Sketching the Unthinkable

Monica Porteanu has written her sixth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, she explores the evolving nature of scenarios. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members. 

In private and public administration, preparing for the future by “thinking the unthinkable” was first introduced by the RAND Corporation in the early 1960s. With time, sketching the unthinkable has become a common futuristic practice. Its results are summarized in stories about tomorrow, or scenarios.

And yet, scenarios are as old as humanity. Ancient civilizations imagined them in oracles or magic while building scenarios for the military (e.g., Sun Tzu’s Art of War), describing both present traditions and future visions, especially during uncertain times. Scenarios are fundamental in military, policy, and business, being developed using a mix of disciplines such as mathematics, economics, anthropology, and story-telling.

Futurists Bishop and Kahane remind us about the three critical types of scenarios: (1) predictive, i.e., forecasts and what-ifs, asking “what will happen?”; (2) explorative, i.e., external and strategic, asking “what can happen?”; and (3) normative, e.g., preserving and transforming, asking “what should happen?”.

The most known and used scenarios seem to fall into the first category. They are mostly based on statistics and assume they are bulletproof, based on scientists’ never-ending proof of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” Nevertheless, when applied without checking the underlying nature of the relationships amongst the model’s variables, predictions provide a false sense of security about futures. Time series are particularly prone to mistakes, as they might carry over underlying presumptions from past and present into futures, challenging the statistical condition for independence when extrapolating from one value to the next.

All three types of scenarios tell stories about possible futures, paving the path for envisioning adaptive strategies, but only normative scenarios expand the futures paradigm from predicting or thinking to practical actions that have the potential to shape the future.

The normative scenarios seem to be the least used. They initiated out of challenges brought on by significant shifts, such as a political regime change. In recent years, disciplines that promote open creativity, collaboration, and innovation have increasingly embraced normative scenarios.

Design-led disciplines such as design thinking, strategic design, or research through design bring to scenario development effective new methods such as visualization, aesthetics, ethnography, or experience design. They have taken the telling of a story to showing, feeling, and experiencing it. Such immersion creates that magical circle of trust around scenarios that gives leaders the confidence to embark on a hero’s journey to act now and create “what should happen.”

Nonetheless, design, futurism, and scientific methods for scenario development can further benefit from learning about each other.

For example, design’s approach falls somewhere in between a binary selection (e.g., optimistic/pessimistic) and a high-medium-low style (e.g., most to least likely) which, most of the times, leads either to an optimistic-only path or, as the game theory demonstrates, to a sensible middle of the road but mediocre outcome. Futurism, on the other side, advocates for multiple, alternative futures that might have unpleasant or unexpected outcomes. At the same time, scientists look for theories that can provide evidence for the stories foresight scenarios aim to portray.

Could experiencing scenarios and the quest for hard facts be ever reconciled? Where might scenarios go from here? Would the futurists of 20018 still develop foresight scenarios? What would their toolset be?

In more immediate futures, data and ways to consume them are increasingly making their way into scenario development. Data have become essential in providing evidence of emerging blips that could turn into disruptors. Although digital and visual storytelling based on these data has progressed, the human brain, functioning in a 3-dimensional environment, still has difficulty making sense of large amounts of data presented on 2-dimensional screens.

These days it seems possible to narrow the gap between the 2-sided digital and the 3-dimensional physical worlds through augmented reality. This new technology enhances humans’ ability to make sense of data by juxtaposing digital information onto the real world. Furthermore, as humans process information through their five senses, the visualization side of augmented reality could be paired up with sound, touch, scent, and even taste to portray the envisioned images of the future.

It is up to us now to test whether scenarios born out of signals, sifted through the growing universe of data, and felt through augmented reality experiences, can be more potent than existing scenario consumption methods. Can these envisioned stories generate action, agency, and resilience for building preferred futures?

© Monica Porteanu 2018