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Scenario thinking about northern Africa in 2025

How might we prepare ourselves for the democratic and ecological transition in northern Africa based on the examples of Morocco and Tunisia?

Based on this question fifteen young leaders from Tunisia and Morocco came together from November 13-15, 2017 in Tunis. The goal of the workshop was for them to become acquainted with the concept of scenario thinking. Instead of theoretically learning the concept, they engaged in actually working on three scenarios of the year 2025.The workshop was organized and hosted by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Tunis and Rabat. The design and conceptualization was done together with our partner Foresight Intelligence and I had the great pleasure of facilitating the session.

What is scenario thinking?

Thinking about the future is a complex endeavor. Especially in the western culture we are used to linear thinking and we tend to imagine THE future to be a clear point somewhere ahead of us. The problem with this approach is that we tend to overestimate recent trends and that we are often over-optimistic. Besides that we usually just like the things to stay as they are and thus prefer scenarios that don’t challenge the status quo. These three biases together prevent us from seeing the future as it really is: unknown! As Peter Drucker has put it:

Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window. (Peter Drucker)

We cannot know exactly what the world will be like in the future – especially if we look five ore more years ahead. In our daily lifes though, we are usually not aware of our own uncertainty concerning the future. This leads to bold predictions, which often fall apart due to unexpected events. Especially so called „experts” tend to overestimate their own knowledge, which is based on the past. Because of this, they often underestimate the influence of unforeseen events, which very often change everything. The problem is, that these events look so unlikely from an expert perspective that it seems a waste of time to even consider them in advance. Scenario thinking is trying to avoid this mistake.

The scenario funnel

The scenario funnel

© Foresight Intelligence

 

The scenario funnel as depicted above visualizes this approach. Instead of predicting what the future will be like, we imagine different possible futures. Once we have defined these futures we create stories that explain the emergence of each scenario. Based on these stories we can develop and test new strategies for our organization in order to thrive in any kind of future environment. The MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics has created a nice video, which explains the benefits of scenario planning in a visual and understandable way:

The dramaturgy of scenario thinking

Like other approaches such as design thinking or agile, scenario thinking is usually a designed, curated and facilitated collaboration experience. In order to get a team of (ideally) diverse people to create and analyze possible future scenarios, it is best to have a facilitator guide the process.

On a high level this process consists of the following steps:

  1. Scoping
  2. Environment scanning
  3. Factor assessment & description of future projections
  4. Scenario construction & description
  5. Analysis & strategy development

How to work through the scenario thinking dramaturgy

The group first has to decide on the topic and time horizon of their project. After clarifying the scope it is important to think about all potential influencers that might impact the future regarding the specific topic of interest. The more diverse the group is, the less likely are blind spots in the picture.

Based on that the group has to assess the influencers. The goal in this step is to understand which factors have an uncertain outcome and which factors have a high impact on the topic of interest. The ones that are both uncertain and of high impact are the ones that will help to construct the scenarios. Once the group has decided on the key uncertainties it is time to have a deeper look at each factor.

The factors have to be clearly defined by describing the status quo and past developments. In order to convince people, who have not been part of the process, it is crucial to do thorough research. On top of that, the group should describe 2-4 mutually exclusive projections for each individual factor. Taken together these projections should describe the full scope of alternatives that each factor could possibly result in.

The projections will be the base on which the scenarios are constructed. The group assembles different combinations of projections. These bundles then build the fundament of each scenario, which now has to be described in more detail. What does the world look like at the agreed upon point in the future? How did this specific scenario come about?

Based on these stories about the future the group analyzes the strengths, weakness, threats and opportunities for their organization in each scenario. The group then develops and tests potential strategic concepts based on the different scenarios. Which strategy can we apply to promote one or the other scenario? Which strategy will allow us to be successful in all of them? How could we (re-)act, if a specific scenario becomes more probable?

The outcome of the HBS workshop

In Tunis the african young leaders enthusiastically engaged in the discussion about the possible futures of their respective countries. The group consisted of a diverse bunch of political activists, NGO founders and entrepreneurs who each brought their specific perspective to the table. Have a look at the picture gallery to see some of the results of the workshop and to get an impression of the collaborative session (click on the picture for the next one).

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