Scenarios for Coping with Complexity and Crafting a Sustainable Future

For strategic decision making, teasing apart the complex and unpredictable from what is just complicated is at best informed guesswork. Scenario building can help build a better present and a sustainable future.

David Krakauer, Santa Fe Institute, penned an essay on thinking about history, which led me to reflect on different approaches to decision-making.

In our own time, narrative reasoning — outside of artwork — is either quaintly ingenuous, wishful thinking, or ideologically motivated moonshine. Complex reality emerges through a kind of complex time, in which a multiplicity of causal factors at many scales lead to an endless series of events. One way to apprehend this complexity is through methods or frameworks that can deal with irreducible complexity, either with coarse-graining observations and understanding how much information is being lost, or by working within methods that eschew easy explanations in terms of patterns and schemes that provide a means of classifying varieties of historical sequence.

For those of us who work with municipalities, non-profits, and or community organizations to make strategic decisions and action plans, teasing apart that which is truly complex and unpredictable from that which is just complicated and patterned is at best well informed guesswork. Even participants have skill in organizational development, strategic planning, trend analysis, complexity, risk management, and related disciplines, making good decisions is tough.

Facilitating groups through the tangle of their issues is challenging. For instance, let’s say you are the General Manager of a water utility. Your analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats over a 20-year time horizon, needs to include not just water sourcing, treatment, distribution, and payor rates, but also climate change, socio-political turmoil, economic calamity, and infectious diseases — each of which is a textbook example of complexity. Is it any wonder few leaders and even fewer constituents have appetite for thinking in terms of complexity? They are viscerally struggling with the disconnect between what was once a slow changing industry compared to what is now an explosion of multi-dimensional unpredictability — the result of many exponential trends hitting their perceivable thresholds. Even if the necessary data and analysis were accessible to leaders in such settings, overcoming the hurdle of their overwhelm is a tall order.

During my 30 year consulting history, including exposure to complexity authors like Stewart Kauffman and others, I settled on simplified (and imperfect) forms of scenario planning to cut through the fog of unpredictability that leaders and their staffs, boards, and constituents would just as soon avoid considering.

Exercises that explore “what ifs” that are set up to account for unpredictability in relevant domains has proven to be fairly effective, though certainly rough cut and wooly. Included in scenario activities, for example, participants are asked complexity-theory-inspired questions such as “What small change in this scenario could trigger outsized side-effects (i.e., what might be the final snowflake that triggers an avalanche of change)?” While most groups have some tolerance for these activities, they usually prefer to stick to linear thinking within ideological comfort zones. It is possible to get them to lean into a few “fantastical” scenarios — wild stuff that all too often these days becomes lived reality.

Such activities are useful for expanding and testing assumptions in the planning process as well as “crash testing” strategic proposals. They can, on occasion, lead to epiphanies that have positive knock-on effects beyond the task at hand.

Sometimes, the “wildcard” scenario gets people to consider high-likelihood high-impact changes at home (such as extreme weather events) that had previously been a real blind-spot due to prevailing belief system. As the old saying goes, it’s not what you don’t know that will hurt you, it’s what you know that isn’t so. An ounce of world view expansion, however one can get it done, is nearly always better than a pound of emergency response.

If we elevate the notion of world view expansion from local government strategic planning groups to social movements in large populations, the role of the scenario builders grows in significance. One class of scenario builders has made huge impacts: science fiction authors and their amplifiers in cinema and other popular culture. If, as David Krakauer posits above, history has never been the result of a linear cause-effect narrative, if it has never been the result of predictable cyclical patterns, then perhaps history is recording the collective side-effects of humanity’s most compelling mental models and imagined scenarios. Taking that a step further, compelling scenarios of humanity’s future — that operate within the boundaries imposed by biology, chemistry, physics, and the capacity of the human mind — must be the seeds of our future, the history yet to be lived and written.

Future scenarios have been crafted by many authors and organizations. Kim Stanley Robinson’s more recent titles are great examples of fiction that is built on the most contemporary science, and therefore may give a glimpse of how we may live what is inbound. Two of Robinson’s books worth exploring include: “The Ministry of the Future” (2020) and “Green Earth” (2015), both of which deal with understanding, mitigating, and surviving climate change. The scenarios published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( while not as easy to read are just as compelling, even though they are explicitly developed to dispel denier fictions.

Whether the goal is to avoid dystopian futures or move toward utopian futures, scenarios help build the mental models upon which action can be based, the actions that will generate our future history.

I hold that humanity has a shot at a sustainable future, one that can be realized through human agency, but which will still require no small amount of luck as well. How much of a shot will be will be, in part, determined by how far we can stretch our world views away from those assumptions that got us to this tipping point of converging threats. The task is to stretch and claw our way into world views that facilitate action toward a history of sustainability and planetary regeneration. Is it complex? You bet. Is it doable? Working with realistic scenarios that it is goes a long way toward making it so.

Cover image credit: By BluePankow — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,




Innovation ecosystems — leadership, strategy, culture, and narrative

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Joe Sterling

Joe Sterling

Innovating where social justice, public health, and community wealth building intersect. Designer/facilitator of accelerated group collaborations.

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