Scenario Planning, or How not to fall for “The sky is falling!” Part 3

By Christopher Peck

In the last two newsletters I’ve discussed the wonder solution to all our problems: scenario planning. I brilliantly summarized my argument this way: we cannot predict the future, trends don’t help us much, knowing which one possible future will occur is impossible, horrible predicted scenarios grab all of our attention. Given all of that, we still need rational planning. We need some way to make decisions in a meaningful way that can guide our actions now, to best position ourselves for whatever future may come about. Scenario planning to the rescue! I went on to explain what scenarios are, and outlined six that I’ve been working with, from dystopia to utopia: Mad Max, 12 Monkeys, The Long Decline, The Long Boom, Ecotopia, Star Trek. (If you missed the first two halves, email me and I’ll send you the complete article.)

In this the third half, I’ll discuss how you could develop scenarios for you and your community. I’ve mentioned some of the benefits of using scenarios: it helps us maintain a sense of possibility, keeps creativity engaged, keeps us rational and not too emotionally reactive, and fights despair without being too Pollyanna. Sounds good, and it’s not hard to do either!


Begin by determining the question you want to consider. In my example I took two trends as a given: rising energy costs brought on by peak oil and global climate change. Those two trends are a virtual certainty, and huge! We can’t wish our way out of them. When you work your own scenario planning you can choose other factors, such as technology changes in your industry or the emergence of a new competitor or

continued dominance of the Republican party (arggh!). Use these factors to form a question such as, what kind of future will be living in, based on the realities of rising energy costs and glob- al climate change?

Then take a couple variables, which might be placed on a continuum such as the political continuum from conservative to liberal. In my example I plotted out the two primary approaches given to address global problems: technology and social systems. Technology I plotted on the y-axis and social systems on the x-axis. The outer ends of both I defined as “hard,” and the inner areas as “soft.” Soft technology is the decentralized, locally grown, non-polluting, small is beautiful approach as proposed by Amory Lovins and E.F. Schumacher. The hard technology approach is new nuclear power, nanotechnology bioremediation, “we don’t know how, but technology will save us” approach popularized, say, in Wired magazine. Hard social systems are centralized, unilateral, autocratic, “you’re with us or against us,” moving towards fascism and the rule of the strong. Soft social systems are egalitarian, democratic, collaborative, network based, and maybe an enlightened United Nations.

Since I love complex matrices, I couldn’t leave it at hard vs. soft, I included a middle zone, so the x- and y- axes both have hard – medium – soft. Here’s my rendering of how this turns out.


Obviously I’ve done some short-cutting here. I mapped out the two variables, and looked at the various interacting areas, such as “hard technology-soft social” and thought about how a progression of this interaction of factors

would respond to the big question I posed about global climate change and expensive energy. I then labeled some of the areas that stood out as seemingly viable scenarios. I put a dashed line around the Star Trek scenario, as it requires a couple of discontinuities in the progression of technology, as we currently understand it. Some areas have no scenario box floating in them, as I couldn’t conceive of what a hard political system would look like with a very soft approach to technology. Let me know of better scenarios you think of.

You could get a bunch of your friends together and plug your own variables into a similar matrix, ask some big

questions, and think about what the results might be. Hopefully you’ll be able to suspend your assumptions about the future long enough to get some insights. (Email if you want more details, I can send you a couple of articles.)

OK, enough overly-intellectualized, anally-matrixed, “what does this have to do with me” thought exercises. What practical use can this type of thing be? Mapping this out makes the extremes look impractical. Do we really believe that we’ll combine the softest progressions of social systems with the softest approach to technology, especially in light of the two big factors (peak oil & climate change) coming down the pike?

At the same time, Mad Max looks like it’s pretty far from likely, with everything, particularly the social system, becoming much more severe than we currently experience it.

My belief is that groups of creative folks (like ourselves) can engage in deep, thoughtful exercises, and by so doing help re-vision a future that looks much more like what we want to be living in. I also believe that scenario planning gives us a broader perspective to guide our actions, minimizing our doomsday fears (while helping us rationally plan for real looming disasters), and helping us do the essential work that needs to be done, and build- ing the sustainable world we deserve.

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Christopher Peck

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