Scenario planning for an unpredictable future

We don't know precisely how it will play out, but there are some well-developed planning strategies that help us shape the future

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scenario planning futureSALMON ARM, B.C. Nov. 16, 2016/ Troy Media/–  None of us can predict the future but we know the choices we make today will directly influence it.

Of course, our ability to anticipate future outcomes is limited by our understanding of the complex systems we are a part of. And these systems are in constant flux – subject to both cyclical and random disruptors.

The outcome of the U.S. presidential election is a good reminder that our understanding of these systems is shallow and uncertainty is real. Despite around-the-clock monitoring, researching and discussion for 18 months, the experts weren’t able to predict what happened.

So how do we go about planning for an unpredictable future with less than a full understanding of the dynamics?

There are five key drivers of change that need to be considered: social, economic, ecological, technical and political.

Rarely do these drivers act independently – usually a mix of two or more drives real change. For example, a combination of social, economic and political drivers transformed America’s electoral landscape this fall.

Ultimately, these forces of change will manifest themselves in the form of land or water use by humans – because that’s what we do. We are out there, all over the planet, building, consuming, discharging and ever-expanding. And we know that everything is connected to everything.

We also know there is tremendous variability between systems. As an example, meaningful timelines for natural systems can extend into centuries, while robots and algorithms make thousands of transactions every second Wall Street is open. The simultaneous interaction of all these forces across time and space adds up to a level of complexity that’s very difficult, if not impossible, to manage in one’s mind without analytical tools and processes.

Scenario planning was developed to deal with the impossibility of knowing precisely how the future will play out. It’s founded in the idea that in the face of this uncertainty, it’s a good idea to find and implement one or more strategies that play out well across several possible futures – covering our bases, if you will. This means testing a number of scenarios, each diverging in emphasis from the others in order to explore plausible future solutions. In the end, we seek the driving forces of change and the key uncertainties that could significantly alter them.

We don’t seek to predict the future using scenario planning. We try to learn. We push the system hard in one direction and then another to help us understand the range of possibility, to see where components might break, to find synergies where the win-win outcomes are and, perhaps most importantly, to uncover unintended consequences that could emerge because of system dynamics we hadn’t thought of.

We measure outcomes by using indicators that tell us how values that are important to us respond to the changing conditions – kind of like the indicator gauges on the dashboard of your car.

There is a secret ingredient for successful scenario planning: diversity of perspectives. No one person has it all figured out and no one’s perspective covers all the bases – just ask the pollsters!

In my nearly two decades of scenario planning with governments, businesses, multi-stakeholder groups and organizations, I have learned that the best solutions emerge from a diverse group of individuals with different experience, expertise and perspective.

Collaborative exploration is a powerful and efficient way to anticipate possible futures and, more importantly, to develop strategies that allow us to adapt to change we know is inevitable but not precisely predictable.

Because none of us can precisely see the future.

Barry Wilson is a systems ecologist and cumulative effects expert at CE Analytic Ltd.

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