The future is not a straight line from the past. It has bends, turns and may even involve a “sink hole”. What we thought was going to be shifts – the average global surface temperature is not what it was predicted to be, the sun is not behaving as we thought it might, the economic recovery around the world is not producing the return to employment we anticipated, the banking system remains vulnerable despite significant reforms intended to reduce this risk. The future rarely pans out exactly as anticipated.
This is why futurists use scenario planning as a tool. Rather than making predictions – e.g. “prosperity and GDP growth will last for ever” or “four male singers with guitars have no future in show business” (a year before the Beatles) – those engaged in foresight seek to understand the dynamics which will affect the future and then build 4- 6 scenarios which capture different futures we may experience. The “trick” with such work is to ensure that there is strong evidence to support all of the scenarios presented and that the indicators which show which scenario is in play are explicit.
If we take climate change as an example, three scenarios are becoming clear and a fourth is emerging. The first is that the planet is warming and that humans, through their use of fossil fuels for heating, transport and other purposes are contributing to this warming. A second scenario is that we are approaching a period of planetary cooling, due to a combination of factors with the actions of the sun being a critical component of this development. The third scenario is that the current climate is part of a “normal range” of climate change and that any suggestion of warming or cooling misses the point – its climate change as per normal. Some are suggesting a fourth scenario which is that of sudden and catastrophic change in climate, such that it may make the earth. Evidence is being referred to by scientist who support one (or more) of these scenarios. While some suggest that the dominant scenario is that of warming, evidence from direct observation questions the veracity of this view, which remains a dominant view of those who study climate change.
Given the failure of experts to make predictions – see an earlier post here – we should look at each of these scenarios and seek to understand them. The questions we should ask are:
- What evidence exists which suggests that the scenario has merit?
- What indicators should we track to see whether or not the scenario is “in play”?
- What are the implications of the scenario?
Blindly accepting a prediction without fully looking at alternatives is what gets policy makers, planners and others into trouble.