Scenario Planning and Futures Thinking
Scenario Planning and Futures Thinking
Pictured is a black swan. You may be wondering what a black swan has to do with futures thinking. In the 16th century, when the phrase was first used, black swans were unknown to the world. At that time, all historical records of swans had white feathers. After a Dutch explorer discovered black swans in Australia in 1697, the term was used to describe a perceived impossibility that might later be disproven. The black swan is a symbol of the limitations of our analytical mindset. A conclusion could be completely undone once any of its fundamental logic is refuted. In this case, observing a single black swan shattered the widely held belief that all swans were white. Moreover, it disproved all the reasoning that followed from that underlying logic.
One example of the high impact, low probability nature of black swan events are the September 11 attacks, which effectively sparked numerous low intensity conflicts and shrank democratic spaces across the globe. Another example is the 2007-2008 global financial crises, which destabilized several countries in its destructive path. Not all black swans are negative, however. The rise of the internet paved the way for innovations in e-democracy and e-participation, allowing citizens to raise their political voice, access information, and interact with states in ways few could have predicted only decades earlier. Yet there can be many uncertainties when it comes to predicting the future.
Our current foresight, for example, understands that there will be a global shift in power from the West to the East and from the North to the South. Rising states such as China, India, and other Asian nations will contribute to an increasingly large share of global financial growth. But what if unpredicted, catalytic events were to occur and side track that future? Major pandemics, Euro free fall, cyber warfare, US global disengagement, a collapsed North Korea, a consolidated ASEAN, a reformed Iran, and even a democratic China could potentially undo all our predictions of what the future holds for citizens in holding governments accountable to its actions. As global players, how can we mitigate such risks –or- achieve such results?
Precisely because forecasting the future of democratic governance is such a difficult task that policymaker, academic, civil society, and private sector development experts should use every available means to gauge what the world could look like in the medium to long term. Scenario building is a process that stimulates our creativity to prepare for the future. A ‘scenario’ is a narrative which describes what the world might look like at some point in time in the long term future. It explores how the world would change if various events to occur or certain trends were to accelerate or weaken. Multiple scenarios are usually developed to represent all the possible futures associated with different trends and events. For senior managers, these scenarios can be used to test plans, weigh options, formulate new policies, and stimulate new strategic vision. Moreover, it can be used to identify early warning indicators that signal a shift towards a certain kind of future, whether positive or negative.
Unlike strategic planning, which assumes a best option, scenario planning entertains multiple possibilities. Unlike contingency planning, which revolves around a sole uncertainty, scenario planning explores multiple variables. And unlike simulation modelling, scenario planning is not heavily quantitative. Instead, it leaves room for subjective interpretation as well as objective analysis. For these reasons the technique is useful when uncertainty is high, strategic synchronization is low, and stakeholders are diverse.
The Visions of Democratic Governance – Asia 2030 forum provides the platform for policymakers, academics, civil society, and the private sector to come together to brainstorm, hypothesize, and discuss the future of democratic governance in the region. Diverse input from various stakeholders means that there will be challenging voices; different viewpoints that will ensure that underlying assumptions and mental models are rigorously tested. Finally, the process of scenario building can create a powerful sense of ownership for the finished product. By involving senior policymakers, international organization representatives, development practitioners, corporate executives, and academics from all over Asia in the scenarios process, we will considerably increase the likelihood that the scenarios will inform and influence important global decisions.
 The black swan theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Fooled By Randomness