Futures Studies, Scenarios, and the "Possibility-Space" Approach

 

Download PDF | By Riel Miller | Published in Think Scenarios, Rethink Education, 2006

 

Riel Miller uses a critical methodological perspective to explain what scenarios are, including their drawbacks and how to make the most of them as tools for strategic thinking. He first describes strengths and weaknesses of several predictive approaches, they get trapped in the quest for accuracy and known data, and introduces an alternative: the "possibility-space" approach for constructing scenarios that evoke a wide set of possible futures.

 

He presents futures studies as an emerging discipline, and draws parallels with history as a discipline based on five common denominators for looking at the past and the future, while emphasising that futures studies is still young and evolving rapidly. He links the increasing attention to futures studies to growing complexity, diversity, and freedom in rapidly changing societies, and the uncertainty that goes with continuous change, all of which combine to propel the questioning of the plausible.

 

In the search for answers about how to project daily life in the future, he warns against adherence to predictive approaches that lock participants into pre-set scenarios and make it hard to think beyond what is already known. For example, forecasting methods that extrapolate the past into the future can be useful in the short-term to outline causal factors for interacting variables, but it excludes unknowns. Likewise, he draws attention to "trend-based" and "preference-based" scenarios which sometimes also may constrain "out-of-the-box" thinking. His central theme is that overemphasis on the likely can obscure possibilities that may be more desirable.

 

Miller presents his "possibility space" as an alternative to predictive approaches. While it may be combined with trends- or preference-based methods, the focus is on generating a large set of possible futures for scenario development. It builds the possibility space in three steps:

Determining or defining the key attribute of the scenario's subject;

  • Sketching a space - perhaps multi-dimensional - using primary attributes of change affecting the scenario subject;
  • Identifying distinct scenarios within the defined possibility space.

Miller uses the example of electricity use to demonstrate these steps, showing how the method helps identify the variables that matter, to develop "what if" questions, and to assess the various possibilities according to probability and desirability by placing them on curves.

 

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