Regular readers of this blog will remember our pride at the publication of the European Commission’s SAFIRE project. SAMI’s participation included the development of 44 discrete scenarios – four global scenarios, and four scenarios each for ten global regions. Produced for the Directorate-General of Research and Innovation, SAFIRE was a challenging and complex project “to support the design and implementation of EU R&I Framework Programmes with materials and procedures that improve the state of art in foresight use in EU policy-making.”
Next week, I shall be in Frankfurt, at the Cyberevolution conference. Focussing on the junction of AI, digitalization and cybersecurity, Cyberevolution brings together industry leaders, chief information security officers, and cybersecurity professionals in a range of plenary and workshop sessions to understand cybersecurity in an AI powered digital world.
That world exists, of course, in the future – which is why I shall be there. I’ll be running a few workshops, taking part in a few panels, and trying to help participants explore the threats – and opportunities – that the next ten years might bring.
And this is where SAFIRE comes in. We shall be using the SAFIRE global scenarios as our starting point. The scenarios are highly credible: robust, research and innovation focussed, have been through a rigorous round of review and editing within the Directorate-General, and are both published and third party endorsed. And they flex to accommodate challenge – such as cybersecurity. Or, as SAMI did recently, to form the basis for a professional association’s strategy workshops. Or, as the SIP project is currently doing, in understanding ways to achieve decarbonisation and Net Zero.
This flexibility got me thinking. There is a vast potential to be unlocked in using publicly available scenario sets.
The essence of futures thinking is not wedded to any single domain but is underpinned by methodologies that can be applied across the spectrum. Whether in technology, education, or urban development, the same techniques such as trend analysis, futures wheels, and implication matrices remain equally relevant and potent. It is not the subject matter that dictates the efficacy of futures thinking but rather the sophistication and application of these techniques.
Good public scenario sets, such as those sometimes produced by think tanks, governmental bodies, and research institutions, can be a goldmine for understanding possible futures. These scenarios often provide well-researched, diverse sets of potential futures, each reflecting different variables and outcomes. By leveraging these resources, we can construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct possible futures with greater ease and faster than starting from scratch.
While public scenarios are not bespoke to a particular project, they offer a starting point that can be adapted and personalized. By applying creativity and insight, we can customise these scenarios, aligning them with the specific strategic interests of an organization or community.
Further, incorporating a wide range of viewpoints is crucial in futures thinking. Publicly available scenarios inherently encourage this diversity by representing a variety of perspectives and assumptions. This multiplicity ensures that futures work is not myopic but rather integrative and expansive, accounting for different values, beliefs, and worldviews.
There are obvious disadvantages, which include:
- No scenario set is going to be as good as one crafted specifically for a project, using teams of people who know their subject, facilitated by futurists who know theirs.
- Some scenario sets are of higher quality than others, and it can sometimes be perishingly difficult to work out the difference. Rigorous methodology, substantial horizon scanning and data, underpinned by serious experience, are all key. SAFIRE had over 650 discrete data points, numerous workshops, expert authors and expert review, for instance.
- It’s important to respect the rights of the scenario’s creators, incidentally. SAFIRE is published under Creative Commons International 4.0. Randomly grabbing scenario sets off the internet without guaranteeing you have the rights to them is a risky business – and rightly so. The best ones represented many thousands of person-hours work, and those rights should be protected.
- Whilst I am currently preparing to speak at an AI conference and a therefore somewhat biased, beware of the dangers of AI. I can see a time soon – or even maybe now – when AI is extensively used in the production of scenario sets. The essential elements of workshopping, and its associated “aha” moments, serendipity and group understanding, are so far difficult to package into silicon.
- Scenario sets age. That’s almost the most important of the disadvantages, in fact – if you’re working with a published set that doesn’t fit into your time horizon, or fails to accommodate the history between its publication and now, you might as well not use them at all. SAFIRE was written during the pandemic, for instance – it understands and includes it – which almost no scenario written prior to 2020 could encompass.
For speed, budget, and diversity; for flexibility; and for the security of knowing one is working with credible, third-party endorsed output, publicly available scenario sets can be a useful base for further work. The potency of futures thinking does not rest on the domain of application but thrives on the robustness of its methodologies (and we shall have more to say on this particular topic in future blog posts). Public scenario sets can offer rich, varied, and accessible insights into the possible paths that lie ahead. Have a look at SAFIRE – or the results from the work at Cyberevolution and its Cybersecurity Council – to see how.
Cyberevolution takes place at Kap Europa, Frankfurt, 14-16 November 2023. Physical and remote attendance is possible. Booking is here.
Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
Future-prepared firms outperform the average by 33% higher profitability and 200% higher growth. SAMI Consulting brings 30 years of experience delivering foresight, futures and scenario planning – enabling companies and organisations make “robust decisions in uncertain times”. Find out more www.samiconsulting.co.uk.
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