Scenarios for unimagined futures 

My colleague Miķelis and I organised a training workshop about scenario methods for the CIRCLE consortium on 17 October. The purpose of this workshop was to provide an introduction to scenario methods for the moderators of the national scenario workshops so that they can lead the participants through the scenario-building process. A secondary purpose was to give the moderators a sense of what it is like to develop a scenario without any prior knowledge of this method. Consequently, we decided to combine an introductory lecture on the conceptual foundations of this method with a crash course in scenario-building, which would give the future moderators a chance to experience the confusion and cognitive resistance which will likely befall the participants of the national scenario workshops. My general feeling is that the workshop went both better and worse than expected. Let me explain. 

First, it helps to understand what scenario methods are. This is a class of method that can, in principle, be regarded as a form of long-term planning. The methods attempt to combine known facts, current trends and assumptions about the future for the purposes of orienting our thinking about the future and the actions that we could take to prevent undesirable futures and enable desirable ones. Scenario methods are gaining increasing traction in various research projects and policy contexts. These methods are becoming recognised as useful tools for thinking through the implications of sociotechnical innovations and societal transformations at various analytical levels. There are many different formats in which scenarios are used and the methodologies that guide the articulation of scenarios differ. Some are focused on forecasting, while others concentrate on backcasting. Some are more expert-driven, while others engage different stakeholders in a participatory exercise. Nonetheless, they generally provide a structured yet creative framework for thinking about the future. 

It is also important to understand that the outcome of this exercise is not a forecast of the future. Rather, it is a hypothetical narrative developed for the purposes of a planning exercise. The point is to discuss possible futures and imagine potential solutions against unwanted outcomes. Indeed, this ties in rather nicely with the purpose of the national workshops in CIRCLE. The idea is to discuss the main findings with stakeholders and elaborate pathways that would facilitate the wider application of the principles of circularity. Now, back to the workshop. 

After giving our introductory presentation about scenario methods, we divided the attendees into two groups. They had to prepare a series of statements about the year 2030, based on the findings of our case studies. The findings had been condensed into several social, technological, economic, environmental and political (STEEP) factors that currently affect circular businesses in the Nordic-Baltic region. This created the first challenge. The statements regarding the year 2030 had to be precise, which meant that the participants had to unleash their creativity and go beyond general trends. Researchers tend to be bound by facts, meaning that their imaginations are sometimes constrained by what they know to be the case. This is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle. Some are happy extrapolate and come up with predictions about the future. However, it is always important to recognise that our perspectives and imaginations are shaped by our position in the social field. In fact, a side-effect of scenario workshops is being exposed to different perspectives about the future. 

The second step required the participants to come up with a statement about the year 2030 relating to the state of circular business models. They then had to retrace the steps between 2023 and 2030 that lead to this imaged state of affairs. Both activities proved to be tricky. Coming up with a statement took several rounds, several rewrites to go from a general statement characterising the conduciveness of the business environment to a more focused claim about the specific state of bio-resource-based business models. After the team had agreed upon a statement about the future, they had to retrace their steps. Again, there were differences of opinion as to the order in which events had to take place. This was further exacerbated by the differences in election cycles as some of the proposed solutions were dependent upon the election of a pro-environmental government. Indeed, stories about the future must walk a fine line between fantasy and plausibility. 

While Miķelis and I had originally planned that the two groups would each present the statements and scenarios that they had agreed upon, it was apparent that the participants were more interested in discussing the methodological practicalities. Consequently, we forwent the plenary session and dove right into a collective discussion of how we could organise the workshops. Firstly, it was agreed that a sufficiently enticing workshop question was necessary. Our colleagues noted that, due to the busy schedules of our potential invitees, we had to come up with a topic that they would find interesting and relevant.  After going through several rounds of rewrites we agreed that the workshop could focus on how we can ensure that by 2030 circular business models based on bioresources generate the highest (social-economic-environmental) value from by-products and waste. Secondly, the possibility of providing ready-made scenarios that the participants could subsequently adapt was proposed. Indeed, some versions of the scenario method favour this approach. However, we decided against this. The reason was that a scenario of their own design automatically gives the participants greater ownership over their vision of the future. Finally, the possibility of introducing EU and national-level medium-term policy commitments was raised. The idea was that we could use this as a kind of framing device for our scenarios. However, Miķelis and I suggested that participants themselves should bring these up and it is therefore crucial to invite representatives of the policy field to the workshops. 

So, why did I say that the workshop went both better and worse than expected? Well, it went better because I got the impression that the participants had a chance to experience some of the difficulties associated with scenario methods. Now they can prepare for the national workshops and be prepared for objections from participants. We also managed to agree on a common goal for the national workshops (this was still a bit unclear before the training workshop). Why worse? Well, we did not manage to go through the process smoothly. It is likely that some of this has to do with the simple fact that the participants were all members of the consortium and felt comfortable asking questions and challenging our approach. However, I believe that there is a more complicated issue lurking in the background. Specifically, the scenario method generates outputs that do not meet our traditional conceptions of knowledge and data. It is more active and interactive, more akin to blue-sky thinking. Consequently, there is always the risk that someone will see this as a frivolous and self-indulgent exercise in wasting time. Let’s hope for the best. 

Image by Colin Ross from Pixabay