The Media Scenarios Project (MSP) was started in 2002 at the Newsplex, an international media training and research center. The project is built around using sophisticated scenario planning techniques to envision long-term developments in the relationship between journalism, technology and lifestyle, which is the intersection where news media operate in society. Scenario planning is an ideal tool for this purpose because it provides for anticipating future business and editorial environments that are difficult to forecast because of the massive number of factors that can influence our industry, from technology to economy to social issues.
Scenarios are essentially models of possible future environments against which today’s decisions can be gauged. They are not predictions. They are not even, in themselves, strategies. They are more like hypotheses asking “What if?” in a disciplined way.
Daniel Yergin of the Global Business Network puts it nicely like this:
Scenarios are stories about how the future might unfold for our organizations, our communities and our world. They are provocative and plausible accounts of how relevant external forces — such as the future political environment, scientific and technological developments, social dynamics, and economic conditions — might interact and evolve, providing our organizations with different challenges and opportunities.
The purpose of scenario thinking is not to identify the most likely future, but to create a map of uncertainty — to acknowledge and examine the visible and hidden forces that are driving us toward the unknown future. Scenarios are created and used in sets of multiple stories that capture a range of possibilities, good and bad, expected and surprising. They are designed to stretch our thinking about emerging changes and the opportunities and threats that the future might hold. They allow us to weigh our choices more carefully when making short-term and long-term strategic decisions.
Scenario thinking is both a process and a posture. It is the process through which scenarios are developed and then used to inform decision-making. After that process itself is internalized, scenario thinking becomes, for many, a posture towards the world — a way of thinking about and managing change, a way of exploring the future so that they might meet it better prepared. At its most basic, scenarios help people and organizations order and frame their thinking about the long-term while providing them with the tools and confidence to take action soon. At its most powerful, scenarios help people and organizations find strength of purpose and strategic direction in the face of daunting, chaotic and even frightening circumstances.
Scenario planning techniques are also known as the Shell Method because oil industry giant Royal Dutch Shell was largely responsible for developing them in the 1970s. Peter Senge later popularized scenario planning techniques in his management book “The Fifth Discipline,” after which they started to be used widely in corporate, government and military planning. Peter Schwartz’s “The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World” is a seminal guide to the techniques and was used in formulating these narratives for the MSP.
So what ultimately characterizes scenario planning is that it focuses on imaging the future rather than extrapolating from the past. Actually, it stresses imaging a range of multiple futures, and then making high level plans across many of them. In this regard, scenario planning is distinguished from and complements traditional strategic planning, which works to determine a single most-probable future based on current statistical trends. Strategic planning’s blind spots are those things that fall outside current trends. Technological breakthroughs, natural disasters, political or economic surprises, industrial accidents or social disruptions typically do not show up in routine industry forecasts and 10-year business plans. Scenario planning provides a method for anticipating the effects of such disruptive situations.
The example is given of how Shell’s early scenario planning included, among many possible future occurrences, the idea of a sudden loss of supplies from Middle East sources. While not necessarily predicting the specific actions of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the scenario did prompt Shell to consider the ramifications of such an unprecedented disruption and the company’s possible logistical, legal, financial and marketing reactions. When the oil embargo occurred in 1973, this planning allowed Shell to jump ahead at a time when most of its competition was suffering and trying to regroup.
While there are many ways to approach scenario planning, one especially effective implementation is called story building, in which very detailed, intricate narratives are created to describe the environment at some date in the future based on some set of assumed developments. This short-story method is useful to help get the audience to buy into considering these possible futures for the benefit of the insight they can generate. When narratives are well-crafted, they apply many of the same techniques of a good movie script or novel in generating a suspension of disbelief that opens the mind to new ideas.
The narratives presented on this site and in the companion PDF/print special report were developed during the first half of 2011 by five teams of senior mass communications researchers in Western Kentucky University’s School of Journalism & Broadcasting. The teams researched trending influences on the future of journalism over the next 10 to 15 years, identified possible new influences, constructed plausible scenarios for how these new influences might change the environment in which news media operate, and then analyzed their ramifications. The process requires an extremely high order understanding of the roles and functioning of media in society and of how news consumers interact with both established and emerging forms through an expanding range of technologies.
Approximately 20 draft scenarios were initially constructed. Then, based on their analyses, the teams identified five with the highest levels of “critical uncertainty.” This means that the scenarios incorporate factors evaluated as among the most influential and controlling as concerns the form and function of future news media but that are also the most unclear and indeterminate as concerns how they will develop over the period of time in study.
The teams then created narratives – essentially short stories – around each of the five scenarios that use analysis of current trends and data to envision the details of how journalism and news media might function in the next 10 years. In each scenario, the teams had to account for potential financial, political, technological, societal and even environmental developments. In some cases they also had to factor in completely unpredictable developments, such as some fundamental shift in one or more of these driving forces as a result of sudden invention or calamity. The teams’ goal was to make their narratives plausible and fact-based while also challenging conventional thinking about what could possibly develop.
Here is a summary of the five completed scenarios:
- Cloud Journalism – What if the cloud became where every form of information and media exchange took place? Naturally then, the cloud is also where journalism would hap¬pen. However, it’s not just about technology and remotely stored content. It’s about the radical changes in lifestyle that result from universal access and a searchable interconnectedness that the early Internet hardly dreamt of. Scenario leader: Jonathan Lintner. Research writers: Abigail Harvey, Joshua Moore and Kate Parrish.
- Social News – What if social media became the world’s primary information and media conduit? we would live in a thoroughly real-time society where anything that happens anywhere reaches anyone who cares before the echo even fades. People would be constantly contributing to the infostream, in the process redefining what it means to be “news” and what it is to be a professional journalist. Scenario leader: Colleen Stewart. Research writers: Brittany Smith and Mary Beth Wimsatt.
- The Public Option – What if the government had to get involved in making sure people get the information they need? Such intervention might be contemplated if today’s fundamental financial and digital realignment of private, commercial news media makes it more difficult for people to obtain sufficient useful information tomorrow about what is going on around the nation and the world. Scenario leader: Ethan Millspaugh. Research writers: Celeste Laurent and Angela Oliver.
- Extreme Mobile – What if everything converged into a single mobile device that connects you to… everything? The smartphone/tablet/netbook/laptop could evolve into the most ubiquitous device on the planet – a personal link providing individuals with information and media in a portable, well-connected form at a relatively low price. Journalism would have to work differently in a thoroughly wireless, anything anywhere society. Scenario leader: Megan Edwards. Research writers: Preston Anderson, Allison Case and Petre Freeman.
- Smart TV – What if television developed to its full potential with connectivity and digital bandwidth? The media and information appliance at the center of most homes and offices could bear about as much resemblance to today’s broadcast receiver as the smartphone resembles early telephone handsets. And just as smartphones reinvented mobile communications, smart TV would reinvent visual media and journalism. Scenario leader: Alex Duke. Research writers: Deonna Kelly and Corey Ogburn.