In my previous post I set out some simple techniques to help explore the future. Here I give a worked example. Most of the space I have devoted to one scenario, since that probably is the more interesting part for readers.
Scenarios don’t predict what will happen. They are a method to help you explore different possible, or plausible, futures – to anticipate non-obvious changes and plan for a range of possibilities. They can also be used to identify a preferred future, and what can be done to achieve it.
I’ve included at the end visuals that use some other methods I described in the last post. These are what help you identify important influences and ideas to include in scenarios. The scenario is more art than science, so not much of what shows up in the perceiving and prospecting steps may clearly show up in the scenarios.
The framing I used isn’t “What does a post-pandemic New Zealand look like?” The pandemic is a signal of broader systemic challenges, so expect more crises (& not just from emerging diseases) that may, or may not, prompt more fundamental change.
The question I used was “How could New Zealand respond to a series of global systemic failures over the next 20 years?”
The other framing that I used is in the types of scenarios. Due to time and space there is only one here. Options can include “best case”, “worst case”, “preferred case.” These are often too limiting because reality gets in the way. When exploring plausible futures I gravitate towards using the Manoa four futures archetypes: growth (or present trends continue); collapse; discipline or constraint; and transformation. This lets you examine a range of assumptions, and if done well help prepare you for a range of possibilities. I’ve combined these with Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal Layered Analysis, which I briefly covered in the previous blog post.
I’m describing a “constraint” scenario here, because that can often provide more interesting and plausible futures. The other three scenarios are only briefly outlined. All of these I regard as first drafts, requiring further work. They suffer from being done as a solitary exercise.
Here’s how I set up the scenarios, as well as the current state.
Here’s the first attempt at a “constraint” scenario.
The pohutukawa and the pine
Most political imagery is trite and self-serving. But sometimes one captures the moment, galvanizes not just a party but the populace, and even endures. So it was with the then opposition leader Jo Smith’s 2029 “Pohutukawa speech.”
As all great speeches do, it drew on ideas and changes already underway, but packaged them into a clearer narrative with an appealing vision. Aotearoa had suffered “twenty years of pain” from 2008 to 2030 – a global financial crisis, earthquakes, and the “lost decade” (Covid-19, the 2023 global internet crash, the foot & mouth scare of 2024, and the associated deep recession), along with increasingly common wildfires, droughts, floods, and unseasonal storms. International institutions and agreements seemed to be failing.
“Cascading failures” she called them. “The starting domino may be different, but the consequences are familiar. Something has to change, and it has to be us. We can’t change the world, so we have to start with changing ourselves.” We’d heard variations of that before, but this time there was impetus.
That led to her comparison between a pine tree and pohutukawa. The pine, she noted, does well in plantations but its focus is on growing one trunk quickly. Its roots don’t support a long life. Their needles and deep forest shade don’t nurture other life. That’s what we have become. Aotearoa, she said, needs to become more like the pohutukawa, Roots that are strong and deep to anchor us, with many branches to weather storms. Tenacity. Leaves that allow us to thrive even when the climate is harsh. And bright blossoms that keep bringing joy and hope. We will not see those blossoms next year, or the year after, but they will come.”
Rutherford said that “we haven’t got the money, so we’ll have to think”. Smith added that we have something of more value than money, our people. And laid out her party’s plan to make Aotearoa not just resilient (able to bounce back after adversity), but thrivable. “The pohutukawa doesn’t just survive in harsh conditions, it can thrive. We see that every summer. And we see the other plants and animals that it helps thrive around it.”
Openly borrowing and adapting from other small (and not so small) countries, the Smith and subsequent governments changed (with difficulty) the education system. It fostered broader experiential learning and inquiry to create more adaptable students and workers. The familiar pattern we see today of offering some of the most promising graduates rotating positions in both the public service and private sector started soon after that. Another step in building their experience and adaptability. The screening and training improved quickly so the number of professional “crash and burns” fell off quickly. Many of those first graduates are now senior in some of the biggest multinational companies, international organisations, or leading key government projects.
The “Big OC” initiative (“overseas connections”) was established as part of the small nations’ alliance as the recession receded. An extension of the domestic placement scheme but reciprocated by alliance members. This isn’t just about experience, but building longer term connections with firms and people, who we may be able to draw on later, and vice versa. Another one of those roots. Post-docs for non-docs I call them.
Continued enhancement of the vocational training scheme, to more strongly link tertiary training (including an emphasis on learning to learn) and varied work experience, is demonstrating its success across the regions. Particularly as more of the Digi-Industrial Yards mature and illustrate the viability of their flexible production and repurposing activities.
The most difficult in the early stages was strengthening the political roots. We are small, but we can still influence. The long game is still being played in getting our extraordinarily capable diplomats onto key international organisations. Many nations do that of course, but one of our recognised advantages is the experienced negotiation and arbitration skills kiwis have; developed initially through decades of Treaty settlement processes, and then in the US – China trade war.
Perhaps the most contentious issue (for politicians at least) is what everyone now calls “Political Primary.” Recognising that both the national and local political scenes would benefit from not just better diversity (in many forms) but also competence, a political vocational training scheme was set up, belatedly many thought, in the late ‘30’s.
Political aspirants, especially those with high ambitions, are strongly encouraged to “enrol” so that they are better prepared for dealing with complexities and compromises. Everyone wanting to stand for a council seat has to at least pass the standardised “Political Governance & Strategy 101” short course. I’d say the results are mixed, and some councils seem to be getting too technocratic.
A recent unanticipated, and very popular, consequence of “Political Primary” has been the spoof game show “Political asylum.” Featuring convincing characters (some very loosely veiled avatars of real politicos) and possibly a few real aspiring politicians, it throws in some anonymous actors to liven things up. The issues they have to deal with can be educational, as well as entertaining. Particularly the national crisis immersive reality exercises (just like the real training. But the fun of course is in predicting how well or badly “participants” handle them, and the cast of politicians, public servants and lobbyists they interact with. Naturally we all want to see who reveals their naked ambition first.
Are we thriving? Perhaps not yet economically. But we are doing well, and the confidence and tenacity seems well rooted now.
How does this scenario stack up against the five criteria I described in the previous post? It touches on them to various degrees. I think the logic, nuance and stimulating criteria are the weakest – further work definitely required. The scenario is also descriptive, rather than narrative. It tells, rather than shows, so doesn’t do so well on the evocative and provocative criteria either. And where’s the economic, technological and environmental aspects? Still scenarios like this can help stimulate further discussions.
The idea for a “thrivable” theme came from a blog post by John Hagel.
Triangle and wheel diagrams
Here’s illustrations of how I used the Futures Triangle and the Futures Wheel to help inform the scenario.
Futures wheel looking at implications of educational changes.
Featured photo by Ed232 via Wikimedia Commons.