I spoke yesterday at the launch of the Social Futures Handbook, edited by Carlos Galviz-Lopez and Emily Spiers of Lancaster University’s Institute of Social Futures. (Disclosure: I am on the Advisory Board of the ISF). I have a chapter in the book called ‘A Critical History of Scenarios’.

This is, more or less, what I said, which is the five minute version of an 8,000 word chapter.

The chapter started as an attempt to understand the hold that ‘scenario planning’ held over many practitioners, and I discovered the hard way that answering that question involving going deep into the history of futures as a practice.

The first thing to say that futures, at least in its modern guise, isn’t very old. At 75 years, it is a little younger than Paul McCartney, and about the same age as Van Morrison. Two strands run through its DNA, but they are not really compatible.


The first strand comes out of the American positivist research tradition. It starts with RAND in 1946, where it is associated with Department of Defense research, and then you can trace it through Herman Kahn and the Hudson Institute in the 1960s, to Shell in the 1970s, to the Global Business Network (GBN) in the 1990s.

There’s a clear bloodline here as well. Kahn was a RAND alumnus; Pierre Wack and Ted Newland of Shell attended Hudson Institute events in the US; Peter Schwartz worked at Shell and was a successor to Wack as head of scenario planning. This work is associated with business and the military.


Strand 2 starts in Europe, and is associated with philosophical and social sciences research. It is associated, initially, with visions, and in particular with how to reconstruct Europe. It is less clearly connected than Strand 1, but there are influences all over the place. It starts in the 1950s with Fred Polak’s The Image of the Future, and can be traced through Gaston Berger in France, to Mankind 2000, organised in Oslo in 1967 by Johann Galtung and Robert Jungk.

One of the things that emerged from Mankind 2000, eventually, was the World Futures Studies Federation, associated in particular with Jim Dator and Elenora Masini. Dator’s involvement added a Pacific thread, since he was based in Hawai’i. This strand is associated with values and visioning, and with peace not war, notably through Elise Boulding’s ‘world without weapons’ workshops.

Scenarios everywhere

These strands sit in the same container, but they have scarcely any points of contact. When I started doing futures, at the end of the 1990s, Strand 1 was firmly in the ascendant. It was barely possible to open Wired magazine, in that moment when it was the coolest magazine on the planet, without reading about Peter Schwartz. 2×2 ‘double uncertainty’ scenarios were everywhere, largely because Schwartz had published a recipe in the back of The Art of the Long View.

But looking back, it had largely run out of energy by then. One reason might be that one of the dirty secrets of scenario planning’s preferred 2×2 scenarios is that they are hard tools to use. Another is that the notion that you can’t influence the future, only respond to it, started to lose traction. Even inside Shell, it had been challenged for years. (And although it’s too complex to go into here, it became clear when doing the research that this notion had been a necessary compromise to connect scenarios to corporate planning functions).

The complexity turn

Theory abhors a vacuum. And so, since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a rush of ‘Strand 2’ innovation re-energise futures thinking. This is partly, to borrow John Urry’s phrase, because futures, like other areas of practice, had its “complexity turn”.

An incomplete list of this includes: Richard Slaughter’s integral futures, with its surfacing of interior worlds; Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal Layered Analysis, with its interest in worldview and metaphor; the anticipation school, which talks about the ‘dispositions’ of the future in the present; Three Horizons, which can explore possible futures and desired futures; Wendy Schultz’s Manoa futures, and the connected work on the Seeds of the Good Anthropocene, associated with Tanja Hichert and Rika Preiser; design and experiential futures; and, of course, Afrofutures.

Barbara Adam and Chris Groves’ book Future Matters provided a philosophical and ethical underpinning for some of this emerging thinking.

Social futures

From the perspective of social futures, when you read the futures literature four main characteristics emerge from all of this work. In brief summary:

  • The future is not an empty space, but is embedded in the present;
  • We shape the future through how we act now, and values and beliefs are central to this;
  • Shaping the future is done through processes of dialogue and social construction; and
  • This process of social construction involves recognising—and critiquing—power and privilege.

The planning crisis

This is a world away from the positivism that sits beneath the thinking and processes in Strand 1. I didn’t touch on it in my remarks at the book launch, but as I worked my way through the literature I realised that the development of ‘scenario planning’ was actually a minimum viable response to the planning crisis in the corporate world in the late 1960s and 1970s.

That crisis was driven by the rise in external turbulence, both economic (through the decline in economic growth) and in energy markets. As Donald Schon’s principle of ‘dynamic conservatism’ reminds us, organisations respond to external shock by the minimum amount needed to maintain organisational integrity. Scenario planning, it turns out, was adopted as a way to save the corporate planning function.

Sadly, the Handbook comes at an eye watering price, which is still eye watering even with the 20% discount flyer. But just in case, the flyer is attached here:


This article is also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.