The goal in using scenarios is to reveal the dynamics of change and use these insights to reach sustainable solutions to the challenges at hand. Scenarios help stakeholders break through communication barriers and see how current and alternative development paths might affect the future. The ability to illuminate issues and break impasses makes them extremely effective in opening new horizons, strengthening leadership, and enabling strategic decisions.
Translating desirable futures into concrete action step by step
Scenarios are called 'snapshots' because they portray possible futures without explaining how they might come to be. These questions can be explored by "back-casting," working backward in time from the scenario to the present, imagining what would have to happen at each stage to bring it about. This approach typically begins with several related scenarios, considers what steps might lead to each, and thus identifies policies for implementation now. Most importantly, scenarios improve our understanding of the mechanisms underlying change, and thus strengthens strategic planning. The scenario is a powerful analytic tool for policymaking, a disciplined approach to the speculation and intuition that inevitably influence long-term policy decisions.
But the best-laid plans can go wrong
It is tempting to focus on the outcomes considered best or most likely, but the best-laid plans can go wrong. It is therefore better to examine a broad range of possibilities and the forces driving them, to understand the dynamics of change so as to identify initiatives that may do well under a range of different circumstances.
A powerful tool to give all a say
Scenarios are particularly useful in education, because of its heterogeneous stakeholders: policymakers, administrators, union representatives, teachers, parents, students. Participatory scenario development has proven successful in bringing all of these stakeholders together. First, scenarios can facilitate discussions among policymakers and administrators. Jointly creating scenarios enables participants to focus their thinking, find a shared vision, and better understand the mechanisms underlying change. Second, scenarios can encourage public exchanges of ideas among as many stakeholders as possible. They can be used in focus groups, conferences and workshops to bring together teachers, students and other stakeholders. Third, scenario development is widely used to acquire and organise ideas on the long-term effects of possible policy decisions, typically through interviews with key personnel. This can facilitate evaluation of the trade-offs that would result from different decisions.
They do not provide the right answer alone
The diversity in scenario approaches provides flexibility to fit different tasks. Most importantly, the process requires a genuine interest in considering the future and willingness to confront flawed assumptions about it. Beyond the necessary focus on tools, scenario teams should aim to create a 'culture of curiosity' with inquiry and imagination about the future at the forefront, tempered with respect for serious analytic thought and the important issues at hand. This kind of curiosity-driven research, free of vested interests and unnecessary organisational impediments, is likely to do more for free-thinking scenario development than any scenario tool. Thus, while scenarios are useful to provide a framework for strategic development, the process should include an emphasis on productive and well-directed working practices.