Constructing a foresight scenario’s narrative with Ego Networks

In many foresight methods, once you have identified the main factors or variables and reach the moment to develop the narrative for the scenarios, you are left with no guidance regarding the way to accomplish this step, beyond something along the line of “flesh out the scenario and develop the story.”*

Here, we shall do otherwise and provide a straightforward and easy method to write the scenario. We shall use the dynamic network we constructed for Everstate – or for another issue – and the feature called “Ego Network” that is available in social network analysis and visualisation software to guide the development and writing of the narrative.

Ego network

An ego network is, basically, the network that surrounds or is centered upon a single variable or node, called, in this case, an “ego.” This network will be the backbone of our narrative.

The depth of an ego network is the length of the path between the selected ego and a linked node or variable. An ego network of depth 1 will thus display all variables or nodes that are linked to the selected ego by only one edge (link, arrow), either incoming or outgoing. If we take the example of the network centred on the ego “country’s geopolitical position s3” (reminder: s3 means step 3 in our dynamic mapping), which is the first variable we shall use to set the stage for Everstate, then we obtain the graph above.

An ego network of depth 2 would show all variables linked to the ego with a path between each variable and our ego equal to a maximum of 2 edges (for an ego network centered around variable A, examples of paths of length 2, or 2 edges are A->B->C and D->F->A). Always using the same example, we would have a much larger graph for an ego network of depth two, as shown on the left hand side.

Save for rare exceptions, we shall use ego networks of depth 1. The analyst can try different depths for her/his ego network and choose the depth that allows her/him to tell the clearer story.

Working with Ego Network in Gephi

Once the overall graph is constructed, it is extremely easy to obtain any ego network with Gephi.

In “Overview,” as shown on the screenshot below, select “filters” on the right hand side, and choose “Ego Network” in the section “Topology.” Then drag with the mouse “Ego Network” in the bottom right hand window “Queries.” In the “Node ID,” enter either the name of the variable you want to use or its ID, here 34. Then press OK and filter. The ego network redraws itself automatically in the “Graph” window. You can then apply any layout (bottom left hand window).

The complete network is accessed by clicking again on filter. One can then change ego or variable, or proceed with other tasks.

It is best to re-run the usual layout between filtering for two different ego networks to be able to benefit from the best possible visualisation for each ego network.

Using Ego Network to write the narrative

With one ego network

To start telling the narrative for a scenario, then one needs obviously to begin with a variable to which a value will have been attributed.

Continuing with the same example, we have set as variable “country’s geopolitical position s3” the value “medium range power,” as explained with the previous posts (Revisiting influence analysis and Variables, values and consistency in dynamic networks). This variable will be chosen as ego for the Ego Network (depth 1).

Then one uses one after the other linked variables to tell the story, each time attributing a value to that variable. Cross-consistency will need to be checked mentally and the analyst will have, of course, to remember the values s/he attributed to make sure the overall story is consistent and logical.

Here the first variables affecting our ego are “country geopolitical position s2,” “geographical location” “ecological setting” “new external military threats s3.” Thus, the corresponding narrative, as shall be fully seen in the post “Setting the Stage,” runs as follows (variables are inserted between brackets for the sake of explanation):

“As a medium state power [country’s geopolitical position s3] located on the Eurasian land mass [geographical location], Everstate had not seen its geopolitical position fundamentally altered since the end of the Cold War, and even since the end of World War II [country geopolitical position s2]. However, recently, some tensions had begun building up and Everstate had to start contending with them as they could easily transform in very concrete new external military threats [new external military threats s3].

What had contributed to maintain its geopolitical position were different factors. If the impact that its ecological setting could have had on its geopolitical position was remote and long forgotten, it nevertheless played a part [ecological setting]. Similarly, its continental climate, soften for the southeastern part by the influence coming from the sea was not seen as a factor influencing geopolitics anymore [geographical location, ecological setting]. The harshness of the snowy and mountainous North had long been seen as a bounty for tourism [geographical location, ecological setting]. The large river crossing the country from Northwest to Southeast was seen from the perspective of industry, trade and tourism and no longer as a possible way in for invaders [geographical location, ecological setting]. Finally, it had been centuries since the rich agricultural eastern plain had not attracted invaders or greedy neighbours looking for rich lands [geographical location, ecological setting].”

We can now move to the next group of influencing variables :

“Everstate’s army was performing, considering military techniques, expertise and previous experience, even if its size had been reduced [army’s size and performance s3].” Etc.

One then describes all the values for each variable, paying attention to the types of links, either cause or impact.

Moving from one ego network to another

When one sets the stage for the ideal-type (here Everstate), then one moves from one criteria initially selected to another, using each of them as ego, while the related network is used to develop the narrative. There is thus no difficulty regarding the choice of the next ego network.

Once this task accomplished, then one starts a new phase of the scenario building, really telling the story.

The variable that must be chosen to begin narrating the story depends upon the understanding the analyst has of the overall dynamics for the issue at hand. In our case, I chose, as shall be seen in a later post, the variable “pop level of satisfaction (sec) s3”  (the level of satisfaction regarding security as felt by the population – step 3) because it is crucial for understanding the overall dynamics of a polity. However, another analyst could have chosen to start with another variable. As no variable has been removed from the graph, all variables will be used anyway.

The variable is then used as ego, as explained previously. One starts with the influencing or causing variables. For each causing or influencing variable, to obtain details on this variable and thus better develop the narrative and explain the dynamics, the analyst will be able to use it as ego network. This will allow her to better flesh out the story.

Once causing variables have been detailed and a coherent story developed, then the analyst must move to the impacts or consequences. Each impact will be used as new ego, and a new paragraph or part written using the network of this ego.

The process is repeated until completion of the scenario.

Exception: groups or clusters of variables

For some variables that appear as tight groups or clusters, it makes more sense to develop a narrative including both influencing and influenced variables. In those case, then one shall tell the story for the whole group in one or two paragraphs. The task of detecting those groups of variables is eased by the use of network visualisation tools as those groups are literally shown by the lay-out (here Force Atlas).

Ultimately, it will be up to the analyst to decide how to tell the story according to which outline and how to handle the variables for the best possible result.

As we progress with the Chronicles of Everstate, the reader will become familiar with the method. To help the reader, the first post dealing with Everstate’s future, “The Chronicles of Everstate (2011 EVT – 2012 EVT): Discontent” (to be published on January 15), will also serve as example. It will recall briefly the methodology and the words corresponding to an influencing or influenced variable or node for the main narrative will be in bold.

Ego networks, an analyst’s weapon

Using ego network to develop the narrative is not only a support but it also helps ensuring that neither influencing factors nor impacts are forgotten. It allows fighting against many biases and gives a structured framework and outline to the analysis, thus assisting the analyst.

It will facilitate verification, revision and discussions among various analysts.

Furthermore, assuming the model has been developed scientifically, it can be used as proof or evidence of the validity of the scenario, which is crucial to obtain the trust of policy-makers and decision-makers, or more largely of all potential users of the strategic foresight scenarios.

* For example: Andrew Curry & Wendy Schultz, “Roads Less Travelled: Different Methods, Different Futures,” Journal of Futures Studies, May 2009, 13(4): 35 – 60; Jerome C. Glenn and The Futures Group International, “Scenarios,” The Millennium Project: Futures Research Methodology, Version 3.0, Ed. Jerome C. Glenn and Theodore J. 2009, Ch 19; Tom Ritchey, “Morphological analysis,” The Millennium Project: Futures Research Methodology, Version 3.0, Ed. Jerome C. Glenn and Theodore J. 2009, Ch 17.