Teaching (Awful) Scenario Writing

I teach strategic foresight to business students in an art school. So there is very little that is conventional about the course, the program, or the students. One of the essential skills of becoming a foresight practitioner is the ability to write compelling and relevant scenarios — stories about possible futures. Yet, in my experience, most early attempts at scenario writing by students (and others) are extremely conventional: using stereotypes, worn out tropes, bad logic, non sequiturs, and other critical failures of narrative is all too common.

Scenarios, while sharing qualities with many other types of writing and communicating, are a genre unto themselves. My job is to provide methods and structures for developing robust scenarios and communicating them effectively. This semester, I decided to try a “backdoor” approach to developing good scenarios — I had the students write bad scenarios. But just as scenario writers need some basic rules to write good scenario, so do they need some rules for the bad.

To aid the students in their intentionally terrible pursuit, they were directed to my friend and colleague Jamais Cascio’s helpful primer: Ten Rules for Creating Awful Scenarios.

Jamais has some fine recommendations:

One change at a time. Too many changes are confusing, so the only approach is to take a single point of difference from today to its logical conclusion.
The only changes that matter are technological changes. And by technology, you should mean consumer information technology.
Stuff works. Every new invention performs exactly as intended, with no opportunities for misuse.
You only need to talk about the economically-dominant social group in your own country, e.g., middle-class white American guys. Other groups and other countries will just emulate them.

With this solid pedagogical guidance, I predicted terrible scenarios would inevitably follow. And as with all predictions, mine was 100% right.

Below are a two glorious examples of awful scenarios developed by the students. The scariest part is not how dreadful these in particular are, but rather how frequently one sees these types of scenarios (and worse) in the media.

The Future of Latin America
by Diogo Ribeiro, Isa Harvey, & Stephanie Knabe
Monsanto takes over all agriculture in all of Latin America. They put a virus in corn that acts as an aphrodisiac making people more sexually active. At the same time, Monsanto makes corn beer that targeted to the most impoverished levels of society. As a result, the impoverished, super sexually active people start reproducing deformed children at an accelerated rate. As the deformed children are born they are removed from society to serve as human test subjects for sending people to Mars.

From Monsanto mutants on Mars, to something a little closer to home…

The Future of Virtual Reality
Whitney Bush, Liz Kukka, Andy Greenwood
The year is 2020. But then again, you already knew that because your heads up VR display lets you know anything you want. Depression has been on the rise as in person interaction is basically a thing of the past now that virtual exchanges are so real. Families have been torn apart as incompatible brands of VR headsets disallow communication.
Luckily, the stress of political debate and ideological differences are not the kind of thing we face on a daily basis anymore. Since everything is virtual, we can pick the opinions and information we are exposed to. In a bizarre turn of events, videogame designer nerds are now the cultural rockstars of our time as most new jobs have moved into the virtual world. The word “virtual” has now been added to at least 40% of job titles. Luckily, most of the environmental issues have become less of a problem due to the new sedentary “virtual” lifestyle. Or maybe it is still a problem…I haven’t been outside in a while. Either way, the future is bright.
A Futurologist

The future IS bright, so grab your shades and write some fantabulous scenarios like a real futurologist.