events and dynamics that might alter, inhibit, or enhance current trends. Together, a set of scenarios captures a range of future possibilities, good and bad, expected and surprising—but always plausible. Importantly, scenarios are not predictions. Rather, they are thoughtful hypotheses that allow us to imagine, and then to rehearse, different strategies for how to be more prepared for the future—or more ambitiously, how to help shape better futures ourselves. 


Image 2: The Cone of Uncertainty. (Raphael Kim/Joseph Voros).

Steps for Effective Scenario Planning

Scenario planning widens the aperture of thought by identifying what lies ahead 5 to 10 years out. The process provides a platform to examine “what if” questions in response to future events and trends in a systematic, interconnected manner. Scenario planning can address practical, operational, and inspirational objectives by bringing together stakeholders to source alternative views and develop new perspectives on change. Internally, a product group, functional team, or working group can generate scenarios to examine internal and external variables. Collectively articulating a number of potential futures can help an organization programmatically plan to proactively accommodate unanticipated changes. Externally, scenarios offer a way to examine an array of emerging trends, future drivers of change, and their cross-cutting implications. 

The scenario planning process is straightforward: 

(1) Brainstorm and identify drivers of change relevant to the problem space; drivers emphasize a directional ability to shape the future.

(2) Group drivers through clustering and card sorting [E.g.: In international development, drivers like corruption, rule of law, and human rights might be grouped under the rubric of governance]

(3) Anchor drivers and define possible endpoints [What does good governance look like, and how does it affect other domains? Conversely, what does the antithesis of good governance look like?] 

(4) Prioritize and combine pairs of drivers and their endpoints into a scenario matrix and devise solutions to achieve or avoid them [E.g., for governance and economic growth: What do good governance & high economic growth look like? Poor governance and low economic growth? What about the hybrid scenarios of good governance/low economic growth & poor governance/high economic growth?] 

(5) Develop narrative scenarios to examine cross-cutting implications. After drivers have been combined and anchored, aspirational and dystopian endpoints can be dissected to understand the steps that need to be taken either achieve them or avoid them.

Image 3: Sample scenario matrix for governance and economic development (author).

To be effective and insightful, scenarios must occupy a “sweet spot” between too much and too little information. Decision-makers respond best to scenarios that are:

  • Plausible
  • Consistent 
  • Comprehensible 
  • Distinct 
  • Transparent 
  • Visual/Story-driven 

The examples below illustrate inspirational and practical scenarios. The first is a set of scenarios from 2009 examine the future of post-apartheid South Africa (with civil society and state capacity as the top drivers). The second set, developed by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2010, look at technology and international development, with the drivers being the adaptive capacity of technology and political/economic alignment. 

Image 4: Dinokeng Scenarios (2009) on post-apartheid South Africa. 

Image 5: Four Scenarios on the Future of Technology and International Development (GBN/Rockefeller Foundation).

Takeaways

Scenario planning provides a set of simple tools that can be appropriated in a variety of contexts. These tools are designed to enable organizations and stakeholders to ask the right questions, but they are by no means guaranteed. 

Image 6: Scenario Generation Process (Schwartz).

Recent events have raised questions about the nature of technology and its ability to bring people together. Social media, once benignly viewed as means of social connectivity, are now the focus of scrutiny as their misuse comes to light. The tendency of technology companies to focus on ROI, valuations, user metrics, and quantitative data at the expense of broader impacts leaves many unanswered questions about the use of these products in the real world. The gap between liking an animated gif or a friend’s humorous photo and the alleged misdeeds of bot armies deployed by a foreign power to undermine our democracy can leave one wondering if the status quo will hold, or whether are we seeing the first steps toward social media being regulated as utilities. The recent Congressional hearings in Washington are a case in point: are they harbinger of change, or damage control to protect the bottom line?

As global policy is increasingly dictated in 140 character bursts and technology increasingly serves as the primary driver of progress, it is worth broadening the optic and examining an array of futures. Technology has already transformed the lives of millions of people throughout the world, though its place in the world is changing and will change. Increasing regulatory scrutiny and a focus on technology’s role in the politics of divisiveness make it all the more important for companies and stakeholders to engage in scenario planning. As William Gibson said more than two decades ago: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Scenario planning offers a way to examine this distribution and benefit from it.