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US Election A Reminder - Nobody Has A Crystal Ball

collaboration cumulative effects land use planning project planning / approval scenario planning Nov 14, 2016

None of us has a crystal ball we can use to predict the future. Our ability to anticipate future outcomes is limited by our understanding of the complex systems we are a part of. And these systems are in constant flux - subject to both cyclical and random disruptors. The outcome of the US Election is a good reminder for us that our understanding of these systems is shallow and uncertainty is real. Despite 24 hour/day monitoring, researching and discussion for 18 months – the experts were not able to predict what happened.

And yet, we know that the choices we make today will directly influence the outcomes of the future. So, how do we go about planning for an unpredictable future with less than a full understanding of the dynamics at play? Well, to start there are 5 key drivers of change that need to be considered; social, economic, ecological, technical and political. And rarely do these drivers act independently either – it is usually a mix of 2 or 3 combined that drives real change. A combination of social, economic and political drivers transformed the electoral landscape in America this fall.

Ultimately, these forces of change will manifest themselves in the form of land or water use by humans – because that’s what we do. We are out there, all over the planet, building, consuming, discharging and ever expanding. And we know that everything is connected to everything. And there is tremendous variability between systems. As an example, meaningful timelines for natural systems can extend into centuries while robots and algorithms are trading thousands of transactions every second Wall Street is open. And so the orders of complexity associated with the simultaneous interaction of all these forces across time and space adds up to a level of complexity that is very difficult if not impossible to manage in one’s mind without the help of analytical tools and processes.

Scenario planning was developed as a way to deal with the impossibility of knowing precisely how the future will play out. The approach is founded in the idea that in the face of this uncertainty, it is a good idea to find and implement one or more strategies that play out well across several possible futures – covering our bases if you will. In practice, this means we need to work through a process of testing a number of scenarios, each one diverging in emphasis from the others in order to explore the plausible solution space of the future. In the end, we hope to uncover the driving forces of change and the key uncertainties that could significantly alter them.

We do not seek to predict the future using scenario planning. Instead – we try to learn. We push the system hard in one direction and then another to help us understand the range of possibility, to see where certain components might break, to find synergies where the low hanging fruit of win-win outcomes are, and perhaps most importantly to uncover unintended consequences that could emerge because of system dynamics we hadn’t thought of.

We measure the effects these changes could bring by using indicators that tell us how values that are important to us respond to the changing conditions – kind of like the indicator gauges on the dashboard of your car.

And finally, here is the secret ingredient for successful scenario planning – diversity of perspectives. No one person has it all figured out and no one’s perspective covers all the bases – just ask the pollsters about that! In my nearly 2 decades of scenario planning experience with governments, businesses, multi-stakeholder groups and organizations I have learned that the best solutions emerge from a diverse group of individuals with different experience, expertise and perspective. Collaborative exploration is a powerful and efficient way to not only anticipate possible futures, but more importantly to develop resilience strategies so we can adapt to change we know is inevitable, but not precisely predictable.