Which future?

An Overview and Resources on Scenario Planning and The Great Transition

by Martin Grimshaw – SEED Co-op, DecisionLab and Time Machine

See also an earlier blog piece by Nathaniel Whitestone entitled ‘The Great Transition’

I wanted to pull together some useful links to articles and documents related to Scenario Planning and The Great Transition. I hope you find this useful as a starting point for finding out more about these topics. The Great Transition has influenced many including the Transition Towns movement and New Economics Foundation (NEF), and is a cornerstone of the SEED Co-op and DecisionLab vision that we are working to manifest.

Scenario Planning is a tool which helps us to build various stories of how the future might unfold; scenario analysis is a structured approach, and an alternative to forecasting. Instead of trying to predict the future, it makes use of uncertainty, imagination and trend-spotting to develop narratives in which we can explore strategic planning.

The Global Scenario Group (GSG) was a project comprised of some of the leading scenario planning experts. In 2002 GSG published the report: ‘Great Transition – The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead’. It was the culmination of the project, although the work continues. One scenario developed in the research leading to the report was called The Great Transition, and was viewed as the most favourable, indeed viable, possible future.

The Global Scenario Group was convened by the Tellus Institute and Stockholm Environment Institute in 1995. Tellus are a well known scenario planning group, with vast experience in exploring sustainability issues, often in partnership with major players such as the United Nations. Among an impressive body of work is ‘Transforming The Corporation’, imagining a better future business model. This will be discussed further in a future article, alongside the Permaculture of business and Collaborative Governance.

The other scenarios developed by GSG were not only unattractive, but likely to lead to global crisis. GSG morphed into the Great Transition Initiative [ http://www.gtinitiative.org/ ]. Rather than lingering on averting catastrophe, the focus is on the powerful motivator of building a future that we would want to bequeath to our grandchildren. Since 2005 the main focus of Tellus has also been to develop and manifest elements of the Great Transition.

Great Transition Initiative Pathways Great Transition Initiative – pathways

The Transition Towns movement, launched in 2006, also uses tools for imagining futures and storytelling for communities planning for life beyond cheap oil. Drawing on techniques such as visioning and backcasting, as used by The Natural Step approach to business sustainability, communities invite diverse community and business input into timelines, a pathway and milestones for resilient, vibrant, low carbon communities. From a student project in Ireland, to its fermenting in a Devon town, it has now become a viral international network.

You may also hear people talk about The Great Turning, which is also drawn on significantly by the Transition Towns movement, and refers to the book and centre of the same name by David C. Korten, who also wrote ‘Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth – A Declaration of Independence from Wall Street’, which includes an account of ‘a visit to the future in which our grandchildren may be living if we succeed.’ We can see then, the power of harnessing our imagination, discerning trends, painting stories and developing narratives, in response to the challenges of Peak Oil, Climate Change, resource depletion and various forms of suffering.

The theme of ‘The Great Transition’ has become almost a zeitgeist now for several years, a rallying call to arms, a magnetic force; it has recently been taken up again by the New Economics Foundation (NEF): ‘The Great Transition – A tale of how it turned out right’ (2009), who have developed it into one of their campaign areas. Continuing the theme of stories about the future, NEF published a great article around the launch of their report, exploring the role of Utopias, in their Triple Crunch blog.

Another example of scenario analysis is the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (Feasta)’s ‘Energy Scenarios Ireland’, developed to explore pathways in the face of Peak Oil and related challenges, using a variety of detailed variables.

Yet for all this talk of imagining sustainable futures, the history of scenario planning is actually linked more to the US military and the oil companies after the second world war. It is certainly a tool for keeping companies in business amid turbulence. Being able to see and respond to trends though, is a key feature of any company that has been around for a very long time, although there actually aren’t that many of them. Most companies are actually very short lived creatures, but spending some time planning strategies for shifting trends does help them to stay agile, even on elderly toes. Arie De Geus, who used Scenario Planning as a key tool for strategic planning at Shell, undertook research into the Tercentenarians Club to understand the elements of longevity in ‘The Living Company’ and highlighted sensitivity and responsiveness to environment as key elements.

For those wanting to explore Scenario Planning further, sadly until now it has been a tool used by large corporations and organisations, partly because it has been thorough, expert led and expensive. A key challenge is to develop lean versions for smaller companies and groups, that are accessible. And the benefits are not just to the business bottom line. Engaging in this work can have transformative effects on participants, and in a time of acute and conflicting pressures, provides a safe, therapeutic and playful space to re-assess purpose and direction. Meanwhile, a useful way to start would be to ask staff ‘What is on the horizon, and how can we make the most of opportunities?’ Then get creative, draw pictures and tell stories.

After all, as author William Gibson said, “The future is already here, it is just not widely distributed”

More useful Scenario Planning references:

Recommended reading:
Book: The Transition Timeline – Shaun Chamberlain (part of the the Transition Towns books series, looking at stories about possible futures, with Peak Oil in mind – review here: http://makewealthhistory.org/2009/04/24/the-transition-timeline-by-shaun-chamberlin/)

Book: Scenario Planning Managing For The Future — Gill Ringland

Energy Scenarios Ireland have this page with links to other scenario development work and research [ http://info.energyscenariosireland.com/Scenario_Planning_Research_and_References ]

Global Business Network (GBN) collection of articles & resources about using SP in business [ http://www.gbn.com/search.php?topnavSearch=scenario+planning&x=0&y=0 ]

Technorati directory of blogs using tags ‘scenario planning’ [ http://technorati.com/tag/scenario-planning ]

Posted: December 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Which future?

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