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Where is my jetpack?

In writing scenarios, it’s particularly tough to decide how transformative or “extreme” to be. That’s because scenarios are not predictions, they are tools for thought-for exploring the possibilities, and contrasting outcomes. In using scenarios, we have to be ready to distinguish, and help others distinguish, how we are saying not what will happen, but rather what could happen. And, in fact, transformative, even extreme scenarios are particularly valuable in foresight, so long as people don’t mistake them for predictions.

Often in my work as a futurist, there’s pressure to weigh the likely against the possible, and pressure to avoid the “extreme” scenario. A likely scenario or forecast takes into account cost, political will, social inhibiting factors, and so on, that shape what we might do. The possible future is just that-a technically-feasible, or socially- and politically-feasible outcome which may not seem so likely. These scenarios tend to be much more interesting, but what is possible is by no means assured to happen, and as people like to point out, our lack of jet packs (see image) and Moon colonies is a testament to that. So what did we get for exploring the idea of jet packs and Moon colonies?

To try out a concept, think through its implications, and explore its desirability, it is better to look at full-blown scenarios of a world in which there are such things. We should not subvert the conversation by abruptly throwing up doubts, or dilute our view of the future by not stretching thinking nearly as far.

In other words, the very act of imagining a certain future is part of enabling that future, getting us past doubts, concerns, uncertainties, and so on. So in doing a deep dive into some new thinking on space exploration or highly-managed environments, for example, playing out the idea of a Moon base is extremely valuable. But, we have to be ready to distinguish what we think could happen, from what we think will.

This works in a negative scenario or wild card view, as well. For example, last year we worked with a group of executives on scenarios including one about the price of oil rising to $250 per barrel by 2017. At first some people in the group thought that price was too high, too unrealistic. But writing a scenario called “Petroleum $125 per barrel” would never have gotten the strong and creative “what-if” thinking going that we achieved with $250 per barrel. Sometimes you have to draw a striking contrast to today to wake up people’s thinking. Maybe oil in 2017 will not reach $250, or maybe it will be $500. What matters more is to push the number over a threshold where we can see how the change would transform things, and then see what we discover. That worked well in our scenario-building group.

In the end though, we need to be sure we distinguish the could from the will and avoid people thinking we are making predictions. Otherwise, we’ll get the response: “where’s my jet pack?” and be faced with skepticism or disinterest, rather than thoughtful consideration of the possibilities.

[Image: http://www.threadless.com/]

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