I’ve been calling myself a futurist for the past five years, and for five years, I’ve been lying. But no longer, because I’ve read this book, which is every bit as a thought-provoking as Science Fiction for Prototyping proved disappointing. Peter Schwartz is one of the founders of the Global Business Network consulting firm, and honed his skills designing scenarios for Shell Oil in the 1980s. His scenario planning techniques underpin the Prevail Project. In The Art of the Long View, he makes a strong case for the utility of scenario planning, explains how to develop a proper futurist mindset, and how to create your own scenarios.
Scenario planning is not predicting the future. Rather, it is about challenging the official future, and the assumptions that underlie it. Scenarios force you to examine your unspoken beliefs and values, the evidence supporting them, and how you might react in the future. An organization that includes scenario planning in its process is better able to react to rapidly changing conditions, and less likely to be rendered slowly obsolete through technological change.
Scenario planning is inherently interdisciplinary. A scenario plan has to include technological, economic, cultural, and political factors, as well as individual psychology. Broad areas of knowledge rather than deep and narrow research is better suited at picking up on trends. The ideas and forces that most powerfully influence the future originate on the margins of society, among the dispossessed, the utopian, or the just plain weird. Finally, Schwartz includes a detailed, 8 stage guide to using scenarios in your own organization, with a good balance of theories and examples. Perhaps the ultimate success of scenario planning is that it creates a shared language to talk about the future.
Scenario planning might not be about predicting the future, but a futurist who makes no predictions isn’t very useful. The book was published in 1991, and some parts feel oddly anachronistic, like the Japanophilia, the groping towards a ‘digital global teenager’, and the absence of the War on Terror. On the other hand, he offers three scenarios for the world in 2005: New Empires focused on regional militarism, Market World with multicultural entrepreneurialism, and Change Without Progress, where the wealthy hollow out states, and fear of losing what little remains prevents successful action. Change Without Progress is strikingly similar to the world today, with our 1%ers and 99%ers, paralyzed multinational bodies, and collapsing infrastructure.
Scenario planning is not a strict methodology that automatically produces valid results, it’s an attitude towards the future that is based on broad understandings of historical forces and skepticism about the status quo. The results will vary on the quality of the questions you can ask, the data available, and the conversation you foster. But as far as crystal balls go, scenario planning is one of the best.