This post is the third of a series looking for a methodology that would fulfill the challenging criteria demanded by our time. We shall now focus on scenarios, which are a way to simulate how the actors we defined and described during the previous step interact, not only among themselves but also with their environment, up until the end of the chosen timeframe. Using the precedent post’s game of chess analogy, with scenarios we imagine the various ways the game may “end”.
This step is all the more important that the scenarios will be part and parcel of our strategy to deliver strategic foresight and warning products to decision-makers and policy-makers. Scenarios or more precisely fictionalized narratives, as we saw, use the very biases of customers to help them pay heed to warning and foresight, and thus are one trump card for foresight and warning officers.
Considering the current tendency to prefer dealing with crises once they have been triggered and are obvious rather than to try preventing them, after having discussed the chosen approach to scenarios, we shall look (with the next post) at the building of scenarios in the case of existing wars. We shall then move one step back and focus on scenarios in the case of tensions (both domestic and international).
Similar methodologies, different mindsets
Many ways to devise scenarios exist and they are usually variations around the same core methodology, as explained previously, and as described in their chapter “Scenarios” by Jerome C. Glenn and The Futures Group International, or by Stephen M. Millett, in his excellent article “Should Probabilities Be Used with Scenarios?” (Millett furthermore gives us insight in the world of futurists and explain whom supports this or that approach and why), or as summarized on For-Learn, among others. Yet, even if the step by step way to process to build scenarios is grounded in a core method, some fundamental differences in terms of mindset and way to understand what scenarios should be also exist, which in turn may lead to different results as very well exemplified in the case of Syria (see the list at the bottom of the post for examples of diverse scenarios created by various actors and institutions).
Exploratory scenarios before normative ones
Here, we shall focus on exploratory scenarios, i.e. scenarios that capture how the situation may evolve, and together define what Rutz, McEldowney and Taylor (see Taylor, 1993: chapter 1 & fn 7) aptly conceptualized in 1986 as the cone of plausibility. It should always be done before to start envisioning normative scenarios, i.e. scenarios that imagine how we would like the situation to evolve.
Jumping ahead and creating normative scenarios before having explored the cone of plausibility may only tend to reinforce biases, and to promote visions, strategies and policies detached from reality.
The assumption behind such practice is that one benefits from incredible power and might, that by wanting something and implementing the corresponding policies one shall get what one wants. It is hubris. It is as dangerous as an opposite behaviour that would be to believe that nothing can be done and that events must be suffered powerlessly. A wise and fruitful attitude lies in a balance between those extreme, however without ever forgetting that the power to be deployed to favour the happenstance of one scenario over the other is inversely proportional to the certainty of the future scenario. In other words, the more likely a scenario the more powerful one need to be to stop it or change it or see another scenario realized.
Exploratory scenarios are an ideal tool to use before designing and choosing strategy and policies.
Scenarios and probabilities
We shall also consider that, with Millett (ibid), yes probabilities should (ideally) be used with scenarios, i.e. that the plausibility of one scenario can and should be evaluated. Highly unlikely scenarios can be imagined, especially if they are a logical part of a set of scenarios, as they may serve many purposes, such as struggling against biases, emphasizing critical decision points, or underlining the wishful thinking character of some discourses or policies, but their improbability should not be hidden. Using probabilities with scenarios, then monitoring various indicators obtained from the whole scenario-analysis process, and finally deducing from the indications collected the change in likelihood for one scenario or another is a very powerful tool for policy-making and decision-making that we should not abandon lightly.
For example, in the Syrian war case, among our scenarios, we had a highly unlikely scenario in the chosen timeframe. This scenario was subdivided into six sub-scenarios, each describing the complete victory over the whole current Syrian territory of one of the warring side. First, the likelihood of those scenarios could very well change if the time framework changed, and one or the other could become likely. Second, despite being unlikely in the given timeframe, those sub-scenarios give interesting insights into the aims of each group and what they would entail should they realize. Thus these sub-scenarios may help devising policies.
The scenario focused on the Muslim Brotherhood was particularly interesting because it pointed out the thin differences existing between their “future Syria” and the nationalist Jihadis’ one, despite rhetoric. Among others, it was a tool to comprehend the June and July 2013 events in Egypt, and to foresee what would happen in Syria as a result of those events.
This example shows also that, however unlikely the sub-scenarios were at the time of writing, the likelihood of each of them has evolved over the last six months: a Muslim Brotherhood Syria is even less likely; on the contrary, an Islamic Al-Sham has become more likely, an Islamic Al-Sham has become more likely, even if it is still very far from being highly probable. Yet, the scenario has become more or less true for parts of Syria (see for example Al-Qaeda’s Governance Strategy in Raqqa by Chris Looney for Syria Comment, 8 December 2013, as well as the warning signs sent by the National Coalition (NC) and the Supreme Military Command (SMC), e.g. General Idriss 3 December 2013 remarks “Ousting Assad may be only the beginning“). Meanwhile this changed likelihood also impacts the likelihood of other scenarios, here scenario 1 or Peace in Geneva: had the scenario of an Islamic Al Sham not become more likely (besides the creation of the Islamic Front), would have General Idriss (and thus the fighting forces on the ground) accepted Geneva (see 26 November 2013 “Free Syrian Army chief says forces will not join peace summit“, IrishTimes/reuters)? And without them would Geneva 2 had a real meaning?
Considering probabilities for scenarios is crucial, because it forces us to see a set of scenarios as an organic living whole. It is especially so if we think of strategic foresight and warning as a single process, which is necessary for devising and implementing successful strategies and steering nimble policies. It is all the more so precious in periods characterized by transition thus fluidity and volatility.
Readers familiar with scenarios will have noted that we do not emphasize from the start the number of scenarios that should be produced. The reason for this, as will become clear with the next post, is that this number cannot be decided independently from the issue at hand, if we also consider, as all methodologies recommend, that scenarios should cover the broad spectrum of plausible futures. We may well, in the process of the scenario analysis, decide that we should only create 3 to 5 scenarios (most methodologies) or 8 to 12 (morphological analysis), and thus fall back upon usual recommendations, but this will proceed from analysis, not from an imposed external doctrine.
Now that the approach to and mindset for the building of our scenarios are clear, we shall move to the practical part, how to do it, with the next post.
Examples of Scenarios on the future of Syria
Ted Galen Carpenter, “Four Syrian Scenarios“, (no timeframe specified), The National Interest, 7 August 2012.
CGA Scenarios, “SYRIA 2018“, (workshop and research) New York University’s Center for Global Affairs (CGA), August 2013.
Philipp Holtmann, “Syria – a Best Case, a Worst Case and two Most Likely Scenarios“. Perspectives on Terrorism, North America, 7, jun. 2013. Date accessed: 19 Dec. 2013.
Jonathan Githens-Mazer et al., “SYRIA: ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVES AND IMPLICATIONS FOR UK” (Scenarios to 2017, report of workshop), University of Exeter, Strategy and Security Institute, November 2012.
Floor Janssen et al., “Syria in 2013, Persistent Turmoil?“, (report of workshop), Clingendael Institute, August 2012.
Brian Michael Jenkins, “Syrian Scenarios“, (no timeframe specified), The Rand Blog, Rand Corporation, 8 August 2012, see also Charles Blair, “A ruinous road to Damascus: Can the US avoid it?“, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 27 September 2013.
Glenn, Jerome C. 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.
Taylor, Charles, Alternative world scenarios for a new order of nations, US Army War College, 1993.
Credit header image: A chess game between Prime Minister Menahem Begin and U.S. National security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in Camp David during the peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt. By Government Press Office (GPO) http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05 CC-BY-SA-3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons