What if?

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.

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Envisioning the future of journalism and news media