Adam Kahane’s latest book Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future is a concise and useful methodological summary of his innovative scenario work (e.g. in South Africa). But it left me with many unanswered questions.
On the one hand, I’m attracted to this collaborative approach to scenario work which explicitly aims to influence the future, not just to better understand future possibilities. (He terms traditional approaches ‘adaptive scenario planning’). Indeed, Kahane claims that “transformative scenario planning is a particularly effective way for a team of actors to generate collaborative forward movement on a complex, stuck, problematic situation” (p.92).
On the other hand it’s clear that this work is not a “silver bullet” or for the faint hearted; perhaps it’s also rarely worth the effort. Kahane notes that in his experience 50% of transformative scenario planning projects fail to get past the first step (which involves convening a team from across a whole system); that much of the time he’s “not really knowing whether the processes have produced failure of success” (p.79); and, furthermore, that the “failure or success [of these processes] cannot be controlled or predicted or even known” (p.80). Kahane also acknowledges that “this process is not as direct or immediate as I thought right after Mont Fleur” (the famous scenario process he led in South Africa during the national transition from apartheid in the early 1990s).
It’s great to have access to such an honest, first-hand account of futures work. From the perspective of PhD research it highlights the need for more research on how collaborative futures work is evolving for intervening in ‘wicked problems’, as others have called for (e.g. Wilkinson & Mangalagiu). Kahane’s account is also problematically theory-light.
I also found myself questioning some of Kahane’s views. For example, he argues that the future is a neutral space in which actors can better collaborate (p.20). I tend to agree with others who view the future as “the actual playing field of power”, and with critical social scientists who argue that futures processes are never neutral.