Monday, August 25, 2014

Alternative scenarios

Read Wilkinson, A. & Kupers, R (2013) “Living in the futures: How scenario planning changed corporate strategy.”


Schwartz, P. (1991). The art of the long view. New York: Doubleday/Currency.


Futurist Peter Schwartz on planning for the unthinkable (18 minutes)

Shell scenarios

Shell scenarios for 2050 (8 minutes)


Earth 2050 – full length video (43 minutes)


Impact and Influence of Shell Scenarios (5 minutes)


Oceans and Mountains (2 minutes)



11 thoughts on “Monday, August 25, 2014

  1. The Shell method of creating scenarios plays in tune with Schwartz’s technique of suspending disbelief and identifying plausible future factors. Scwartz takes an approach which relates the frequency of past events with possible future mishaps while Shell identifies global trends that emerge out of current conditions of the time period as stated in the Harvard Business article. Interestingly, they both identify “inevitable” futures whether is it an eventual concern about fossil fuels or an eventual meteor strike. I am very interested on how these speculations actually carry weight in governmental and company discussions.


  2. The Shell scenarios provide an interesting tool to look at possible futures. It seems like the tool is well constructed with the key elements delineated in the Harvard Business Review text, those being plausibility, storytelling, adding numbers to the narrative and describing futures that might happen. I most enjoyed the Shell scenario which shows an Ocean versus Mountain scenario, since they are disparate views. In the ocean scenario we see emerging markets bloom and solar energy being the largest energy source while in the mountain scenario natural gas becomes the largest energy source but global social mobility is thwarted.


  3. Peter Schwartz presents many different thoughts about scenerios and how we need to adjust our thinking by asking questions and interacting with others, in effect channeling our curiosity. Schwartz states that we are “systematically blind”-our knowledge is limited by our bias (we individually can only see certain parts of the whole picture). The shell method is in sync with Schwartz’s views because they also believe it is necessary to ask questions that will trigger more curiosity and exploration. The scenarios will indeed help them be better prepared for the future and make better decisions. As designers we should try to emulate the shell ideology so that we can design for unforeseen scenarios and prevent certain actions today that could lead to major consequences. Shell is determined to “challenge conventional wisdom” and we need to all do so that we can make smarter design decisions and understand our future better.


  4. Peter Schwartz’s interview covered a lot of different topics in a short period of time. I agree with his point that large bureaucracies have a hard time thinking outside the box or to imagine alternate futures since their mentality is usually stuck in the “this is the way things have always been done” mentality. Having been at the center of the financial crisis (I was at Barclays during the crash) and having worked for a government agency that trains other government agencies, he makes a lot of good points but I’m not sure that these organizations are set up in a way to even promote disruption. Even the post-9/11 reorganization of the federal government has done little to promote the asking of imaginative questions and curiosity is usually frowned upon. So what can we as citizens do to help our structures be better prepared for alternate futures?


  5. What I found most interesting about the Shell scenarios was not the content, but the way in which they are formulated. For example, the scenarios from 1977 seem to deal heavily with public opinion of the government, implying that it was a time period in which confidence in leadership was very influential. Four years earlier, the scenarios deal with the relationship between government and private corporations. Twelve years later, the scenarios discuss economic power. Thirty-six years later, even the names of scenarios are created in a completely different fashion (mountains vs. scenario). It’s fascinating to see how these scenarios not only help prepare for potential futures, but also provide insight as to what issues are most relevant in the present.


  6. At first, the idea of Shell’s scenario planning seemed to imply to me that its purpose was to prepare the company for plausible futures. In predicting various futures, the decision-making process would become easier. However, the true purpose of the Shell method is simply to encourage open-mindedness and discussion. Adaptability is essential to not only businesses and corporations, but also to governments and individuals (such as designers) who want their work to remain relevant. I think the Shell method is an interesting and effective way to foster such dynamism.


  7. Sorry I’m late because I didn’t know I should leave my reflection here. Actually as a designer with an academic background in business, I found this whole scenario thing to be very new and special. Yes as emphasized by those articles and videos, making scenarios are not making predictions. However I didn’t find a significant difference between these two.

    At first I think scenarios are more about thinking about all the uncertainties and possibilities so that if some of them really came true, you are better prepared for it. But prediction in business is to predict the most possible future based on facts and data drawn from the past and the present, so there is usually only one prediction instead of many possible scenarios. So it is more like a multiple/open vs single/closed difference. But then I read that scenarios should not be too many, so I get a little confused.

    Then I think scenarios are a combination of the “if” and “then” , while prediction is more about the “then” thing by assuming that there is no “if”. However that is also not the case because in business, people will also study all the current trends and potential problems when doing risk management in order to better prepare for the future.

    Then I think maybe both scenario and prediction will study the present and try to figure out the future, but scenarios begins from the future while prediction start from the past and the present. However, as I am watching Peter Schwartz talking about the future, I think he actually began from the present because his ideas that there might be food crisis, energy crisis etc are based on today’s world.

    So now I am confused. I should have brought this to the class today but still.. better late than never:) Maybe there are some of you who can help with my questions:)


  8. I found a remark by Philip Bobbit (in the video “The Impact and Influence of the Shell Scenarios”) very helpful in understanding scenario utility – that the scenarios are not geared toward the future, but rather they a tool to impact the present state of things. I think this statement goes nicely with Wilkinson and Kupers’ (2013) message at the end of their article: “[…] scenarios encourage attention to the future’s openness and irreducible uncertainty […] The outcome is at best a hypothesis rather than a range or a precise data point” (p. 11).


  9. Wilkinson and Kupers article does a great job at not only detailing the history of future planning but also explaining the methodology behind this process. Two points that stuck with me were Make it Plausible not Probable and Strike a Balance between Relevant and Challenging. Both of these points made it apparent to me that futures planning is truly about thinking outside the box. Identify your underlying assumptions and change them. It does not matter if capitalism losing steam is unlikely, it only matters that it is possible. This type of thinking is still new to me but I hope this class makes me more comfortable in the activity.


  10. What I found really interesting in the article was the motivation and the intrinsic benefits of Shell’s scenarios program. When I skimmed the article at first, the impression that I got was that as a corporation, Shell wanted to develop these scenarios to help them have a better guage of possible/plausible future scenarios in order to be better prepared during times of crisis and also to have a strong and meaningful strategic plan. However, after reading more closely I really ebgan to appreciate the extent of the positive effect this program had on the corporation.
    One of the main motivating factors behind developing plausible scenarios is to encourage subjective judgment and intuition. I was always of the opinion that encouraging people to hone their intuition and judgement is something that can be done only in an informal manner – but it’s interesting to see how a formal program like this also creates the space for people to voice out their intuition.
    I would imagine that companies, especially the more established ones, are more reluctant to change and structured chaos – so it’s very cool to see how Shell has this program that allows people, especially those at the top of the heirarchy, to acknowledge uncertainity, take into account not only numbers and statistics but also place a huge importance in judgement , to be able to create discontinuities in the assesments of the future so that they become more adaptable by creating the space in their strategic plans to deal with plausible scenarios.


  11. Hey all! Late entry to the class here, so I’ll be going back through these first few weeks and catching up.
    I read/watched what people said about scenarios, and I was all on board. Sounded great. But then when I read about what the Shell scenarios actually were, they seemed to just reduce the world to good/bad. Particularly recently, when they started only having two scenarios, and particularly particularly when they said “yeah, Blueprint is better than Scramble.” Feels like that’d make people tune out – one is the same old “we didn’t do enough for climate change and now polar bears are dying”, while one is “yep we eventually got to a sustainable world.” So what’s the point?

    I’m thinking it’s the nuance within the stories that makes them worthwhile. In Scramble, 2020 is a sort of panicked time when we finally turn it around. in Blueprints, there’s plans like the C40 agreements among mayors. In Mountains, gas becomes the primary carbon-neutral electricity source. So it’s not the scenario overall that is the most valuable, it’s the little memes along the way. I mean, we talk about Orwell’s 1984, and obviously that’s among the worst of all worlds, but it’s introduced such useful concepts like Big Brother, thoughtcrime, doublespeak, etc. that make it easier for us to talk today. So these scenarios are like 1984: sure, one is bad, but it’s the details of how it’s bad that are important.

    But then, why not just watch a bunch of smart sci-fi movies? Well, I guess I’ll find out as this class goes along… (or maybe we should do that too 🙂


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