Futures Thinking: Mapping the Possibilities (Part 2)

Expected. Better. Worse. Weirder. What kind of world will we live in?



In Futures Thinking: The Basics, I offered up an overview of how to engage in a foresight exercise. In Futures Thinking: Asking the Question, I explored in more detail the process of setting up a futures exercise, and how to figure out what you’re trying to figure out. In Futures Thinking: Scanning the World, I took a look at gathering useful data. In Futures Thinking: Mapping the Possibilities (Part 1), I gave a broad overview of creating alternative scenarios. Now we move to the nuts & bolts.

Let’s build some worlds.

World-building is, in many ways, the mirror-opposite of a good science fiction story. With the latter, the reader only needs to see enough of the world to make the choices and challenges facing the characters comprehensible. The world is a scaffolding upon which the writer tells a story. Clumsy science fiction authors may over-explain the new technologies or behaviors–where they came from, why they’re named as they are, etc.–but a good one will give you just enough to understand what’s going on, and sometimes a little less than that (trusting that the astute reader can figure it out from the context).

Scenarios, conversely, are all about the context. Here, it’s the story that’s a scaffolding for the scenario–a canvas upon which to show the critical elements of the world you’ve built. A good scenario doesn’t make a good science fiction story–but it’s a setting within which a good science fiction story might be told.

Turning your drivers and data points into a sufficiently diverse set of multiple believable, internally-consistent worlds can be difficult, and most scenario developers rely on a set of heuristics to make sure that the worlds being built will both differ from each other in important ways and show clear and logical evolution from the present. As you read more about scenario planning and futures thinking, you’ll find a variety of methods in current use. For our purposes, however, we can start with something straightforward.


In my first piece, I suggested that you use something called “futures archetypes”–essentially, pre-built points of divergence that can be applied to just about any kind of futures exercise. The archetypes I listed were:

  • The future is what I expect.
  • The future is better than I expect.
  • The future is worse than I expect.
  • The future is weirder than I expect.

These aren’t archetypes in common use among professionals, but they’re a good starter kit–a way of forcing yourself to think about both divergence and plausibility.

Fiat Terra

Worlds Fair

In large group events, the four worlds will often be built in parallel, but as you start with the process I would suggest creating your scenarios one at a time, and in the order I listed above. You’ll need to think about how you expect the future to turn out before you can decide what would be better (or worse, or weirder). After that, thinking about a realistic good scenario is important because I’ve found that it’s far too easy to come up with bad scenarios–there’s something about how we think that lends itself to imagining the plausible-awful more readily than imagining the plausible-wonderful.

Don’t be surprised if coming up with the scenario of what you expect turns out to be a real problem. For people who regularly engage think about the future, this can be because we’re conditioned not to let ourselves get too wrapped up in expectations. For people who think about the future more casually, it’s because we tend to “expect” big things to happen, usually for the worse.


But here’s a good first pass at a method of figuring this out: what are you already preparing for, in terms of investments, purchases, family planning, and the like? Do you have a disaster kit (for an earthquake, or hurricane, or other regionally-appropriate natural disaster)? A college fund for your kid(s), if any? Money in savings for a down-payment on a house?

Another option is to think about the expected world as “more of the same.” This is usually a decent bet–but remember that it doesn’t mean stasis. A “more of the same” world will include occasional crises and disruptions–just nothing especially shocking.

When thinking about the second scenario, where the world is better than you expect, the simple method is to imagine the big decisions and challenges turning out in your favor. There may be disruptions and setbacks, but by and large you’re in a better/stronger/healthier position at the end of the scenario than you are at the outset. I would encourage you to do an initial draft of this scenario, then go back and ask yourself how you can make it even better? I’ve found that many people seem to hold back, and never really ask themselves what happens when their plans or projects are truly successful.

Worse, and Weird

Conversely, for the third scenario, I’d suggest being conservative with how bad things get. Worsening economic downturns are fine, but–in most cases–nuclear terror attacks, pandemics that kill millions, and the dead returning as zombies are a bit much. After you write a first draft, sit back and check if any of the events you describe are so dramatic that you really should be preparing for them now. If they are–and you aren’t–you then need to think through whether your lack of preparation is because you don’t actually see that possibility as sufficiently plausible. If that’s the case, you should consider pulling it from the scenario.


You might, in turn, decide to put it in your last scenario, the weirder than you expect world. Here’s a chance to let your imagination run loose for a bit. You probably won’t include everything you come up with, but this is your chance to think about the kinds of possibilities that would be notably disruptive (but still within the realm of the plausible). On the negative side, events like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. would go into this kind of scenario; on the positive side, so would the rapid adoption of “smart phone” technologies or the continued function of the Mars rovers (originally built to last 90 days, not nearly half-a-decade).

It’s tempting to use the “weirder” scenario as something of a dumping ground for the ideas rejected from the other worlds, but try to avoid that–as the examples I mentioned above suggest, “weirder” scenarios do sometimes happen, and it’s worth giving some thought to what kinds of unexpected or shocking changes would be particularly disruptive to your plans.

Next time: rethink, revise, repeat.

[Images: bredgur (Tomorrowland); karen horton (stamp); Photos8 (gas mask)]