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How a futures scenario is like a Rube Goldberg contraption

One of the delightfully crazy makers who built a device for the Nabisco Cookie vs. Creme Challenge uses a hatchet and an electric router to get the creme, which he hates, off of Oreo cookies, which he loves. Here’s the Youtube video. It’s great fun to watch, but these Nabisco Challenge devices sure seem to be pointless stunts. This guy has built a classic Rube Goldberg contraption.

But crazy, single-minded, pointless stunts have something in common with some of the scenarios futurists build to help explore the future. They are a big “what if”. What if you used a hatchet to get the creme off an Oreo?

The Oreo-cleaning guy won’t make his fortune with this machine, and people don’t normally want or need a machine to get rid of the creme. His effort is an exploration of an intricate technical system, done for fun, but it’s fun with a payoff. He learned a lot about mechanical systems, and automation, and the need for a robust mechanical set up for the success of his machine.

In buidling scenarios, particularly the “ridiculous” what ifs we sometimes use to explore deeply into different possibilities, we’re building a contraption to show something that probably won’t ever come to pass.

If we pose a “what if” that says, “the end of paper,” and then explore thoroughly a world without paper, we don’t have to believe that in 20 or 30 years there will literally be no paper. No, we can believe, and learn more about a future, in which there is far less paper. But drawing the sharpest contrasts, and understanding the most about the potential, may lead us to set our scenario as an extreme, an absurd world that we don’t really believe in.

The key, of course, is to make sure people know the difference between an experiment and a forecast, that they know you’ve built a Rube Goldberg story to try some things out, and that no, you don’t think in the future it will altogether be like that. Some of the best scenarios are that kind of experiment, they aren’t forecasts, but we can learn a lot from creating them.

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