We look to the year 2035: What is the state of the European Union? Will the EU be strengthened as an independent actor capable of taking action? Will the states and societies continue to grow together or will nationalist centrifugal forces be stronger? What about economic innovation? Is there a common foreign policy strategy? 

We don't have an answer to any of these questions; after all, it is impossible to predict the future. With the scenario method, however, we can approach possible alternative developments, evaluate them and derive recommendations for strategic decisions - whether in politics, in civil society or in business. What is appealing about the method is the mixture of analysis and creativity: scenarios offer a framework for structured thinking about and planning for the future, without falling into the trap of remaining too caught up in the present. 

After all, we don't want to end up like the British Times, which, faced with vast amounts of horse manure on London's streets during the so-called "Great Horse Manure Crisis" of 1894, predicted that in 50 years the streets would be buried under 9 feet of manure. Or Thomas Watson, the head of IBM, who in 1943 expected a world market for "maybe 5 computers". Or the author of these lines, who predicted in 1995 that “email will not catch on”. What do these predictions have in common? They simply write the current development further into the future without considering that key assumptions may change. 

At planpolitik we have applied the scenario method to very different topics: At workshops on the future of the EU, on the European neighbourhood, on the relationship between the EU and Russia, on the role of civil society in Belarus, on migration and integration in Germany, on global system competition (see picture), as well as in-house on the future of our digital offerings during the pandemic. 

But how do we go about our scenario workshops? Our strength lies in the precise development of the right project design with a view to the target group and objectives. In this respect, the steps described below are a blueprint that is always adapted to the specific application. And, as always, we combine this with open, flexible facilitation that is oriented towards the needs of the participants. But one after the other, recommended to follow and try out...

Determining the driving forces

  1. What you need: Not much. Whether, and which type of scenario planning is suitable for a particular question depends mainly on the question. There are no limits to the use of the method as such, as it can be adapted very flexibly to the circumstances and the target group. At planpolitik we have used the method both in seminars lasting several days with dozens of participants and in smaller settings - for example as an impulse for a reflection group - and always with great success.
  2. Question and time frame: If both are too broad ("What is the future of the Western world in 2050?"), the scenarios are too arbitrary, the influencing factors hardly determinable. A clearly defined question is better: "What will the transatlantic relationship look like in 10 years?"; "What will my company's market position be in 5 years?", "What is the future of digital education in schools in Germany in 15 years?"). The time frame is also important: if it is too narrow, there is no scope for alternative developments; if it is too broad, the relevance for the here and now suffers. For political and social issues, 10-20 years into the future can work well; for strategic decisions in the organisation, 2-5 years might be more useful. 
  3. Influencing factors: Determining the so-called driving forces is often the most exciting part of scenario development for us. Especially in groups with diverse perspectives, competences and knowledge, exciting discussions arise about which influencing factors are particularly important for the respective question. First, it is important to gather as much and as broadly as possible. To broaden the view, we often use the so-called STEEP model: social, technological, environmental, economic, and political. We collect all conceivable influencing factors for these categories and only prioritise them afterwards. 
  4. Critical uncertainties: The so-called critical uncertainties are the factors that the group considers to be particularly powerful and at the same time particularly uncertain. Why? Influencing factors with little impact are not relevant; factors that are easily predictable are in turn less productive for generating alternative images of the future. This decision is usually wrestled with intensively and there is much discussion; after all, this is the basis for the upcoming scenario work. 
  5. Scenarios: The combination of the four possible manifestations of the two selected influencing factors then results in the four scenarios. And then, take a breath - and let's go! While the analytical had the upper hand before, now more creativity comes into play. The scenarios are worked out in small groups, usually with so-called backtracking: first the picture of the future is sketched according to the assumptions of this scenario, and then it is described how it could come about and by which events and trends we will recognise that this scenario occurs. A fireworks display of events, developments, (missed) opportunities, winners and losers is sketched out in a logical sequence. 
  6. Interpretation: After the mutual presentation of the scenarios, the results must be interpreted. What do the scenarios mean for politics, for the working context of the participants, for my organisation, etc.? After all, it is important to be prepared not only for one possible scenario, but for all scenarios that seem conceivable and plausible in principle. This includes developing recommendations on how to deal with the uncertainties presented and what course needs to be set today.
  7. Consolidation: To make the scenarios usable for further strategic work in one's own organisation/company, it also makes sense to identify the indicators that will show in the future which of the scenarios will actually come true. In this way, the scenarios can be integrated into further strategic work and fully develop their potential as an important supplement for monitoring and evaluating current events.

Developing the scenarios

So what is the future of the EU? We still don't know, but at least we now know better which developments we need to pay special attention to and what the future depends on. Besides the obvious, such as election results on the other side of the Atlantic or in certain European member states, there was a lot of talk in the workshop about economic factors, innovation capacity, research cooperation, but also about migration movements, social developments in the member states and the role of the EU as a mediator in global conflicts.

Were we able to inspire you a little bit for the method? Why don't you give it a try? And feel free to write to us about your experiences or questions. Perhaps this will lead to a second workshop report.

Of course, you are welcome to ask us for competent preparation, support and facilitation of your scenario process - the easiest way is via anfragen@planpolitik.de 

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