[Note: this is a quick and early draft of a longer treatment that will be published later]
Theory-Driven Scenario Development
A recent client workshop had us engaging a number of in-house researchers on the basics of futures studies and our approaches to developing foresight. The workshop itself was a very quick scenario workshop, in which we employed the classic 2×2 axes of uncertainty approach for generating scenarios. Not having very much time with a client that was largely new to foresight work, this was a good choice, but such a choice always provokes a desire in me to point out to the participant group that there are many ways to develop scenarios and many different intended uses for their output.
Thus it was that, while sitting crammed into tiny seats for several hours on the flights home, my thoughts turned once again to how to articulate for others the specific framework and process I have developed for scenarios for VFS (when time and resources allow). My esteemed colleague, Dr. Wendy Schultz, and I very briefly outlined this approach a year ago in an article on some client scenarios we produced, but it feels like it’s time to start developing a fuller treatment. So below, in its much-abbreviated glory, is my own approach, which I have tended to think of as a “TOCS-driven” scenario process.
Rationale and Origins
To begin, the origins of my TOCS-driven approach lay in being a futures student under Professor Jim Dator, the individual who founded the futures studies program at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and a genuine first generation futurist. One of Dator’s key points, about which he had been very pointed but something that others seem to forget was in fact central to his teachings, is that all futures work should be based on a theory of change and stability (TOCS). If you’re not using that as the intellectual foundation for your work, then from a foresight point of view, you’re just making s*%t up. And so, I have spent many, many years dwelling on that need for intellectual grounding.
A second bit of inspiration came several years later, though still many years ago at this point, when the RAND corporation came out with a report on long-term policy analysis. In it, the authors talked about what at the time was recent work RAND was doing on using computers to run models and in essence produce scenarios. The authors talked about the value of looking at more than one model and having the computers run multiple models umpteen times to produce a wide and varied spread of scenarios. This set of scenarios would thus not only play with variations in the value of variables in a model (classic simulation) but would also account for different sets of assumptions about what were important variables and how they were related.
Even at that time, I didn’t have the computing power and skills that the RAND researchers had, but I realized that while you might not be able to build computer models and run thousands of scenarios, you could perform an analog which would be to start with competing models about how the world works. This idea, that you would start a scenario process with explicit and competing (or merely alternative) models of the world of course meshed perfectly with Dator’s lesson that futures work needs to be ground in TOCS. The result: TOCS-driven scenario development.
The Building Blocks
While the initial idea was simply to use multiple TOCS to frame scenarios, over the years this TOCS-driven scenario development has evolved into a framework that is built around a formula that includes theory, historical data, signals of emerging change, and creativity. That formula – Lum’s formula for futures 😉 – looks like this:
TOCS + TEI + Ins + Int = futuresalt
Let’s briefly break this down:
TOCS (theories of change and stability): TOCS are at the heart of this approach, and they can be defined as theories or models that suggest the important causal relationships and processes involved in change, frequently identifying the patterns that change takes. Each scenario to be developed is based on an explicit TOCS.
TEI (trends and Emerging Issues): this includes historical changes over time (trends) and emerging new technologies, policy issues, and concepts (emerging issues) that are not yet mature but which may survive to become important shapers of the future. TEI have been the workhorse building blocks of futures work for decades, and they are used here as well.
Ins (inspiration): this includes both inspiration from historical events and precedents (e.g. how did the government in the past mobilize the nation in the face of existential crises) as well as other minor (and often smaller scale) models of change used to pattern movement and shifts in the scenarios.
Int (Intuition): intuition nods to the need for us to tap into the black box of human intuition and creativity when it comes to both thinking about the future and developing compelling stories about it. Despite the intellectual rigor with which TOCS-driven scenario development tries to approach scenario forecasting, there remains always a critical need for intuitive and even artistic creativity when doing any sort of futures work.
VFS has used the TOCS-driven approach on scenario projects where we were commissioned by the client to produce all of the content as well as projects that facilitated the client team in developing their own scenarios. As a framework it works well in either case, but its successful deployment in a participatory process with a client requires a great deal more structure for exercises and a fair amount of process forethought.
In terms of process, a typical TOCS-driven scenario project will generally proceed along the following lines:
- Define the focal issue
- Define the time horizon for the scenarios
- Determine the number of scenarios to be created and assemble the requisite number of TOCS (on occasion this works somewhat in reverse: starting with a number of compelling TOCS and then producing that number of scenarios)
- Conduct horizon scanning to inventory TEI relevant to the focal issue
- Select and assign the major TOCS to the scenario teams
- Teams identify TEI from the inventory that are relevant given their specific TOCS
- Teams begin to incorporate various bits of Inspiration, both to jump start their discussions and to continually spice up as well as structure their work
- Teams sprinkle Intuition (sometimes liberally) throughout their scenario development work
- Rough drafts of the scenarios are completed
This is, of course, just a generic outline; the actual process used will typically vary to some degree from client to client. Also, some of the steps in the generic outline are either simultaneous or iterative (such as the incorporation of Inspiration and Intuition). And some of the success of the approach does depend on how thoroughly you have thought through how to guide participants through the “meaty” parts of the scenario development conversations. Academically trained futurists (should) find the use of all the components of the TOCS-driven formula easy if not downright intuitive, yet many don’t employ quite so rigorous an approach to developing – and certainly not forecasting – scenarios.
In terms of output, the results of a TOCS-driven approach are very much like the output of other scenario development approaches. In VFS’s case, because of our particular strengths and preferences, the scenarios tend to be text-based with major visual components to provide context and to aid in comprehension and recall. We have successfully used the TOCS-driven approach in areas as varied as ecosystem services, education, governance, and conflict & security.
As a professional, my bias is toward having our clients focus on the whys and hows of change rather than fixate on specific possible outcomes. For me, the issue of change is at the heart of futures work and it is there that I want our clients to gain substantial insight and sensitivity. And while I don’t want clients fixating on the details of the scenarios themselves, I most certainly value having scenarios that emerge from more rigorous and grounded thinking, which should increase our confidence that the scenarios that we produce with and for clients are good forecasts, which are ultimately statements about the future intended to be logical rather than clairvoyant or simply provocative. Thus, for me a TOCS-driven approach to scenario development is a perfect answer to the need to ground our futures work in theory and to help clients get better at understanding and anticipating change.
“Tick TOCS, Tick TOCS: Channeling change through theory into scenarios.” Wendy Schultz and Richard Lum. APF Compass, Education Special Edition. Association of Professional Futures, 2014.