Ready for the next War (and Peace)?
A foresight exercise on future scenarios may help understanding what’s coming after the COVID-19 crisis
Even when we talk about strategic decision making, we usually focus on specific business, technical, or political objectives. The attention span even for long-term strategies and decision making is in the range of some month or 3–5 years at most, and it doesn’t consider possible disruptive happenings.
However, due to the increasing complexity of our societal, economic, technical and political systems, it becomes strategic and paramount to be able to take directions and define roadmaps that orient current decisions that may be impactful only after many years.
The happenings of the last months related to the COVID-19 pandemic make it self-evident that we should not disregard the possibility that something unexpected, unlikely and highly impactful can happen.
What happens when we move our focus to a broader scope, a much longer timeframe, and a vaste range of possibilities that are out of our usual perspective?
We are limited human beings.
Are we really able to foresee what will happen in (really) long term futures, at global scale?
In other words, is the human nature and limited intellectual capacity able to deal with this scale of expansions? Ot we are really bound to discuss what is our (short) sight, and that has almost immediate practical impact?
On the other side, are we able to broaden our scope and still avoid to just get into pure random imagination, science fiction or wild guess of the future?
If you think this is just a matter of luck, you are wrong. There exist specific scientific methods that address the problem of foresight. These methods rely on workgroup activities and specific properties.
They rely on a basic assumption:
We are storytelling animals. [Jonathan Gottschield]
Therefore, the best way to talk about things is to tell stories and examples. Therefore, the work is based on discussion of factors that affect the future, and respective cases. This method works as follows.
- We define the general objective of understanding how the global scenario is going to evolve in the long term.
- To do so, we first identify a set of possible scenario that may affect this evolution
- For each of these scenarios we identify the important factors
- For each scenario we determine the evolutional trajectories of the factors
- And finally we merge all the factors and trajectories to converge to the overall vision of the global future.
In practice, this is how the method works:
STEP 1. SCENARIO SELECTION
As a first step, one needs to select one by one the “scenario” or field of interest on which he wants to apply the foresight exercise.
For instance, this is a list of possible fields of exploration:
For each category (Social, Technological, Economic, Ecological, Political, and others marked as Plus), you can find some possible challenging settings to be explored for understanding future evolutions at global scale.
Clearly, each scenario needs to be tackled by the respective domain experts.
STEP 2. SCENARIO ALLOCATION
Once the challenging scenario has been selected, the second step consists in assigning a structure to the scenario, according to the Tetralemma Trajectories model:
The task consists in identifying all the relevant factors for the scenario, that is: all the aspects that may have an impact on the scenario, and position them according to the impact they can have. This impact is technically called trajectory, because it’s supposed to be a long-term trend that defines a future pathway in the scenario.
The model identifies three kinds of trajectories:
In this case, the trajectory is the one of continuity, that is: what would happen if everything continues evolving as it is now, without explicit activation of actors for changing trends or directions. This usually corresponds to a passive or weakly reactive roles of the actors
In this case, the trajectory is generated by an action implemented by one or more relevant actors for changing the current paradigm. This usually correspond to a strong / proactive activity by the actors.
This trajectory defines possible intermediate cases, which combines partially passive and partially proactive roles. In this case, multiple possible intermediate cases can apply; in case, they are tagged as trajectory C.a, C.b., and so on.
(D) Alternative trajectory
This case defines a further trajectory that is considering different activities and different actor that are not referrable to simple changes or continuation in beahviour of current actors.
(E) Out-of-the-box unlikely trajectory
In this case, the trajectory reports very unlikely facts, happenings, actions, or actors that may totally disrupt the current evolution towards the future.
As an example, suppose we chose to explore the political scenario about the mission oriented and reflexive governance (picked from the Plus category).
This is an example of tetralemma model that can be defined:
STEP 3. SCENARIO ALLOCATION.
Once all the scenarios are set, it’s possible to build a global future roadmap by combining them all together in a coherent flow of trajectories.
The various aspects can be put in place according to the level of influence of the actors (strong or weak influence on the future), and the impact they have on the future-
There is a continuum of possible evolutions, which can be towards global fragmentation, or aligned with continuation of the current status quo with minimal variations, or transformative future visions.
The result of the foresight exercise is now visible: each expert group has foreseen the possible paths for their relevant scenarios, and then they have been put together based on coherency.
At the end, the various scenarios blend together and constitute a (messy) set of clusters of possible futures that define all the possible future alternatives in a consistent way.
This is just the start point for the big legwork that expects the researchers towards formalizing and structuring the output of the analysis.
But now the future is there, ready for you to explore!