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Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future

By Adam Kahane

“What might happen?” Anyone who seeks a systematic answer to this question will usually want to consider events and developments that are regarded as plausible. This is the method that Adam Kahane followed, when as head of Shell’s scenarios department in the early 1990s, he was asked to oversee the Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise in South Africa.

At the time, the apartheid system had come to an end, and the country’s future was uncertain: between peaceful reform and a civil war, anything seemed possible. Instigated by the left-wing opposition, the project was originally intended to highlight alternative development possibilities, but it turned out to be highly integrative. Over the course of several months, representatives of all groups in society – including those who had fought violently against the apartheid regime – were able to jointly outline four scenarios for the country’s future.

These four alternative blueprints for the future became important points of reference in political discussions, and influenced the positions of key actors. For example, the surprisingly strict budgetary policy of the subsequent ANC government under Nelson Mandela can be traced back to these preceding thought experiments. 

The Mont Fleur project is an excellent example of the method’s potential for bringing people together to forge a better future. In the second part of his essay, the author sets out the conditions under which scenario development can initiate change and reconciliation processes, and resolve frozen conflicts. These include: a representative team of high-profile and influential stakeholders, a rigorous process, and a stable framework (“strong container”).

According to Kahane, the all-important transformation essentially takes place at the personal level. Because everyone involved ­changes – in terms of their views and intentions as well as their relationships with each other and their actions – it becomes possible for the situation as a whole to change.

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