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Surprising Futures

The crucial question in each scenario exercise is whether all uncertainties have been taken into account, or whether something vital has been overlooked. What would cause surprises or abrupt changes? And do we need (additional) 'what-if' scenarios to address such surprises?

There are many examples in futures analysis where factors have interacted in complex ways, due to non-linear feedback loops, and produced sometimes surprising futures. The combination of systems analysis and qualitative storylines enables the inclusion of factors that are difficult to formalize - such as technological breakthroughs or shifts in values - and demonstrates their impacts.

Brooks (1986) identifies methods to spot surprises that might subsequently be explored via systems analysis:

• assume nonlinearities;

• amplify responses to small random changes/events;

• change the (perceived) scarcity or thresholds;

• assume delayed effects;

• assume human ingenuity and transitions towards another carrier for economic development.

Saritas and Nugroho (2012) distinguish discontinuities, but also wild cards and weak signals as sources for surprise, which can be identified (and prioritized) in surveys. Wild cards are trend-breaking assumptions, fault lines or external shocks, for example on social or political stability. Weak signals are less prominent trends that might eventually become important game changers, for example the sudden availability and exploitation of 'big data', the sudden uptake and use of a new technology such as electric bicycles, or an increased focus on new behaviours such as consuming healthy food.

What Policy Formulation Tasks do Scenarios Aim to Perform?

Scenarios may, in principle, perform several tasks at the same time in the policy formulation process, as defined in the first chapter of this book:

1. Characterization of the current situation: this is a usual starting phase in foresight analysis, as a reference to the current state is needed to measure the impact of the policy option and assess its policy relevance;

2. Problem conceptualization: this is the core business of any foresight exercise. There are two contrasting conceptual approaches in scenario development: the 'exploratory' (how the future could be) and the 'normative' (how the future should be). As part of the exploratory scenarios, frightening scenarios may enable precautionary policy, security policy and improved crisis management (preparedness). Pessimistic assumptions about the environment (for example, scarcity, natural disasters, major accidents), economic system (economic cycles, growing inequality, financial bubbles) or the behaviour of actors (crime, lack of enforcement of laws, conflicts) may make it possible to assess worst-case developments;

3. The identification of policy options: scenario techniques include the identification of options or alternatives for the future: 'exploratory' methods begin from the present, and see where events and trends might take us; 'normative' methods begin from the future, asking what trends and events would take us there (EC et al. 2005). Scenarios can focus on the short term (close to the 4-8 years regional and national policy cycle) or on the longer term (usually more than 20 years, used in global policy formulation processes);

4. The assessment of potential policy options: this is the last phase in scenario development (see previous section).

In addition, the scenario building process offers opportunities to open up debate and involve government policymakers and stakeholders outside the official state machinery, seek consensus on a policy strategy and increase the legitimacy of policy measures.

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