The process of creating forecasts, especially scenario-based forecasts, is simultaneously creative and structured. On the one hand, you want the scenario to engage the reader, provoking them into new perspectives on an issue. On the other, you want the forecast to be grounded in plausibility. This balance can be tricky, and there are pitfalls that can be easy to stumble into. I wrote a quick list of those pitfalls back in 2012, and later expanded it into a talk called “Bad Futurism.”
These “rules” also provide something of a cheat-sheet for doing foresight forensics. Did the forecast under examination only look at the interests of economically and politically dominant groups? Was the forecast future essentially a version of the present, but with niftier gadgets? I will admit that it can sometimes be embarrassing to look back at an old forecast with these guidelines in mind.
One of the biggest rules drilled into aspiring scenario writers is to avoid “normative scenarios,” or forecasts that result in a predetermined, usually preferred, future. Envisioning a future or futures where everything works out as desired rarely has analytic value. Usually, our task is to show people possible consequences of their choices, not just show them what they’d like to happen.
However, sometimes breaking the rules can be useful, even this golden rule. Sometimes, the larger point of the forecast can only be made by doing something unexpected. For an example of what this can look like, however, I’m going to have to step outside of my work at IFTF.
Let’s take a look at a set of scenarios I wrote about nuclear weapons.
In 2015, the NSquare Collaborative; a project funded by a coalition of the Carnegie Corporation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and Skoll, brought me on to help create a set of scenarios about getting rid of nuclear weapons. Over six months, I worked with an amazing group of professionals grappling with the issue, developing five different scenarios of the world of 2045. But here was the catch: Each one had to have essentially the same conclusion, a world in which we have successfully eliminated the ever-present threat of nuclear war.
The resulting set of scenarios, under the title Crossroads, can be found here (it’s easier to read if you grab the PDF linked on that page). Each one takes a divergent pathway to this predetermined result. They aren’t simply variations on a theme; these divergent pathways mean that the same conclusion—a world without a nuclear threat—ends up feeling very different each time.
(Please note that each of the scenarios includes an analysis section afterwards, going over what kind of innovations could make the scenario more or less likely. It’s worth reading.)
The core assumption of the project was that the functional elimination of nuclear weapons is both possible and plausible, and that there are multiple pathways to that outcome. Most scenario forecasts begin with a question along the lines of “what do we do?,” with the various future narratives heading off in different directions — think of it as an expanding cone of possibility. With this forecast, we’re asking instead “how do we get to what we want?,” and the cone is essentially reversed. Across the diverse array of possible futures, what kinds of factors might lead us to this desired outcome?
I crafted the five scenarios based on the combined analysis of the specialists working on the project, with the goal of making them as grounded in reality as possible. As a result, although all of them end with the functional elimination of nuclear weapons, this doesn’t mean that the scenarios result in especially “good” or “happy” futures. Useful scenarios should feel lived-in and plausible, with their own particular combinations of improvements and problems.
So what do five very different scenarios of a desired future look like?
The Jammu Disaster, where the unintended detonation of a nuclear weapon in Jammu-Kashmir ultimately leads to global dismantlement. The concept unfortunately remains possible; the potential for an accidental detonation will persist as long as the weapons do. But the most notable aspect of this scenario is the power of images and data. The catalyst for broader change in the scenario wasn’t just the destruction, but the ways in which the close documentation of that destruction was made ubiquitous. The appearance of social media in scenarios needs to be about more than misinformation on Facebook; be aware of the potential power of hundreds of millions of images and stories about a singular event.
Emergency Management, where new institutions created to fight climate disaster are repurposed to enable the end of nuclear weapons. This scenario is the least plausible of the five, in my opinion, and suffers from both over-optimism about global cooperation (a recurring theme for me, as I’ve noted in the past) and a terribly ridiculous name (“Global Emergency Management Directorate” or “GEM-D”) for the scenario’s new organization. It’s a testament to how much a small aesthetic detail can affect a scenario. Still, one bit explored in the scenario feels worth holding onto; we should prepare for the impact climate disasters will have on global judicial systems.
Bigger Problems, where the world’s inability to push back against climate disaster leads to desperate efforts to improve global safety. This second climate-based scenario is, conversely, probably the most plausible. The (written in 2015) depiction of the effects of global warming feel all-too-real now. The half-efforts and misplaced blame for local disasters could almost be considered basic assumptions at this point for any kind of disaster scenario. The part that seems most worth looking at, especially in the context of the past 18 months, is the impact of the overwhelming degree of fear felt around the world.
Sticks and Stones, where the world discards nuclear weapons because better weapons become available. I have to admit that this is my favorite of the bunch, largely because it pushes back against many of the tropes associated with nuclear disarmament — subverting expectations can be a useful tool in scenario writing. Here, there is no “come to our senses” moment or decision to put the safety of the planet ahead of other concerns. Instead, the scenario builds from the observation that, over history, countries will very rarely give up a powerful weapon without something even more powerful to replace it. The weapons described in the scenario—orbiting tungsten rods and weaponized asteroids—may seem to skirt the line between plausibility and absurdity, but they usefully motivate the discussion.
Diplomatic Fade, where decades of slow, irregular political efforts ultimately pay off. The final scenario is likely the least exciting for most readers, but turned out to be highly provocative to the nuclear weapon specialists. It’s always rewarding to see a forecast surprise and unsettle the experts. On the surface, it’s a scenario of lengthy negotiations, diplomatic set-backs, and most of all patience. Driving it, however, is the controversial notion of “virtual arsenals” — the potential for small numbers of ready-to-assemble nuclear weapons. No country would admit to having one, but such a thing is possible for every nuclear state.The ambiguity as to the existence of these arsenals provides the same kind of deterrence that the physical weapons now ostensibly enable.
All five of these scenarios end up with essentially the same end-point: a world without the ever-present threat of nuclear war. Looking back I see, however, that the end-point was inherently a mirage — the expanding cone of possibility still gave us five very different futures, and five very different meanings for a functional elimination of nuclear weapons. There was no singular preferred outcome that they all could achieve.
Six years later, these five scenarios still feel relevant, to varying degrees. The absence of any pandemic references immediately dates them, of course, and there are some details about the behavior of various political and business leaders that I would likely change. The use of highly divergent pathways to get to parallel outcomes still works, I think. The risk of nuclear weapons remains salient, but a goal of eliminating this threat too often seems like wishful thinking rather than a policy choice; showing not just one but a multitude of plausible pathways to this outcome can be revelatory. It could be a valuable method of breaking through on other “impossible” futures, such as success against climate disaster.
“Breaking the rules” of scenario writing can be a useful way of illustrating a kind of complexity to the problem that might be missed in a more conventional approach. It allows you to emphasize that the meaning of the taboo concept will change depending on the world built up in the scenario. It’s not a license to throw away the guidelines; it’s an invitation to pay closer attention to the reasons behind the rules.
*This is the third installment in the series "Foresight Forensics" by IFTF Distinguised Fellow Jamais Cascio. Read here the first piece "Foresight Forensics: How to Learn From Your Previous Scenarios" and here the second piece "Foresight Forensics: Using Scenarios to Demonstrate Unintended Consequences."
You may also be interested in:
- Training: IFTF Scenario Building
- Blog: Stone Soup Scenarios: How to Pull in Multiple Perspectives When Forecasting the Futurefuture-now/article-detail/rediscover-your-inner-futurist/
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