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But Is It Art?
Zaid Hassan, 3 Sep 04

Given the obvious interest by worldchangers in scenario planning, prompted by Alex’s recent post on the role of art in social change, and Jamais' interview with Adam Kahane, I’d like to take a take a deeper look at the nature of scenario planning. My hope is that by contextualising and understanding the human impulse it arises from, we’re better able to utilise scenario planning as a tool.

Rather then a recent innovation, scenario planning can be understood as part of an ancient tradition -- the product of classical literary utopian thought meeting reason (in the form of contemporary planning & business analysis). Students of literary utopias look upon the late twentieth century as a particularly barren period -- one seemingly devoid of utopian thought and they are puzzled by this. They're looking in the wrong place. Utopian thinking, far from being dead, has eloped with reason and given birth to a particularly odd bastard child -- scenario planning.

_Utopia and Social Justice_

The idea of utopian thinking conjures up the idea of thoughts that are somehow distanced from reality. It could even be said that to classify thinking as utopian is somewhat derogatory, to say that it is of no practical use or value. Karl Marx, when asked to provide a detailed portrait of future Communist society replied “I do not write cook-books for the kitchens of the future.”

Utopian thinking however is more than simple escapism. Stressing the value of utopian thinking, Karl Mannheim, a great student of utopias, thought that “the elimination of the ‘reality transcending powers of utopia’ would mean ‘the decay of the human will’: “With the relinquishment of utopias, man would lose his will to shape history and therewith his ability to understand it.” (R. Schaer et al) Milan Simecka tells us that “A world without utopias, would be a world without social hope, a world of resignation to the status quo and the devalued slogans of everyday political life.” (R. Schaer et al)

Utopian thinking by its very nature embraces dystopian, or anti-utopian thinking, since ‘one man’s utopia could be another man’s nightmare.’ Utopian thinking asks the question ‘what do we want our world (or society) to look like?’ while dystopian thinking answers ‘this is what we don’t want it to look like’. Both utopian and dystopian visions aim to help us understand and visualise our choices, they are both very concerned with the context we make our decisions within, so the intention of both utopian and dystopian thinking can be considered the same -- to precipitate positive changes in society through some conception of an alternate society.

Aspirations towards social justice predicate that some alternative conception of society exists. For an individual to act on the impulse to social justice they must have some conception, no matter how vague, of the change they wish to see in society. While the World Bank’s mission statement, ‘a world free of poverty’ may be considered in a derogatory manner, an impractical idea, it is also a fine aspiration, an idea that is animating. It also shows us the dangers of such ideas. Howevever, if ideas such as these can be given more substance, more detail, if they can somehow be imagined, then they can be valuable in binding the impulse towards social justice to associated action.

The entire field of utopian thinking can be see as an attempt to clarify and articulate the impulse to social justice. It has been argued that literary utopia is superior to other ways of promoting the good society. The reason for this is that literary utopias distil complex philosophical choices into something more vivid and personal, ideas taken to their fullest conclusion, presenting the reader with a clear picture of the impact of certain ideas on daily life.

Stories talk to us in the language of human experience, which is what we're most familiar with, allowing us to engage on many levels from the intellectual to the emotional. Stories, of various forms, can be said to be the animating force behind many aspects of society.

Edward Said, in Culture & Imperialismwrites that

“The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future – these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative. As one critic has suggested, nations themselves are narratives.”

Confusions over individual life-narratives are reflected on larger canvases, in the narrative traditions of nations. Edward Said examines the literature of the British Empire and the role that narrative played in maintaining the myths that sustained the Empire. These narratives play a part in maintaining a fractured self-narrative of a nation, typically the inhabitants of a colonised country are taught, through the cultural devices, certain ‘facts’ about themselves, which in turn actually determine many of the vital issues that Said mentions above. Ben Okri echoes this when he says “…change the stories individuals or nations live by and tell themselves, and you change the individuals and nations.”

In the face of dysfunctional metaphors and fractured narratives our first instinct is to try and imagine new metaphors and to come up with new narratives that better reflect the world as we perceive it. In this manner the desire to articulate new metaphors runs headlong into the utopian tradition.

_Enter Scenario Planning_

Scenario planning is an interesting example of a contemporary reaction to our present condition. As a technique it’s in widespread use among both old school political stakeholders as well as younger generations of activists. Yet in almost all cases there seems to be little understanding of its socio-political context and the need it arose to fill.

Scenario planning has its origins at Royal Dutch Shell in the early 1970s when a Belgium named Pierre Wack was hired to run the planning department. Borrowing ideas from war gaming scenarios run by RAND’s Hermann Kahn, Wack developed the idea of scenario planning where a number of unique ‘alternative futures’ were created. While the process for creating scenarios started from classical planning – by quantifying forces and factors that influenced the particular future one was interested in, the end result took the form of a series of fictional narratives.

Wack explains his aims

“Strategies are a product of a worldview. When the world changes, managers need to share some common view of the new world. Otherwise decentralised strategic decisions will result in management anarchy. Scenarios express and communicate this common view, a shared understanding of the new realities to all parts of an organisation.”

Scenario planning further evolved when Wack’s successor Peter Schwartz ‘predicted’ the OPEC oil crisis. Schwartz’s scenarios have been credited with helping Shell emerge at one of the world’s largest and most successful oil companies – as a result of being prepared for the crisis when their competitors were not. In 1987 Schwartz and a number of colleagues formed the Global Business Network (GBN) which has been called ‘a management consultancy with a strong utopian flavour.’ (Where our very own Jamais used to work) The idea behind GBN was to take Wack’s original aim, the value of sharing a common view to enable more synchronised decision making, to a much wider audience. GBN did not just focus it’s efforts to the business world, but widened the application of scenario planning to ‘civil’ scenarios (involving governments, NGOs and civil leaders) and to wider societal issues.

Two notable examples of this were the Mont Fleur Scenarios in South Africa and Destino Columbia in Columbia. Many thousands of copies of the Destino Columbia scenarios were distributed within Columbia (through mediums like inserts in newspapers) with the idea that people will make conscious, positive decisions about the future of the country and their role within it when confronted with a series of scenarios, which served very practically as packaged ‘choices’.

In 1997, GBN moved further in attempting to foster shared understandings of individual roles and choices through the publication of a Wired article called ‘The Long Boom’ (by Peter Schwartz)which was followed by a book of the same name, written by Schwartz and colleagues at GBN. The idea behind The Long Boom was ‘to present an optimistic and inspiring vision of the future history of the world.’

The book reflects scenario planning in all its messy glory, a combination of analysis shot through with fictional narratives – in this case a series of letters from someone in the year 2050 looking back. The Long Boom, like most scenarios, is a little like a paint by numbers picture , especially when compared to writers such as H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Imagine if you will one of these writers attempting to produce a work of fiction starting with a pseudo-technical business orientated analysis of their subject matter. It doesn't quite work.

Scenario planning as practiced by the GBN School is a clear and explicit attempt at influencing our choices -- to not simply inform us of what your options are but also to influence the choices we make, through the vehicle of what is today essentially a pop-culture delivery system: business literature.

While scenario planning began as an exercise in planning, almost an exercise in contingency planning (if A happens then we do B, if X happens then we do Y and we’re prepared for A and X!) however it evolved away from this over time. Once scenario planning left Shell is went through a phase of being a business planning tool, then it took a great leap when it became a tool for civil consensus building (for example at Mont Fleur), then the Long Boom represents an interesting experimental leap in the application of scenarios – the dissemination of positive choices, of options to the people.

Scenario planning is in essence working with the assumption (based on one conception of leadership), that people need to be presented with choices. In doing so however, it is largely denying people the reality that they themselves can be creators of culture and so the creators of their own choices -- which would, in effect, be a radical democratisation of the idea of leadership.

To clarify, scenario planning was created in response to massive changes in the world, changes which made existing metaphors and worldviews obsolete. While originating in the business world, scenario planning ultimately utilised (through disguise) a very old and traditional art form – the literary genre of utopian fiction. Utopian fiction (and now scenario planning) is a social tool aimed at providing people with orientation, to inform their decision making in a time of great change and flux. The fact that scenario planning originated in the hard-edged and reason dominated world of business meant that in most minds it possesses real legitimacy, first as a planning tool and second as a too for social change.

When scenario planning is taken to its logical conclusion, when the circle is squared, we can see that it is a rather tortuous path to fictional narrative, in other words it’s a route to art. Due to the attitudes we have inherited from the Enlightenment and due to our own societal characteristics the path has necessarily been long and winding. For far too long it hasn't been possible to arrive at even the possibility of art as a legitimate social tool. Even today, in much of the business world, as a social tool, scenario planning currently possesses a great deal more legitimacy than art.

Placing scenario planning firmly within the context of art provides us with an extremely rich field within which to understand our social choices. We are no longer limited to one or two rather random business derived tools in order to create shared understanding, rather the entire world of art, it’s history, it’s lessons and it’s practices are now open to us as tools to mould and shape the world we live in.

Further Reading

Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World by Roland Schaer, Gregory Claeys, Lyman Tower Sargentby Roland Schaer, Gregory Claeys, Lyman Tower Sargent

Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening and Creating New Realities by Adam Kahane

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roland piquepaille has some thots...
on scenario planning er, "contemporary jazz-inflected Aristotelian pragmatism." :D cheers!

Posted by: glory on 4 Sep 04

Great writing Zaid. First I want to say, this goes into depth about exactly what I've been superficially thinking about lately – so thanks for doing the research! I have been thinking about scenario planning in relationship to artistic methodology. In 1997 at an Idriart International festival at Castle Borl (in Ptuj, Slovenia), I took part in a scenario planning session that was designed to inform Idriart’s global strategy for the next ten years or so. This was my first and only firsthand experience of scenario planning. Ged Davis and Alain Wouters of Shell ran the session, so it was, to reference your question, somewhat “legitimated,” if ahead of its time. Many people had the question, how does scenario planning relate to art? And what we were saying was: scenario planning is used to map out various possible future paths; if we can these paths, then any one we choose can become a kind of guiding template for an artistic process, in this case, the artistic process of building our organization. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot more about scenario planning, and feel certain that it can and will sooner or later be very useful not only as we used it, but moreover, I think, towards some projects that may be thought of as hybrids between art and social change.

The relationship between these two is in fact very alive in our time – and I would argue, has only disappeared from view to the degree that we have lost an understanding for what the arts actually are for culture. Although we tend to classify the arts as “entertainment,” our belief that it is indicates just how out of touch we are with the ideas that actually shape the way we live. Art articulates and changes these ideas; to articulate and to change them is to make art – regardless of medium. Art is not (and never has been) medium specific; it is the effort to understand the ideas that inform cultural evolution. In this light it is quite understandable that scenario planning belongs in the social sculptor’s toolbox.

Consider the case of Joseph Beuys’ “7,000 Oaks” in Kassel, Germany, a city-wide sculpture of 7000 trees, each planted next to a column of local volcanic basalt approximately one meter high. At first (1982-1986), the trees were only tiny rails with a few leaves, next to relatively bulky stone columns. Now, the trees are 40 feet tall and as thick as a telephone pole. In 300 years, the trees will be massive – Stadt Verwaltung, Beuys called it – city becoming forest. In order to achieve this, Beuys worked with city planners, the public, foundations, companies, lawyers, and so on, over six or seven years. He was a famous man by then, and needed his fame for leverage to see the project through. Even so, the trees caused major upheaval, and people hardly saw the point of planting a bunch of skinny saplings everywhere, tearing up the streets, causing traffic, and so on. Now, the sculpture defines the city; people love the “Beuys trees.” Or, if you will, consider a pet project I’d like to realize one day, the building of a stone circle around Sarajevo. When I visited Sarajveo in 1996, I had a vision of taking all of the rubble out of the city and shaping, along with the local stones of the hills surrounding the city, a circular wall around the city, a symbolic barrier against a similar violation in the future.

The important thing to remember about such projects as these – and this is true of any art project to some degree, but with this kind of thing, even more so – is that an artist or a group of artists has an idea, a loose idea – an inspiration. But to this vision we remain quite unattached. The vision has a certain energy in it; it’s alive. Like any living thing, it changes, expressing itself differently as it grows. The final form is not the goal; it is a by-product of a process. The process is the goal. The process includes its own dynamics, including something that appears to be a completion. When the last tree was planted, or the last stone placed, people say, the project is finished. But in other ways, it has really only begun at that point, for then it begins its work as a work of art. The trees will change the population of Kassel over centuries; this effect is the real spirit of the vision that Beuys saw.

The artistic process is very difficult for most people to understand, because it involves many things we typically avoid: long durations of working without knowing if or when we’ll reach a conclusion, as well as unexpected failures along the way, even to the point of project meltdown. Therein, all kinds of cans of worms open up, and things get really heated, or can, either internally (as a solo artist) or among collaborators. Creating something new, following an inspiration when the form continues to elude our grasp, is extremely trying. It is, however, ideally suited, I believe, to scenario planning – that is, if the scenario planners understand the artistic process. I am imagining scenario planning as a useful tool within an artistic process whose aim is socially transformative art projects, either along the lines of the Sarajevo Stone Circle, or any number of other ideas I’ve had, or any that you have. Any projects involving multiple stakeholders, interdisciplinary creativity, radical change, and/or infrastructural evolution, require exactly the kind of mapping and learning processes that scenario planning attempts to engage. Art then brings to the table its own abilities to systematically find a “felt,” if not a completely clear, goal – the inspiration, the vision. Maybe you should take up the thread from here. Inasmuch as scenario planning might help us artistically shape our world through concrete projects, meaning inasmuch as scenario planning can help us see the territory involved in such projects, what comes to mind for you?

thanks again for the article - great to read

Posted by: Jeff Barnum on 7 Sep 04

good stuff!
Something that i have been grappling with is how scenario planning is similiar to the natural processes in the universe. Humans have invented a concept of control where we push what we think is right onto the environment, community, others, ourselves. I catch myself doing this a lot. It is the opposite of what Jeff says when he says the artist remains unattached to the idea. I take my mission to save for example Croatia and almost make it part of my identity. And often this so-called desire to help Croatia is me actually pushing my wishes onto others. I am saying this in the 1st person but I believe this holds true for a lot of what humans do.

Scenario planning on the other hand is like true organic farming done the Steiner way. I guess Jeff reminded me of Steiner. Anyway, there you don't push your thoughts on the environment of what you think it needs. However, you can find yourself at times trying to help push certain natural processes along to accelerate them (all to the point until where the system comes to a balance and does not need help). For example, compost is like this. You take a natural process and speed it up.

I say this a metaphor for scenario planning. In scenario planning you do not impose on the organism what you think is needed. Rather you take the processes that are going on and pick one to speed up.

However, this is easier said than done. It implies having your ego, your fears in check and simply being in touch with what is going on. And this is the link to presensing. It is only when you are truly centered (while at the same time in touch with the universe) that you can tap into the field. And it is only when you tap into the field that you can know what is going on around you. Anything other than that is us pushing what we think others need onto them.

To go further with the notion, I see scenario planning as a model of leadership. The leader of the future could be a leader that is more in touch with the field around them. The leader then "chooses" a process that is going on that could be benefitial, and works on accelerating that process. So for example, a leader in an organization would not come in with their own solutions. Rather the leader would try to figure out what is going on and then work on finding a process that is "positive" and then works on speeding it up.

Posted by: Ante Glavas on 8 Sep 04



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