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Fifth Scenario Thinking
Alex Steffen, 23 Mar 09

Heard this nice buzzphrase: "fifth scenario planning."

In much conventional scenario planning, two essential questions are turned into axes on a graph, creating four sectors, each of which becomes a world or scenario. By finding strategies which perform well in each of these worlds and comparing them, planners can find the set of strategies which are most robust in all of the worlds, and thus, hopefully, most vigorous in real life.

The idea of fifth scenario planning is to anticipate a realistic event or a series of events which is low-probability but highly disruptive, and then test the assumptions from the other four scenarios against it. By doing so, planners can find strategies which are not only robust but rugged. In theory, it introduces not only vigor, but resilience.

By extension, fifth scenario thinking is being ready for things to change rapidly (not necessarily to collapse: the Fall of the Wall and the collapse of Apartheid were both rapid changes, after all) in previously unbelievable ways. If that isn't a needed skill these days, I don't know what is!

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In futures research methodology, this approach is also known as "wild cards". Applying unlikely but realistic disruptive items to a consistent scenario is a really good tool to learn to think out of the box. It should be done in business, government, and science.

Posted by: Maria on 24 Mar 09

If you are familar with "backcasting" from a scenario based on a set of principles, which is a key part of The Natural Step Framework, then this might make some sense: the described "fifth" scenario is similar to the experience or anticipation of "events" that might happen when an individual, organization, or society has hit the walls of the "funnel" (aka. the result of being systematically unsustainable). See for more on the funnel. When these collisions happen unexpectantly (low probability) and are severely disruptive, the curtains on the stage are opened to reveal if a community/country/society does have the resiliency to overcome these traumatic events. Sustainability is bringing a lot of new ideas to the fields of disaster planning and insurance valuation. Swiss Re and the Cooperators are good examples if you are looking for some.

Posted by: Niles on 27 Mar 09

I love this website that utilizes the concept of "wild cards" in innovation regarding mobility scenarios. They created a set of cards to shuffle and brainstorm based on the different scenarios selected.

Posted by: carolthome on 28 Mar 09

I think another term that relates to this topics is the black swan (

Posted by: Riitta Nieminen-Sundell on 31 Mar 09

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