This scenario building technique creates four generic alternate futures: continuation, collapse, discipline and transformation. According to Jim Dator, who developed this technique at the Manoa School in Hawaii, most images of the future are likely to fall into one or another of these four generic categories. The technique is quite simple, although it requires quite some envisioning skills from participants, and careful guidance by the facilitator in order to avoid the four images becoming unimaginative cliches. It is a good technique to use when you want to find four very different alternative futures. It works best if the group has an in-depth and in-breadth knowledge of the past and present situation, as well as enough creativity to create interesting worlds from four generic concepts.

Process

This scenario building technique is part of a longer 'futures visioning process' (see Dator's article). In order to build the four generic futures, the participants should have enough information about past and present circumstances, as well as an insight into the challenges and opportunities that might arise in the future from the interactions between local factors, macro trends, emerging issues and relevant 'constants'. Based on this information, the four generic futures can be constructed. After scenario building, Dator suggests participants proceed to envision and create their preferred future through an ongoing, embedded futures R&D. This page focuses on the scenario building part of this process.

  1. Collect information about:
    • past and present conditions
    • local factors, macro trends, emerging issues and relevant 'constants' and their interactions
    • challenges and opportunities that might arise in the future.
  2. Frame the exercise by explaining that the four generic futures should become four alternative images of the future that reflect what might happen based on the information from Step 1 if the world moves in this or that direction. It is important to note that there are no best/worst-case scenarios in this technique, and that the participants should focus on how they could do the best they can in any alternate world, without dwelling too much on the negative.
  3. (optional): Develop scenario skeletons with the whole group (if possible), or if the group is big divide it into subgroups of maximum 10 people each. Each subgroup should have their own moderator (best if they volunteer themselves).
  4. Experiencing the futures: The task is to envision what life might be like in each of the four worlds, focusing if appropriate on a specific issue the group wants to explore. The groups should create four images of the future, one at a time, based on the four generic alternatives (continue, collapse, discipline and transform). If the group is large, people might have to choose one future to work on. You can offer guiding questions (verbally or written on worksheets), such as:
    • What would life be like for the majority of people in such a world? What do they do, how do they live?
    • What would happen to current trends and other important factors in this world?
    • What issues might be absent in this world (social, economic, environmental, political…)? Which new issues might arise (which are non-existent or irrelevant now)?
    • How probable (likely to actually occur) is the future described in your scenario?
    • How preferable is the future described in your scenario (to you)?
    • If you consider this future as preferable, what are the most important things to be done now to move towards its desirable aspects?
    • If you consider this future as undesirable, what are the most important things to be done now to see that those undesirable aspects don't occur?
  5. Reporting: At the end of the exercise, invite at least the moderator, or best everyone in the group, to write answers to these questions in the form of a short scenario. Invite the moderators to report the results of the discussions. Before they report, you describe what each generic future future means. Record the key aspects from the reports and collect the written descriptions for further analysis (if applicable).
  6. Discussion. End the exercise with a general discussion about the content and the process.