Visualising conceivable future scenarios can help find solutions to complex global problems
To find solutions to complex global problems such as migration and climate change we need a radical new approach to research – scenario planning – the process of visualising various conceivable future scenarios to support strategic decisions in the present.
Dr Rafael Ramirez, Senior Fellow in Strategy, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, argues that ‘scenarios’ – more commonly used as an innovative planning tool to explore future contexts in different markets – can identify research needs that are not being met, broaden fields of inquiry, and make important connections between different disciplines, in order to make valuable practical contributions to long-term policy discussions.
“The problem with today’s typically incremental, discipline-bound, gap-spotting approach to research is that it doesn’t produce the intellectual breakthroughs or challenging questions needed to address the complex and interlinked problems facing the world, such as climate change and shifting demographics, inequality, food insecurity, and migration,” said Ramirez.
“Research on the future of international migration, for example, tends to rely on projections with today’s conditions as a starting point. They never ask, ‘what effects might developing technology have on migration?’ or ‘under what circumstances do people stop trying to adapt to environmental changes and decide to emigrate instead?’ Using scenarios can help researchers identify and consider these surprising and apparently unconnected influences.”
Ramirez and his co-authors, Malobi Mukherjee, Simona Vezzoli and Arnoldo Matus Kramer discuss the potential contribution of scenarios as a research tool in Scenarios as a Scholarly Methodology to Produce ‘Interesting Research’, Futures, August 2015. In the paper they describe and analyse three research studies which used the scenarios methodology in three distinct fields – retail management, international migration, and climate change adaptation – to make the research both accessible and rigorous.
Scenarios for retail format development in India
By using a scenarios methodology to provide multiple perspectives on how Indian retailing could develop, the researchers sought to broaden what they considered to be a myopic view of Indian retail development, which at the time of the research had become the topic of fierce debate in the public arena.
The resultant scenarios and their implications transcended ‘common-sense’ solutions and provided non-obvious insights, particularly in identifying a possible hybrid model of retailing which had not previously been thought of.
Exploring international migration futures in Europe and the Mediterranean
This study, launched in 2009, sought to challenge conventional approaches to migration forecasting and to present international migration as part of broader long-term historical processes, rather than as a problem to be resolved. The scenarios methodology meant that factors not commonly considered could be included in the research because they may have a direct or indirect role in shaping international migration (e.g. labour market structures and modes of production); assumptions that may have remained unquestioned due to the politicised discourse on international migration could be challenged; highly unstable and uncertain factors (e.g. economic growth and opportunity structures, political developments) could be examined and evaluated for their potential impact and unexpected consequences on international migration patterns; and stakeholders, including policy-makers, could be involved.
As a consequence, questions emerged about the appropriateness of current immigration policies based on short-term visions. Academics were also able to identify further areas of study such as the effects of a ‘youth bulge’ in developing countries and the implications of robotics developments on employment.
Climate change adaptation and tourism in the Mexican Caribbean
This study used scenarios as the core research methodology to examine what different actors in the public, private, and social sectors identified as options and barriers for climate change adaptation. It challenged neoliberal policies and the theories supporting mass tourism and economic growth by identifying long-term sustainability issues that would arise, and by helping local stakeholders to consider alternative adaptation policy options.
The scenarios helped to consider an alternative, more environmentally friendly form of future coastal tourism development associated with a longer-term development vision. Using the scenarios, stakeholders identified 23 adaptation measures, prioritised these in each of three time periods (2010–2015, 2015–2020, and 2020–2030) and identified 33 barriers that could prevent adaptation.
“In each of these three cases, using scenarios as a research methodology encouraged an interdisciplinary approach in which different perspectives were sought, conventional assumptions were challenged and new and surprising routes of inquiry opened up,” said Ramirez. “This sort of thinking is vital in generating responses to so-called ‘wicked’ problems for which there is no simple solution.”
Related program: Saïd Business School: Oxford Scenarios Program
The Saïd Business School is Europe’s fastest growing business school. An integral part of the University of Oxford, it embodies the academic rigour and forward thinking that has made Oxford a world leader in education.