Ten year horizons – a methodological note

How can we deal with ten year forecasting and planning in an interesting way? The naive approach would be to simply guess what state of the world will be probable in ten years, and then describe that as well as we can. This is akin to a kind of science fiction writing, and can add depth and richness to a view of the future, but also seems a very brittle way to try to plan.

Looking to the stars for insights.

There are other interesting methods here that deserve to be explored.

The first is to look at the current day debates, and ask which ones will likely be resolved in the coming ten years. The trick here is to find the hottest issues of the day and then assess if we think that this will be a hot issue ten years from now – and if it is not, how it has changed.

This builds on the realization that human affairs usually do not revolve around the same hot issues for decades – something decides these debates, and changes the playing field.

A key notion here is the idea of the stability of controversy. What things that are controversial today will still be controversial in ten, hundred or even thousand years? Some issues are 100 year controversial – you could argue that same-sex marriage in the US is an example of this – but most issues are not. The immigration issue in Sweden is one example – 15 years ago this was still very controversial in terms of if there even was a problem, and today there seems to be (right or wrong) a significant consensus on something having to be done, and that we did create a problem with the volumes that we thought manageable.

A person interested in the future back then could perhaps not have predicted that the evolution would lead to a consensus around the issue – but the lack of stability in this controversy (it was rapidly changing) suggests that they should have been able to predict that it would have been resolved.

Applying this to ten year planning today we can ask first which controversies are less than ten year stable, and then the next step is to sketch out how they can resolve. Usually this can be framed as “either X or Y”.

The similarity and analogy with scenario building here becomes obvious. In scenario building we go through a lot of extra steps and think through driving forces and other variables, but what we then aim to do is to identify those driving forces that are unstable and uncertain and ideally will resolve in an “either this or that”-fashion. They then become the axes of our scenarios.

And this is how we can then use the identified controversies that are likely to be resolved: they become the possible variables in a n-dimensional set of scenarios for the future – and we can then look at subset scenarios and pick those that seem most relevant to what we are trying to do.

The second method that I think merits more thought is to consider industry scandals as naturally occuring events. Just like earth quakes of different magnitudes have a 1/10 or 1/100 year probability to occur, such scandals – and not just industry, but political – seem to follow a similar pattern. That means that if we want to plan for the next ten years we should be able to say with some certainty that there will have been major “normal accidents” to use Charles Perrow’s term during that period and as these will have occured in the world as we know it now we can ask what a major technical, economic or political scandal will mean – because one will have happened with near-certainty.

Together these methods are interesting tools to play with for any larger planning exercise that allows it self to dial back to a resolution that shows the world in decades and not quarters.

Another observation about this “planning resolution” is that it puts the focus on other pace layers – like the legal, regulatory and political pace layers – since these have major impact in decades, in a way that is sometimes missed if you have too high resolution in your planning efforts.

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