Uncertainty and the range of possibilities

The storming of the Capitol yesterday was in many ways an instructive event. The political repercussions will reverberate through the coming years and we have most likely not seen the last of president Trump yet. Furthermore, the tech policy questions around platform responsibility are now likely to be even more in bipartisan focus in both the US and elsewhere — politicians in other countries will consider how they deal with the fact that a large part of the public square are managed by private actors, but then again: that has been the case for the last century, with newspapers, private TV-channels and other corporate actors working hard to expand the public conversation and include more and more people. The view that our public sphere has been privatized is one that lacks historical perspective and reference classes.

But the thing that stands out to me is how hard it is to work with the future given all that has happened. I can safely say that I did not predict a storming of the capital or that the president’s social media accounts would be locked down to stop instigation of violence. Few other predicted that it would go quite so far either. It suggests that there is an interesting problem here of scoping the possible.

We have noted, again and again, that the world is more uncertain than it has ever been before. There are indices and research indicating that this is the case.

Uncertainty indices every where — see here

But the way we traditionally deal with that is through scenario planning and scenario analysis. The challenge, however, is that even if this focuses on the possible rather than the probable – hence allowing for significant uncertainty – we have not stretched the limits of the possible far enough.

Scenario analysis is much better than predictive techniques in situations of high uncertainty, since you only need to sketch out the possible and not the probable (no probabilistic assessment necessary, in fact, it is often frowned upon with scenario analysis). But uncertainty works in several dimensions – one is that it is harder to assess which scenario we will end up in or how individual events will unfold. The other is that the range of the possible must be expanded radically. This latter part is what will be challenging for planning and scenario departments all over the world.

We need to find ways of expanding our sense of the possible to capture the richness of scenarios in an increasingly uncertain world. What this means is that we need to look for techniques to challenge our assessment of the range of possibilities. Here are a few ideas:

  • Invert. What do you think will not happen? Examine those boundaries of the possible closely. Don’t posit aliens, but what about civil war? What are the assumptions that make you exclude that as a possibility? Produce statements like “We will at least not see X” and then let others in the team construct counter arguments.
  • Check history as a reference class. But check long history. Democracy is not a natural state of man, as noted by Adam Gopnik recently. What does a larger arc reversion to the mean look like?
  • Use fiction. How would this evolve if you only looked for narrative conflict intensifying?

These and other methods may help check our tendency to keep the limits of the possible static even under growing uncertainty.

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