I wrote my first scenario about 30 years ago. I was in graduate school at the time, studying International Politics at UC Berkeley. As part of a project about the end of the Cold War, I wrote a short (probably no more than 500 words or so) scenario about the chaos in Russia at the time. I don’t remember much about it — and the file has long been lost to the vagaries of unsupported digital media — but I do recall that it felt really satisfying to create, and that it was wildly wrong about everything.
But being wildly wrong about everything in a forecast isn’t always a bad thing; something I say in many of my talks is that it’s okay to be wrong — the goal with scenarios and forecasts is to be usefully wrong. If the off-target speculation still ends up triggering for the reader a new set of insights about what could happen going forward, the foresight work has done its job. We’re not here to inform people of the inevitable. We’re here to alert people to the possible, and to get people to look at a changing world through new lenses.
Over the past few years, I’ve been developing a practitioner’s tool I call Foresight Forensics. The idea here is that a foresight writer will examine the remains of an old, dead forecast and try to figure out not just where it was on-target and what it got wrong, but why it got things wrong and what the forecast missed that should have been included. This can be done to forecasts created by other specialists, but the initial concept is to examine one’s own work. Do this enough times, and foresight professionals might gain better insights into what they should be weaving into their scenarios, and what they should avoid. If you constantly over-estimate the speed of technology change, for example, it’s good to know that you need to consciously pull back.
As an example, let’s look at a forecast from my own IFTF work, something you can follow along with: in the 2010 Ten-Year Forecast, I wrote about something we called “Adaptive Power.” The forecast looked at how international power could manifest in an unstable world, focusing on the management of complexity. The forecast had three sub-forecast elements: the “Crumbling Legitimacy” of states and institutions; a highly decentralized world of “Massively Multiplayer World Politics;” and climate chaos driving “A Cold War Over Warming” (The rest of the forecast document offers signals, details, and basic scenarios, but let’s focus on the core piece.)
We begin with the Climate Chaos: A Cold War Over Warming? forecast, which posits a world in which the global climate crisis becomes a key driver of international policy, but the actions taken introduce further political instability. It gets the severity of the climate problem right, but sadly over-estimates the willingness of global states to do anything about it. Moreover, the climate action described in the forecast — thermal geoengineering — is still too controversial and under-studied to be considered a viable option. The political frictions described in the forecast as consequences of using geoengineering remain entirely plausible, but still depend on a country seeing the scale and imminence of the climate threat to be great enough to warrant radical action. Throughout the document, particularly in the four scenarios, I assume that, by 2020, of course global governments would finally be willing to act on climate, even if those actions are themselves a problem.
The Decentralization: Massive Multiplayer World Politics forecast starts strong, with discussions of open source warfare and “civil unrest mediated by social networks,” cheap drones, and everyone carrying smart phones. It goes off into the weeds a bit, however, by talking about “experiments in commons-based society, from alternative financial systems to community defense.” Crypto-coin watchers might see the “alternative financial systems” aspect as promising, but blockchain currencies like Bitcoin, at present, still behave more like tulip frenzies than economic instruments.
Finally, the States and Institutions: Crumbling Legitimacy forecast points to a decline in official state legitimacy, a rise in unrest, the potential use of force against the populace, and the emergence of harmful adaptations I refer to as “perverse resilience.” Key line: “citizens will look to non-traditional sources of legitimacy for effective outcomes.” This one feels like a good call, unfortunately.
So what’s the forensic analysis? At first pass, the easy conclusion is that the more pessimistic elements of the forecast were the most on-target. Assuming bad behavior, sadly, is a reasonable strategy for scenarios. Even in moments of relative peace and prosperity, we’ll find communities that legitimately see the world as damaged and hostile.
Forecast items that relied more on coordinated action were less-relevant, unfortunately, and those based on global political culture recognizing and acting to lessen the impacts of a giant problem were way off.
What I’ve found is that this is a recurring issue with my forecasts. I really want to believe that institutions around the world (whether state or commercial) will act responsibly towards the biggest problem we face as a civilization. And I’m hopeful that people, more generally, will be willing to try new solutions to big problems of all kinds. Despite all appearances, I am evidently a hopeless optimist.
But even wildly optimistic (and off-target) scenarios and forecasts can play a useful role. They allow us to be a bit aspirational, but more importantly, they can help us spot the early signs of positive changes. We just need to temper them a bit more with a clearer perspective on what it would take to get there.
It’s easy to just take the cynical path and assume everything is going to get worse, and even things appearing to get better really only serves as a mask for things getting worse, faster. Just because this is usually right doesn’t mean it’s always right — and we shouldn’t let ourselves ignore interesting emergent signs of progress.
*This is the first installment in the three-part series "Foresight Forensics" by IFTF Distinguised Fellow Jamais Cascio. Read here the second piece "Foresight Forensics: Using Scenarios to Demonstrate Unintended Consequences."
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