Defining Scenario Video

My colleague, long-time collaborator, and now co-blogger, Matthew Spaniol, just released a video about our recent paper that free and available here. The video is called “Defining Scenario” and is available in a short, quick version (here) and a detailed, extended version (here).


This work, and our past papers — here, here, here, and here (p. 103-110) — are all based on Matthew‘s dissertation from Roskilde University in Denmark, “Scenario planning in practice: Empirical philosophy, social foundation, paradox, and definitions” from late last year (2017, overseen by philosopher and science studies expert Søren Riis at Roskilde’s Institut for Kommunikation og Humanistisk Videnskab).

The abstract to the paper “Defining Scenario” available here and here:

Scholars claim that futures and foresight science should overcome “confusion” regarding the definition of core concepts, for example, the scenario. Admittedly, defining scenario has been a challenge. Current practice, which results in repeated attempts to clarify said confusion with yet another new definition of scenario, has apparently not advanced the field. An alternative option is not to redefine scenario, but to, instead, create a shared definition composed of component parts of pre‐existing definitions. The result is an operant or synthesized definition based on analysis of claims indicating what “a scenario is…” and “scenarios are…” in the literature on scenario planning. The authors find that scenarios have a temporal property rooted in the future and reference external forces in that context; scenarios should be possible and plausible while taking the proper form of a story or narrative description; and that scenarios exist in sets that are systematically prepared to coexist as meaningful alternatives to one another. Despite claims to the contrary, the authors find that the academic community of futures and foresight science does not seem to suffer from so‐called confusion over the definition of scenario, and thus, it is time to sunset the use of claims to this end.

16 thoughts on “Defining Scenario Video

  1. “systemized set” either sounds like something that pre-exists or else is just another way of saying scenario but aren’t these all tools fashioned in relation to the desires/project-ions of the makers/users, not unlike models?


    • Not sure if there is an easy answer to that one. First, it would be scenarios (plural) because, in this case, the armature of the 2×2 matrix requires four scenarios to be produced in systematic relation to the uncertainties identified by the client, thus, producing a set of four. That’s why we went with “systematized set” as a language choice.


      • So, while being truly agnostic about the future is, more or less, a pipe dream or, in weaker moments, something to strive for, there can be no doubt that desires and projections feed into the scenarios. I often think about the issue like this: if they tell us what they are worried about (i.e., the uncertainties), and we can help them polarize those concerns to learn from them (i.e., if they are worried about government regulation, which they cannot directly influence, then we help them to see a polarized uncertainty that, on one pole, involves government expansion of environmental regulation and, on the other pole, the government reduction or deregulation of environmental protections), and then once you have two uncertainty poles created, the armature sort of forces you to imagine the scenario in that quadrant only along those lines. Sure, desires are hard to tamp down; however, there is a modicum of solace in that the armature directs the thinking such that participants are not just free-forming wants and desires (in this tradition).


        • All that said, there is a tradition, born in France, that looks for normative or utopian futures that intentionally is designed to imagine the “best” future scenario and then typically backcast from there to figure out how we will out precisely those desires and projections of the future we think that we want.


      • yes sorry I missed the distinction that you 2 are defining scenario (against the usual usage) as a set and not singular, nothing in the 2nd video leading up to that prepared me for that move all seemed to be about scenario in the singular , my other point is that what we choose to focus on from all the things in the world is going to reflect our interests and expectations, so how do we widen analysis to allow for feedback from the unexpected?
        In Tooze’s new book he notes that all the economists that mattered weren’t tracking what was happening in banks and so were blindsided by the collapse/contagion:


        • Ah, yes, I get your point — understandable, as the audience we are usually talking to have already drank the proverbial kool-aid of plural scenarios (our paper ‘the future multiple’ pushes that concept even further:

          At any rate, anticipating the unexpected is, logically, difficult to do (as in, the “unexpected” is often defined/conceived of as an alternative to anticipation) — that aside, the armature of the 2×2 matrix should help coax those out into discussion. Now, if nobody is acting on those insights, we have another problem altogether (which may really be the case with the banks in the meltdown — ignoring banks in economics seems nigh impossible, but not acting on information that was available or anticipatable makes more sense to me, still, we’d need to see the data on that one).


        • Also, tracking and forecasting have an odd relationship — here is why: some forms of tracking are used to predict or forecast the future as an extension of the past/present (that’s bigtime problematic, of course, for obvious reasons); some forms of forecasting identify a future state and then back-track (or “backcast” as they call it) to the present to imagine how we might get there (for better or for worse, depending upon the forecasted future). As you can see, the relationship between present-tracking and future-forecasting is not an easy or friendly one.


          • yes not easy, which makes me wonder how secure the claim to the reality/reasonableness you folks are advancing for scenarios, how does one test any of the qualities you want to secure for the definition? indeed a pleasure always so little real discussion to be had day to day I’m always grateful that people can make time/effort given the demands of life.


                  • I like your point too, and it is making me wonder to the extent that these “distinctions” are determined by a small, truncated subset of specialists (rather than the “concepts” themselves, which was Latour and Co.’s maneuver with all those expert, authorial concepts over 30 or so years) … makes one wonder.


                    • “the extent that these “distinctions” are determined by a small, truncated subset of specialists (rather than the “concepts” themselves”
                      yes good that would be my inclination/understanding, why I liked the field-studies part of STS/ANT and the meaning is in the uses parts of the Wittgensteinians.
                      I tried and failed long ago to raise these kinds of objections to principle/value ethics in medical fields as there is this kind of unintentional bait and switch where the abstract principles invoked at the beginning inevitably get replaced with more concrete/discrete example (perhaps like a scenario) and that gets built on (maybe even contextualized to the situation at hand) and tinkered-with/bricolaged (sometimes there are alternatives raised and switched to) until a decision is made and after all that if this whole process needs to be justified they will refer back to the authority of the starting principles and erase/hide the whole rest of the actual process.

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