“A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.”

New York Times, 1920

We must be prepared for a future we cannot predict

E xperts do not forecast future events accurately.i Countless incidents, such as World War I, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the 2008 financial crisis, the nuclear power disaster at Fukushima, and the sudden global outbreak of the Coronavirus have surprised experts. Though precisely predicting events may be futile, organisations, and particularly governments, cannot abandon future planning. The continued prosperity of their society is a fundamental objective for governments to address; future expected outcomes drive most decision-making. Developing ministry strategies, designing and implementing policies, hiring personnel and establishing new departments, all require governments to engage in longer-term planning.

Recognising that the future might take many different shapes, governments can use scenario planning to support strategy and policy development. Rather than trying to predict how the world will precisely unfold, scenario planning details multiple possible future states of the world. This technique opens policymakers’ minds to previously unthought-of futures, ensuring their planning is not tied to one and making strategy and policy development more robust and adaptive.

Scenarios open new world views

Whiteshield Partners has collaborated with several governments to develop tailored scenarios that support policymaking following a proven methodology including the development of narratives, analysis of KPIs, and formation of policies to navigate towards the desired future.

Figure 1: Whiteshield Partners Scenario Methodology

Source: Whiteshield Partners

Case: Scenario planning to expand the public policymaking horizon

While modern scenario planning was initially developed in the military and the private sector, scenarios are now a critical tool for the public sector. Below are a few lessons learned on scenario planning from projects conducted by Whiteshield Partners:

  1. Explicitly integrate scenarios into government strategy and policy design:

Policymakers should avoid producing scenarios as a supplement or using general trends to inform strategy and policy. Applying scenarios at the strategy and policy design stage will better account for different futures, making risk identification and contingency planning an integral part of the policymaking process.

  1. Integrate divergent thinking into scenarios to break out of routine planning:

Policymakers may develop strategies and policies in response to political direction, without analysing how these will fair in changing environments. Scenarios that use creative and divergent idea generation approaches to identify future states can help governments prepare for a broader range of changes.

  1. Use a whole-of-country approach to develop scenarios:

Sound policymaking often requires input and support from multiple government ministries, the private sector, and civil society. Gathering these parties to generate scenarios can align their thinking and improve collaboration on effective responses to common challenges.

The future in many forms - “Unite Around Green” and “All Alone” – sample scenarios

As part of its scenario planning support, Whiteshield Partners has identified over 250 trends that will impact the future trajectory of the world; these trends and their potential ramifications form the basis for countless scenarios. For instance, we used these trends to consider future scenarios for two pivotal global issues: the environment and global governance. From this analysis, two global scenarios were fleshed out for 2035: “Unite Around Green” and “All Alone.”

Figure 2: Whiteshield Partners Scenario Planning Matrix example

Source: Whiteshield Partners

For each selected scenario, narratives were developed across several key impact areas to identify potential decisions for governments:

Scenario 1: “Unite Around Green” Scenario 2: “All Alone”
Economy A sudden transition away from oil and gas initially decreased living standards, but massive private and public investments as part of a global green deal have spurred the green economy. However, lower-skilled employees have not benefited as much as the highest skilled employees. New economics sectors have emerged, for instance, in the lighting, construction, and transport sectors. ‘Green’ has become a profitable economic opportunity. Pockets of economic excellence exist in certain countries, but inequality has massively increased between and within countries. Resource competition is back, which has also stifled economic growth and increased environmental degradation to record levels.
Environment The environmental movement has swayed governments, and the private sector to prioritize the environment with green energy development and increased environmental standards – notably as scientists have revised projections upward on the rise of global temperatures. Consequently, forecasts for the global environment have slowly improved. The environment has slowly degraded as international cooperation around green issues, such as cap-and-trade, has decreased. Countries have set their environmental standards in isolation, with a race to the bottom ensuing to attract the remaining job-producing industries, which are frequently high pollution.
Geopolitics Regions and countries have ratified the Paris Agreement 2.0 energy pact to tackle climate change. Consensus on a global carbon cap-and-trade system, phase out gasoline vehicle transportation and carbon-based power generation, is reached. Though major oil and gas exporting countries have faced economic challenges, the world has united around green energy. Tensions have become inherent among countries, with global trade and investment flows rapidly decreasing. A bloc of Northern European countries has started to leave the EU and international organisations, such as the OECD and World Bank, have been rendered ineffective. Low-level tensions occur between and within countries, with resource competition, particularly for water, spurring conflict.
Government Governments have become unifying forces, with a movement toward a common and global governance structure to tackle climate change. These efforts have helped to reverse populist movements, though small but vocal groups in many countries have opposed further unification. People have lost faith in global governments and have voted for increasingly nationalist and populist political parties. These parties have preferred to focus on national policies and projects, moving away from regional and international cooperation.
Society Societies have generally united as people rally behind green economy programmes both within and across countries. However, radical environmentalist movements have sought to reduce carbon emissions drastically and to ban air travel, and other anti-globalist movements have rallied against increasing outside cultural influences. Societies have split along national and income levels, with social networks and communities fragmenting. People cannot find work, which has strained societal relationships, and family ties have broken down. A loneliness epidemic has spread as people have become more isolated. Cross-country and internal migrations have increased due to both environmental and economic reasons further stressing societies.
Technology Close global ties have increased tech advancement. Rich countries have supported a massive technology transfer to developing countries to reduce energy usage and increase energy efficiency. More advanced technologies, such as geoengineering, are starting to be piloted. Artificial intelligence accentuates inequalities and the split between high end and low-end jobs; technology acts as a source of competition rather than cooperation between countries. Wealthy consumers have access to advanced tech in areas such as medicine, which is unavailable to middle- and lower-income classes.

Scenarios provide direction for potential government decisions

Each scenario has radically different implications about institutional and organisational changes, investment, and skills needed. For example, in the “Unite Around Green” scenario, the government could restructure around investments into the green economy, regulations to support its development, increased focus on international cooperation in relevant topics (such as carbon trading), and support upskilling green job seekers. Conversely, in the “All Alone” scenario, the government could focus on stimulating growth and technological development, while supporting a more equitable economy (e.g. increasing social spending in the short-term and more effective educational spending in the long-term). In this scenario, governments would also need to navigate a more hostile international environment to maintain necessary access to resources while designing policies to increase societal cohesion.

Scenario planning allows policymakers to imagine and anticipate alternative futures to design better policies and prepare for the unexpected. No government can predict the future; however, scenario planning helps to foresee different trajectories and adopt effective responses.