How did scenario planning become so boring?

A different kind of thinking is needed to better explore the future with scenarios.

How did scenario planning become so boring?
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash

Chiara Di Leone asks a really great question in her recent, brilliantly-written article on the Noema website.

She asks:

'Scenario planning was meant to open alternative worlds and think the unthinkable. How did it become so conservative?'

Her article is essentially a long, intellectual rant about how futures thinking - a recognised trans-disciplinary field of study, which is used to open up the mind to thinking about possibility - has been hijacked by boring, fearful, risk-averse conservatives to perpetuate the illusion of 'business as usual'.

Scenario planning (even though the name sounds pretty bland) is actually a tool which is design to encourage and explore wild, unthinkable ideas.

In 1996 the idea of using airliners as guided missiles would have been totally laughable, but imagine how useful this future scenario would have been to authorities in the US back then.

In 2010 if you had stood up on a stage and told the audience that there was a possibility that governments would shut down entire countries because of a rogue flu pandemic, you would have been thrown off the stage and had eggs flung in your general direction. Imagine if governments had created this scenario and had planned for the possibility of global flu pandemic 10 years before it occurred.

Not such a crazy story to take seriously in hindsight right?

Great scenarios are those that explore stories of future worlds that may seem absolutely ridiculous now.

In the article, Di Leone raises an excellent point; and one in which we also find frustration.

Scenario planning as a foresight methodology - when done effectively - is an incredibly powerful tool to help people collectively and imaginatively explore alternative futures.

Alternative futures are important because there is limited agency in just following the widely agreed 'business as usual' future narrative that subconsciously we default to accepting.

The future is of course open to design, which is exactly why creatively exploring alternatives to the status quo is so vital. By just producing safe, conservative, risk-free scenarios you are nullifying the transformative power of the technique.

If the world were as linear and predictable as some would have you believe - then there would never be any surprises and the future would be perfectly predicable based on the past; which is obviously not the case.

When it comes to shifting the world's collective mindset with regards to the climate crisis - scenario planning is a brilliant tool to do just that.

The problem is that the scientists, policy makers, academics and experts who have been tasked to do this are sadly not using the opportunity effectively enough to frame the alternative futures available  in a way that motivates the required action.

Their fear of imagining the unimaginable is keeping the world stuck in a business-as-usual mindset.

How did scenario planning become so boring...and worthless?

Our theory is that it is misunderstood as a technique. The people who are using the tool are not aware of its true potential.

The transformative power of scenario planning has been eroded by those that don't really understand how to use it properly and are too fearful to do anything too radical or outside of their comfort zones.

A different kind of thinking is needed to better explore the future with scenarios.

As another scientist once correctly pointed out:

“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” - Albert Einstein

Scenario planning is an effective foresight technique. It needs to be understood, logically done and then leveraged with creativity and ingenuity to create widespread change and action in people. Get this right and it's the lever that'll shift the world.


Imagine Other Futures | NOEMA
Dry forecasts of climate impacts preserve “business as usual” — the extractive capitalist systems that created the crisis in the first place. What we need to imagine are entirely new socioeconomic configurations.