Programme directors: charting pathways for the future through scenario building

17 Nov 2020

An approach based on scenarios helps to build a desirable future and focus development efforts. Efficient scenario building requires commitment from all the parties involved as well as contributions from decision-makers.

Especially decisions that can have far-reaching consequences need to be based on reliable information. Scenario building helps us to see what kinds of futures are possible, how we can prepare for them, which ones are actually desirable and how we should pursue them. Directors of the strategic research programmes hosted a two-day brainstorming workshop on future scanning and scenario building in October. The online conference was attended by more than 100 scholars and experts from different fields.

The opening speech by Professor Ahti Salo from Aalto University focused on the methodology of scenario building. Professor George Wright from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow talked about the important role of influential stakeholders in the scenario building process. Professor Steve Evans from the University of Cambridge explored the concept of resilience and how businesses and nations can prepare for different kinds of futures in a sustainable way.

The participants were divided into groups, which then brainstormed about the use of scenarios to challenge established ideas, engage citizens and stakeholders, help different sectors of the economy to reinvent themselves and prepare for risks.

The role of stakeholders became a hotly debated topic. The participants reflected on who ultimately are the experts, who has power and whose future it is that we are building. Can scenarios give the public and especially the “silent minority” a voice? The debates brought to the fore the need to better understand the role of language, beliefs and emotions in intersectoral cooperation. Micro-level expertise could benefit everyone and bring about positive changes. Trust was one of the key perspectives identified in presentations. Scenarios are useless if their authors are not trusted. Scenarios can also be used to explore the factors that shape people’s trust in the core institutions of society.

New tools needed for scenario building

Future scanning and scenario building can be useful for global, national and local operators as well as individual businesses. The participants agreed that there is demand for both global and pan-European scenarios as well as local dialogue about possible futures. Discussions on circular economy and food systems, for example, identified stakeholders as key drivers of change.

Global scenarios of social and economic development can help both individual businesses and the business sector as a whole to prepare for different kinds of trends. Scenario building also helps businesses to experiment and identify areas in need of change. Future scanning focusing on production structures and demographic changes is a useful tool for social policy development.

Despite the many benefits of scenario building, the process is also challenging. The participants discussed the need for new kinds of tools and ways to engage people in the process. Whether scenarios can help us to build a better future depends on how they are used: as a political weapon, a way to challenge established ideas or a tool for introducing new ways of thinking. Often the goal in managing social (or business-related) risks is to restore the status quo as quickly as possible. This has also been well demonstrated by the recent public rhetoric on the coronavirus pandemic. However, the outcomes of scenario building exercises are more likely to be something in between a full-blown disaster and a return to what was before.

Dialogue in key role

Controlled transitions are not easy to implement. The dangers include, among others, becoming fixated on one scenario or future strategy. Resilience, flexibility and the ability to creatively and smoothly adapt to new kinds of futures are something that needs to be learned both mentally and in practice. At its best, successful scenario building can help us to challenge ourselves, break the mould and step off the familiar path and therefore see new, fresher futures. Many strategic research projects involve building what are known as ‘transition arenas’ – collaboration platforms designed for exploring possible futures with stakeholders and pathways towards achieving them. The first Finnish transition arena was set up in connection with a project called Smart Energy Transition – Realising its Potential for Sustainable Growth for Finland’s Second Century (SET) and focused on the future of energy production and consumption1. Since then, the approach has also been used, for example, to promote the sustainable use of water resources in a project called Enhancing Adaptive Capacity for Sustainable Blue Growth (BlueAdapt).

Future scanning and scenario building are often key elements of projects funded by the Strategic Research Council. The conference proved that bringing together future-orientated scholars from different fields has many benefits. The conclusion was that efficient scenario building requires establishing a dynamic dialogue between different sectors and decision-makers.

1 Hyysalo, S, Lukkarinen, J, Kivimaa, P, Lovio, R, Temmes, A, Hilden, M, Marttila, T, Auvinen, K, Perikangas, S, Peljo, J, Rask, M T, Savolainen, K, Hakkarainen, L, Matschoss, K J, Huomo, T P, Berg, A & Pantsar, M 2019, ‘Developing Policy Pathways: Redesigning Transition Arenas for Mid-Range Planning’, Sustainability, vol. 11, No. 3, 603.

Authors: Directors of strategic research programmes

Minna Lammi, Culture in an Increasingly Technologically Driven Society (CULT)

Mikael Hildén, A Climate-Neutral and Resource-Scarce Finland (PIHI)

Olli Kangas, Equality in Society (EQUA)

Heli Koski, Disruptive Technologies and Changing Institutions (TECH)

Kaisa Korhonen-Kurki, Changing Society and Active Citizenship (CITIZEN) and Adaptation and Resilience for Sustainable Growth (ADAPT)

Anne-Christine Ritschkoff, Keys to Sustainable Growth (GROWTH)

Helena Kahiluoto, Towards a Sustainable, Healthy and Climate-Neutral Food System (FOOD) and The Changing Role of Public Authority and the Potential for Steering Society (STEER)

Asta Salmi, Innovative Materials and Services to Promote Resource Wisdom and Sustainable Development (IMPRES)

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