The Process for Creating Better Futures

15.11.21 10:04 PM By Lars Lin Villebaek

Future Scenario Generation

Just sitting around, waiting for the future to happen?

Rather than wait around for strong forces and macro trends to disrupt our current lives and whirl us into an unknown future, why don't we choose to step up, assume leadership and responsibility of designing better futures for us all? It's an option that is on the table for each and every one of us.

Chances are that we can impact and transform the world of today to some degree -and find the best possible ways to adapt to those forces that we may not be able to influence. So let me share below the high-level steps that anyone can apply to do so. My description in the following refers to a specific project in Latin America, where we used this process as described.

Setting up your process:

My work as a Transformation Coach is to work in organizations of all types and sizes, helping everyone, all across the organization, start believing that it is possible to change and intentionally steer ourselves, our teams, our organizations, cities, or even countries in new directions if we really want to and put in the right effort.
So this is the mindset change part of my role.

Facilitating scenario generation processes is a second part of the role.
The change-of-mindset part is the hardest and takes constant adjustments of the process, depending on the willingness and effort put in by everyone involved.

The practical scenario generation work for describing futures we wish to co-create is, fortunately, easier because there are really great process descriptions available out there, ready to be adopted and possibly tweaked for your needs.
At the end of this article, I am sharing the resources I have found very insightful and useful as a baseline for transformation scenario generation.

Generally, I tend to see a need to make necessary adjustments to all transformation processes for the particular context you are in and the objectives you want to deliver on. In this article, you will also find a process, that builds on lots of well-documented work by others -and then modified for our purpose.

Setting objectives for your scenario generation:

For our particular project, the deliverables are a 20-year desirable vision for Latin America and scenarios with roadmaps to help Latin America leapfrog Education and current living conditions. For our context, 'Education' is defined as :
'raising level of human consciousness, shifting human mindset away from that of scarcity -towards abundance, in support of sustainability and establishing scaffolding and empowerment for every human to leverage in their own lives.

So this domain is obviously much broader and deeper than just talking about education systems, teaching, or learning.
The key point in these objectives is to describe a 'desirable future'.
This is one of many categories of future scenarios you can consider for your own work. For us, the desirable future but also a set of other probable scenarios are relevant to not just design for the needle in the haystack but work out roadmaps that steer us towards a better future, even if it is not perfect. 
As shown in this Year 2041 Futures Cone diagram above, there are always many types of scenarios on the table, some being possible, plausible, probable, but likely also some impossible ones and many that are not desirable.
If we only describe fairy tale scenarios, it may be very hard to win the trust and acceptance for your scenarios -so I find it important to describe scenarios as realistically as possible. Space has black holes too that you would prefer not to get sucked into, correct? So let's describe them too when we paint the bigger pictures.
Let's dive in.
Here is the process outline, for co-creating the 20-year desirable future for Latin America and the relevant scenarios we are targeting in our project.:

  1. Convene a Team
  2. Observe what is happening
  3. Construct Stories about What Could Happen (but not yet what you desire to happen)
  4. Discover what can and must be done --to land in the desirable cone of scenarios

You may find this useful also for your projects -or for developing future forecasting capabilities in organizations, which I consider one of the most important capabilities now and in the future, given the level of uncertainty and disruption we all face. But let's walk through these four steps together.

The 4 Phases to Future Scenario Generation:

1. Convene a Team
2. Observe What is Happening
3. Construct Stories about What Could Happen
4. Discover What Can and Must be Done
1. Convene a Team
1. Convene a Team

Hey, the world is complex. I am sure the system or domain you wish to transform through your project is highly complex too. Identifying all aspects of it is really hard to do alone. Certainly not a small thing for a team either, but you are going to need a group of people from across the whole system you want to influence and steer in a different direction.

In our project, as soon as we had a relatively clear understanding of our objectives, we co-created a list of voices that should be heard, about Latin America, the realities, the roadblock as well as the opportunities they could share with us and each other during this process. We always seek diversity in the groups to have the biggest possible variety of perspectives represented.

I will introduce this phase in greater detail in another article and will leave this step with the good news, that this kind of project often attracts a lot of interested participants. It has certainly in our case too and better have a group that is too large than too small. A large group can be split into multiple subgroups that can each address the same challenge to get a variety of output to consider. We draft at least some of the participants from, the global transformation community -and add participants from outside of this community with special insights or other important roles to play in the future scenario generation.

Make sure to have prepared a suitable online collaboration platform for the participants. The entire process can be done through virtual collaboration, which allows you to bring in participants from any part of the world. But even if you do the process on-location, in the same room, there are still benefits from having a collaboration tool online, where you keep and work on the findings throughout the project. More about this in another separate article.
2. Observe What is Happening
2. Observe What is Happening

With the world being increasingly interconnected, what is happening is no longer a local matter only. So when looking at trends, forces, and major events around us, we will not benefit from isolating ourselves. Having said that, there are still cultural and political differentiators, that can be quite unique in your local area of focus. So make sure to look both at global but also local trends when trying to distill "what is happening".

We see fundamental shifts in demographics, economy, technology, politics and geopolitics, social movements, environmental and climate change matters, infrastructure development, public health, and wealth distribution among other themes.
The Future Today Institute recommends we cut through the hype and complexity by remembering, that the major strategic trends share a set of conspicuous, universal features, which they call the Four Laws of Trends.
  1. Trends are driven by basic human needs
  2. Trends are timely, but they persist
  3. Trends are the convergence of weak signals over time
  4. Trends evolve as they emerge. Typically all four features are present in an authentic strategic trend

Given how exponential technologies are doubling (or more) their price/performance and domains that get digitalized also "ride on the back of" Moore's Law, many of the trends that observe are not linear, they are accelerating in their ability to impact our lives and the exponential growth potential is very important to keep in mind when observing what is happening -and how the trends will grow in the next 10-20 years and beyond. Many analysts tend to underestimate when they extrapolate to look into the future.
If you, like me, believe that the future will not be a continuation of the past, then be careful making predictions based on performance documented from the past.
Let's observe what is happening now -and apply our exponential mindset to avoid the trap of thinking that these traps follow a linear path. They have often been underway for many years but can appear suddenly with disruptive powers, much different from the deceptive development they have been demonstrating so far.

Part of scoping your work is to define which sources of disruption and change you are observing. I mentioned 10 of the macro sources above that you should include in your observations.

James A. Ogilvy in his book Create Better Futures, recommend making observations at 3 levels on the identified forces and trends to give relevant content to your scenarios:
a. Observable events,
b. Repeating patterns across time or space at the level of systemic structures and
c. Trends and major events

Example of a relevant, identified force being observed: “the level of political attention being paid to educational challenges and limitations, where even a small change would have a big impact on what happens to society”
This force will give you input to your scenarios. If you see poor political attention paid to educational challenges for example, you may consider this a force that is very likely to continue unaffected, which gives you a certainty factor.
When we get to the next step of constructing stories, it will help us to have categorized the trends and forces into Certainties (relatively) vs. Uncertainty.
Certainties that are important for the scenarios will (can) be present in all scenarios. Uncertainties will be the primary differentiators between scenarios.
So when you are making your observations at this stage of our process, sort your observations into Certainties and Uncertainties.
To ponder a little on the uncertainties, of which there are many: two opposing poles of uncertainty can be identified in this question: "Will the population experience poverty or well-being 20 years from now?
A helpful way to determine if you see something as a certainty or uncertainty is to ask a question in the same way with two opposing poles of certainty or uncertainty as shown in this example.
The more observations, certain or uncertain, you can add, the better. If you end up with too little content you will likely have to come back and do more observations to be able to build solid enough scenarios later on.
As a research platform, we used as an AI curated platform used to input our findings in the research we did on what is happening. You can also use a collaborative document (which you may want to do anyway to polish up your writing), such as Google Docs, or a similar solution that everyone involved can access and edit. 
3. Construct Stories about What Could Happen
3. Construct Stories about What Could Happen (but not yet what you desire to happen).

Now we have made observations about what is happening and attempted to tag our findings as either Certain (relatively) or Uncertain.

Let's now get started constructing narratives about the future.

The narratives should include some identified scenario attributes to narrow down the scope of work and avoid that the scenarios end up being "all over the place", perhaps even in different domains.
In our project, we wanted to gravitate around these attributes in the scenarions:
  • Liberal Democracy Under Pressure
    • UBI
  • Involuntarily Displaced (refugees from climate, economics, violence)
  • Disenfranchised
    • rural/poverty
  • State in Control (e.g. china)
  • Reskilling

You should specify which attributes are key to describe in your project scenarios.

Further more, we want to put light on different age groups of our population in each scenario.
We therefore identified these use cases:
  • Passion driven person (researcher as example)
  • Early childhood (post-Covid generation)
    Young adults (Primary school)
    Reskilling adult
  • Economic refugee ?
Which the scenarios for the year 2041 should describe.

So you have one or more of the identified attributes and also use cases to include in your scenario narrative.

In each iteration of story writing, we want to address the two key questions for future scenario generation, which are:

a. What is happening in the world that could have an impact on us? (not what's desirable)
b What impact do we want to have on the world? (this is what we desire about the future)
What is the time frame for your future scenarios? In our case, it's 20 years. That is a long horizon. If your child is 5 years old today, that young human being will be...well... 25 years at the time these scenarios are created for. That is really hard to imagine let alone calculate. So you may want to break down your scenarios in 5, 10, 15 and 20 years scenarios. 5 years is often too short to make us believe much change can happen (although I personally do not think that's the case). So you should avoid too short a time span. 15 or 20 years, what's the difference? Skip a 15-year scenario and use half of your scenario horizon as a stepping stone. So with a 20-year horizon, consider writing 10-year scenarios if you struggle with 20-year horizons.
Scenarios are stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not simply state descriptions of the world. 
James A. Ogilvy suggests useful scenarios must be
  • relevant (illuminating current circumstances and connecting to current thinking),
  • challenging (making invisible dynamics visible and raising questions about current thinking),
  • plausible (logic and fact-based), and
  • clear (accessible, memorable, distinct from one another).

I find this to be a helpful checklist when in the writing process during each scenario creation, as it gives you both some of the transformative juice you want to put into the scenario as well as some facts and logic that makes your scenario (more) credible and plausible.

I found several different methods described in the literature I studied so far, but I have a preference for the deductive method: where you choose two key uncertainties from your observations above, that relative to other uncertainties, both have the greatest impact on the system and are the most unpredictable.
Furthermore, one or both of these uncertainties should have outcomes that you, with your community, can influence.
Uncertainties that meet these criteria will give you scenarios that are useful in that they provoke questions about what actions you must take both to adapt to the future and also to influence it.
The two uncertainties chosen are the two axes of a two-by-two matrix yielding (at least) four scenarios, which may not all be plausible.
You may need to try different pairs of uncertainties until you produce scenarios that are useful. Agree with your group on how many useful scenarios you are going for.

Example of a diagram where our observations showing two uncertainties on the two axes, giving multiple scenarios inside the chart:
Global vs. Local on one axis and Privileged vs. Underprivileged on the other axis.

In our project, we desire (among other things) to achieve well-being in the population.
To achieve this, the governments would need to connect, engage, and resonate with the people and create cohesion among different groups, and thereby generate collective energy toward attaining societal goals.
Now, connect this uncertain scenario to your most painful, contentious, and crucial questions about political and social diversity and inclusion. Assuming a broad range of collaborators work together to influence the outcome of this uncertain scenario, what needs to happen and what will make this scenario more likely to occur than another scenario you may work on, that predicts poverty?
Whom to walk with to make each scenario more likely to happen?
Do not rule out scenarios that are considered useful to have in your portfolio of scenarios. Instead, make them more likely to occur, if they are somehow desirable or if you wish to move the world away from your scenario, how do you make a scenario less likely to happen? This will be input into the roadmap we will make later in the process.

Part of the power of transformative scenarios, in particular, is that they are stories about the actors in the system that you are part of and about the choices they make and the consequences of these choices. You need to communicate your scenarios so that they tap into this power.

A powerful narrative we get motived by is "one united LatAm" or "LatAm as ONE", which is the opposite of for example a fragmented or uncoordinated Latin America. Which scenario would you rather see? And what will make it more likely to happen?  Try teleporting yourself to year 2041, somewhere in Latin America that you wish to describe in your scenario. What do you see? What happened to the uncertainties (and certainties) you observed 20 years back? What enabled the transformation that you desire to see happening?

Now it's your turn. Time to write!

Here is the suggested 4 day plan for you and your group(s) to follow:
Day 1:
Prior to Live Session: everyone reviews the scenario generation process by reading it on their own first and then review the process together in a first video call. Review also the objectives you are expected to accomplish with the scenarios you will be creating.
Live Session: Review the scenario generation and the objectives together. Everyone selects one (or more) scenarios they will work on as individuals throughout the process. Q&A that wraps when everybody is clear about the tasks at hand. Never be afraid to add, delete or rewrite throughout this process.

Day 2:
Prior to Live Session: Individual work on the scenario narratives.
Live Session: Everyone presents their current scenario narrative(s), regardless of current stage and level of readiness. Everyone aligns on next steps for their narratives. Are you working on the most useful and relevant set of uncertainties for your scenario? It's not too late to make changes and shift to work on different uncertainties.

Day 3:
Repeats Day 2 but there should be more "meat on the bone" by now on each scenario narrative. Cover the expected use cases and check that you have included the defined scenario attributes.
Check: is your narrative relevant, challenging, plausible and clear ?

Day 4:
Repeats Day 3. By now, your scenario narrative should be covering all the relevant areas, attributes, use cases and also have a balance between:
a. What is happening in the world that could have an impact on us? (not what's desirable) and
b What impact do we want to have on the world? (this is what we desire about the future)
Based on feedback you receive in the live session, finalize your written narrative and submit it/hand it over to the person in charge of the process.

This diverging-emerging-converging rhythm continues until the scenario meets the expectations to it or until your process runs out of time. 
4. Discover What Can and Must be Done
4. Discover what can and must be done --to land in the desirable cone of scenarios

The scenarios we have now created are not the end goal but are meant as a tool to be used for actually transforming the system and/or leapfrogging.

A roadmap can involve two complementary stances -that Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about in his maxim: “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

What are the actions (things you can change) to be taken, to achieve the desired scenarios?
What are the forces and situations that you just need to accept and apply adaptive actions?
Consider both types of assumptions to avoid overestimating your influence on the system. Ambitious scenarios must also involve a portion of realism for stakeholders to see themselves in these possible futures.
What are the chances your scenarios can occur? Are they each plausible? Possible? Probable? Preferred?  Desirable?

For each of your scenarios, if/when the scenario occurs or you see patterns of the scenario beginning to happen, what will you and your network/country/region have to do to A. Survive or B. Thrive?

Do a reverse-order SWOT analysis, that describes the STRENGTHS, WEAKNESSES, OPPORTUNITIES and THREATS, that will be present and important in each scenario.

With this perspective, apply a transformative stance and ask: WHAT is the future we desire (by the target timeline of your scenario)?
What is your role in what will happen? What is the role of others involved in the scenario (might be millions of people so keep it brief and at a high level)?
Who will have incentives to push against your scenario and what then needs to be done to win support rather than opponents? Which alliances will be needed?

Again, leep coming back to the two key questions in scenario generation:
  1. What is happening in the world that could have an impact on us?
  2. What impact do we want to have on the world?

Out of this, draw conclusions about what must be done in the time frame of your scenario and format the description as an actionable roadmap.
When your group reaches a point of disagreement or different views, it may be time to part your ways and continue the work in other or smaller groups rather than give up or compromise at the risk of losing the transformative opportunity. Navigating the future is a team sport -but the values or the desirable future you are describing may not be desirable for others, outside of your group. So you may need a variety of possible and acceptable scenarios to present to your stakeholders. Evaluate in your group if you have accomplished your objectives.

Never get stuck! Keep finding solutions that can make the process move forward.