News of a scenarios workshop at the James Martin Institute in Oxford to explore a range of what might be called “convergence futures”, where the ‘GRIN’ technologies meet (genomics, robotics, infomatics, nanotechnology). In summary, the scenarios which were developed over the two day workshop were as follows (thanks to Guardian Blogs Editor Kevin Anderson, more detail in his concluding post, and also below):

  • Gridlock Competing world views and groups are pitted against each other. It is a world of high competition, conflicting values and little co-operation.
  • The competitive but regulated world The world is quick to develop new technologies, but slow to learn from them. It struggles with regulating and managing what it doesn’t know, and with the challenges of globalisation.
  • The ‘heterachy’ An open, dynamic, co-operative world, fast-paced, with sharing of information and effective public-private cooperation.
  • ‘No Glue’ A hyper-competitive world where social connections fray. Apparently straightforward systems have developed into complex systems and begin to make decisions for you.

The full descriptions are on Kevin Anderson’s blog entry, linked above. The workshop is part of an ESRC project, and there will be a report later in the year.

From a futures point of view, his accounts (which look like they were frenetically blogged during the breaks in the event) give some clues about the process they went through, although it’s always a little hard to read between the lines if you’re not actually there.

The overall objective was to consider how nano-technology, genomics, information technology and cognitive science might come together to drive the next rounds of technological developments and what are the social, economic, environmental and other implications.

Initially there were some visualisation techniques (using pictures to tell futures stories); and some ‘critical moments from the past‘ which have fuelled convergence. (Kevin’s list included the printing press and World War II: the comments on the blog posting include others. I feel one of those ‘Edge’ compilation books coming on, in which John Brockman‘s famous clients are encouraged to write a few hundred words on a portentous theme.)

By the afternoon, they were on to the ‘five most important challenges for the future – and for whom?’ And then, by the end of Day 1, the headlines of the future – ten or more years out.

Day 2, and they have moved on to the drivers of the future (factors which will influence for good or bad the overall future world) which they spend the morning on. And by the afternoon they get on to building the scenarios, including some more headlines.

There’s also a revealing observation in Kevin’s short article in last weeks Guradina Technology, in which he added a little more summary of the scenarios:

We developed four visions of the future; some were positive and hopeful. One was called heterarchy, a fast-paced collaborative world where science enhanced and extended life. Research was open sourced and developed into the blockbuster industry of the future, extending lifespans to 180 years.

Another just extended the present, with outsourcing of nanotube production from China to Africa after 20 years of international debate over the factories’ safety. Governments struggled to cope with the pace of change in biofuels, nanotechnology and genetic engineering, but eventually caught up.

To be honest, we didn’t find the positive scenarios to be all that interesting. So we decided to consider: what if it all went wrong – even horribly wrong? [My emphasis]

One possible future we envisioned was “gridlock”. The left-right split of today’s politics gave way to a deeply divisive standoff between “naturals” and “enhanceds”. Enhanceds used all the tools of science to make life better, with intelligence-enhancing drugs and genetic screening of embryos for positive or negative traits (such as a predisposition to cancer). Naturals, a novel alliance of science sceptics from the old left and religious fundamentalists from the right, rejected enhanceds’ “meddling” with nature

The worst world we envisioned we called “No Glue”, where the financial, political and even social bonds of society all came apart. We considered a rapid evolution of virtual worlds that completely outpaced the ability of governments and international institutions to cope. Financial markets moved quickly into these virtual worlds because they were a much more efficient way of doing business than in the past. Virtual currencies became the medium of exchange. As nations declined and virtual worlds rose, offline social bonds frayed and people lost trust in each other. War and terrorism declined but the world was plunged into constant low-level conflict.

Reading the account of the event with a facilitator’s eye, it’s clear that they’ve used many of the techniques you’d expect: pictures of the future, not words; a historical perspective (to provide a context); identification of drivers of change; and other immersive techniques, such as the challenges and the headlines of the future.

It’s also hard to comment without understanding the role of the workshop in the overall process. Clearly lots of interesting material has been generated by the group. But I think that there may have been richer techniques to get more structure from the scenarios, and more challenge from the groups. It doesn’t mean that you have to use the classic deductive 2×2 scenario matrix approach. For example, we’ve been using causal layered analysis, developed by Sohail Inayatullah, for a project with Carnegie UK Trust on the future of civil society. In causal layered analysis you work down through the layers of conventional wisdom about the future to the systems which underpin them, to the mental models and worldviews they’re based on, to the myths and metaphors which lie at their heart. It’s produced quite a rich understanding of some possible futures.

And scenarios generally work better when they don’t fall into positive scenarios and negative scenarios, if only because the future won’t be like that, and because you get richer pictures of the future when the positive and negative start to rub up against each other. But it’s more likely to happen when you try to do the whole process in an overnight meeting, just because you don’t have long enough to immerse yourself in the drivers of change and start to explore with the potential range of uncertainties. But no doubt the scenario building team will be doing much more work behind the scenes in developing the scenarios and the supporting material before the report is published.