In April, I attended a scenario training workshop hosted by the Global Business Network for one week in Berkeley, California. About 20 participants from backgrounds as diverse as the CIA, Royal Dutch Shell, LG, the Brazilian postal service, and UC Berkeley attended. Other than a hydrologist working in climate adaptation, I was the only attendee explicitly motivated to apply scenario thinking tools to the non-profit sector (and the only lawyer).

After the week-long course, one of my biggest learnings was that more advocates should seek out tools (like scenario thinking) that allow new ideas to refresh old ideologies. For as statistician John Tukey said, “Far better an approximate answer to the right question, than an exact answer to the wrong question.” Too often we get stuck asking and answering the wrong questions. It’s safe. But safe futures are unseen futures.

I’ll be more specific. How did my thinking change?

The training was very hands-on. Participants broke up into three teams, and each team shaped a scenario around a focus question. My scenario teams’s initial focus question was, “How will changing global inequality impact social stability over the next ten years?”

My old assumptions were that 1) the environment and climate change would be central to the storyline; 2) stability would decrease under all scenarios; and 3) change would be slow (too slow). None of these turned out true.

Thus, new beliefs emerged: 1) Other forces besides climate change exert equally strong leverage on social stability—climate change was an underlying force rather than a separate issue and the scenario was just as relevant; 2) nothing is inevitable; and 3) logic can contradict and still be logical.

Areas that I identified I need to learn more about: 1) What military leaders think about the security narrative for the 21st century in light of increasing inequality?; 2) Keep looking to the developing world as a laboratory for the future. New institutions and leaders are emerging outside the industrialized countries that will reshape the world as we know it. What as an internationally minded lawyer does this mean about the role of transnational law in the future?; and 3) How can I  learn more about presidential leadership in emerging countries (young leaders especially, such as Kim Jong-un of North Korea).

After the week-long scenario exercise, a new focal question emerged in my mind. What question were we really asking when we started? I came up with this: Which parts of the developing world will have the most significant impact on optimism in America over the next 20 years?

Overall, scenario thinking tools gave me the freedom and courage to interrogate official futures as well as my own logic and assumptions. I left still wondering whether scenario thinking tools can be as useful for the powerless as they have been for the Fortune 500 companies that have used scenarios to shape markets for decades.

Here’s a graphic recording (click here to enlarge) of the workshop’s final debrief, highlighting themes and elements of story, uncertainty, creativity, and collaboration as key to the process of developing and using scenarios to plan for uncertainty. Image credit © Lynn Carruthers, GBN