Newsletter No 4 December 2010

Developing Scenarios - Struggling with Policy, Scenario Tools, Uncertainty and Discontinuity

Susan van ‘t Klooster, co-author of ‘Foresight in Action. Developing Policy-Oriented Scenarios’

epakaftAssessing the future is vital in informing public policy decisions. Nowadays, numerous professionals at national and international, public and private organizations around the world have the assignment or ambition to make assessments of the future in a public policy context. One of the most widespread approaches is the development of scenarios, which are alternative hypothetical futures.

In our latest book ‘Foresight in Action. Developing Policy-Oriented Scenarios’, we lay bare for the first time the real processes by which scenarios are made in public policy context. This book is based on an intensive five year (ethnographic) study of how experts actually go about developing policy-oriented scenarios. Our research indicates that the reality is often starkly at odds with the theory - a finding that has important ramifications for how the resulting images of the future should be interpreted. It also shows the need for rewriting and updating theory.

We identified four main problematic tensions related to the construction of scenarios in policy contexts:

Policy: In various foresight textbooks, it is argued that scenarios should be policy free. Futurists perceive the policy-free principle as the supreme approach to assessing the future, while at the same time they consider it unattainable. Our observations in foresight practice show that in dealing with this ambivalence, futurists search for a middle ground by using current policy as a basis to construct future policy, i.e. the ‘no (significant) policy change principle’. Our also show that putting this principle into practice is problematic as intense struggles occur around questions such as ‘which policy documents should one take as the basis for defining current policy?’; ‘how should one deal with policies formulated over the course of the foresight endeavor?; ‘who is the policy maker?’ and ‘how can one extrapolate policy?’. This struggle seems particular to foresight in context of public policy.

epasusWould-be standard tools such as the scenario matrix: In textbooks as well as in foresight practice, the scenario matrix is widely referred to as ‘standard’. However, in practice, we observed a variety of functional meanings – a notion we used to refer to logics and assumptions associated with the scenario matrix -, i.e. as ‘backbone’, ‘foundation’, ‘scaffold’ and ‘showcase’ (see Table). Although the scenario matrix is often presented as a standard, in foresight in action it is used in different ways that also differ from how the tool is presented in textbooks. We observed an important difference between the backbone, on the one hand, and the foundation, scaffold and showcase on the other hand. The first inhibits a positivistic stance with regard to knowledge production, while the other functional meanings qualify as constructivist. Frictions occur between the positivist backbone functional meaning (backbone), on the one hand, and the constructivist nature of the functional meanings actually practiced (foundation, scaffold and showcase);

table epa

Prospective uncertainty (instances in which futurists have doubt about the future, partly or fully because (scientific) knowledge is perceived as limited): Foresight is presented as the art of accepting, managing and understanding uncertainty. In foresight practices, we saw various ways in which prospective uncertainty is coped with, such as the construction of solidity, numeric discourse and delegation of uncertainty. However, a systematic strategy for dealing with prognostic uncertainty in foresight in action was absent. Therefore, wresting with uncertainty seems to be a better portrayal of foresight practice than notions such as understanding and managing uncertainty. We witnessed a paradoxical course in which initial uncertainty awareness is compromised by increasing uncertainty intolerance and all kinds of solidifying efforts. This process that we referred to as ‘certainification’, is a probable practical outcome of the observed uncertainty manners and which leads to future outlooks presented as definite and solid accounts about an uncertain future. Our empirical research suggests that dealing with prognostic uncertainty is a tough challenge, which requires both finding alternatives to comfortable uncertainty manners as well as recognizing and fighting tendencies towards certainification. 

Temporal repertoires and discontinuity: Foresight can be understood as the study of time. In practice we came across different ways of reasoning about the relationship between past, present and future and the associated ways of creating statements about the future. We identified two ‘temporal repertoires’ that in practice often co-exist and compete, namely historic determinism and futuristic difference. In historic determinism, the future is conceptualized and assessed as a world determined by the past and the present. Temporal continuity and stability are key principles. In futuristic difference, the relationship between past, present and the future is postulated as rather loose. Discontinuity and change are emphasized. Our observations in foresight practice show that although futuristic difference is the temporal repertoire that fits with the idea of foresight, assessing the future in ways that are consistent with futuristic difference is a tough challenge. Retreating to historic determinism is a major pitfall.

Each of these problematic tensions can be understood as manifestations of the conflict between the constructive nature of foresight (futurists construct scenarios in a social endeavor) and the positivistic ideals which are invoked with the ambition of academic foresight. Such positivist ideals create severe tensions and compromise the ability to really engage with the future. With our book we aim to help readers to reflect on their own practices of public-oriented foresight and thus to foster a deeper understanding of the key principles and challenges. We belief that, ultimately, this will lead to better informed decision making.

Marjolein B. A. van Asselt, Susan A. van 't Klooster, Philip W. F. van Notten and Livia A. Smits (2010). Foresight in Action. Developing Policy-Oriented Scenarios, Earthscan, London (The Earthscan Risk in Society Series, ISBN 9781844076772). 

For more information contact Dr Susan van 't Klooster