People or organizations can focus their effort on a narrow goal, or they can diversify the uses of resources to explore and innovate. It is hard to do both at the same time. This pattern arises in politics as well as in corporations, agencies or academic institutions. When politics of democracies begin to lock into a stationary state, party positions are caricatures, messages are simplistic, campaigns are tightly scripted, media events are rigidly coordinated, and big donors demand loyal candidates. These conditions do not encourage broad, creative, inventive discussions of the most important problems of the day. Such a political environment seems hopelessly incapable of addressing the multiple shocks of the present – the credit crisis, sharply rising prices of energy and food, shortage of arable land, declining capacity of ecosystems to produce the goods that people need, and the complex challenges of climate change, among others. These shocks are unprecedented, so the solutions are novel – the kinds of solutions that cannot emerge from gridlock politics.
Nonetheless, people need answers to complex questions. In a recent global survey, respondents were asked to identify the questions that were most important to them. Questions were then ranked in order of the number of respondents who identified them as important. All of the top-ranking questions were deeply complex. What does sustainability look like? How must humans adapt to survive the changes of this century? What economic structures best support a shift to sustainability? How can we re-invent politics so people feel that they have a voice? What kind of leadership does the world need now?
Complex questions can be addressed by scenarios – sets of stories about the future, derived from collaborative processes and models, designed to integrate diverse perspectives. The scenarios of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are a recent example.
Scenarios are a way of building resilience – the capacity to maintain useful features of nature and society, while inventing and implementing transformations to new ways of living. In a recent talk at Resilience 2008 I discussed some of the connections between scenarios and resilience. To break out of traps, people need positive stories of what the future could be, and blunt warnings of dangerous paths. Scenarios provide such motivating visions. Moreover, the process of scenario-building itself may create connections that enable transformation. Scenario projects form networks of people in settings that promote playful, inventive thinking at the margin of formal politics. The scenarios, the insights, the people, or the networks themselves are capable of infiltrating wider thinking, and thereby contributing to change when the conditions are right.
What could expand the use of scenarios to build resilience? We need more people trained in relevant skills such as collaboration, rapid prototyping, flexible fast modeling, synthesis, and use of art, music, science and stories together. Courses exist and a sizeable literature is available. Yet the best way to learn scenarios is by doing. Why not try scenario thinking the next time you face a complex problem with long-term consequences?