Index of papers Phil Gyford: web | email
Spring 2000
Futures Methods II

Analysing Scenarios


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[ Scenario 1 | Scenario 2 | Scenario 3 ]

'Things Fall Apart,' from New Media Knowledge's Report From the Future, October 1999

'Things Fall Apart' is one of four scenarios generated in an effort to forecast possible futures for the UK new media industry in 2004. The 1999 project was supported by New Media Knowledge (a publicly-funded organisation) and London's SUN-ICA New Media Centre. Given the speed with which the Internet industry is developing, the organisers made an effort to condense the usually lengthy scenario-planning exercise into as short a time as possible, while still allowing contributions and discussions from many sources.

To this end, the first stage of the project, christened 'Living Scenarios,' was an online discussion forum where 200 people were invited to take part in an ongoing brainstorm. This also, in theory but, as they discovered, not necessarily in practice, allowed people to become familiar with each other in a short space of time, before meeting in the flesh for the second phase. This consisted of a one-day event at which the scenarios themselves were created. The final, ongoing, stage of 'Living Scenarios' (which takes place after the publication of the initial scenarios) is a series of monthly planning sessions to keep track of emerging trends and events.

This scenario is the most detailed of the quartet which emerged from this process, and is certainly the most pessimistic. It describes how the Internet bubble burst in a big way, with the public and industry realising many .com companies had little going for them. Market demand failed to grow at anything like projected rates, and a huge fraud investigation into an online pensions company instigated a series of drastic governmental reforms. The morning following the publishing of a White Paper imposing heavy taxes, licences and restrictions, the share prices of new media companies fell 70 per cent. This was 2003, and TV companies had already been expanding their technologies and introducing their own proprietary satellite-, digital- and cable-based networks which were far more attractive and reliable for the public than the chaotic Internet.

The chronology of 'Things Fall Apart' is written as the reminiscences of David Smith, a computer programmer thinking back to the good old days and what went wrong. The four scenarios are designed by and for the British new media industry so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that networks and electronics are their focus. However, they suffer from this narrow view and even this, the longest of the four, lacks colour and memorable images. It adequately describes the gradual collapse of an industry, but seems too bland for many causes or incidents to stick in one's memory. This may in part be due to the scenarios' tight focus at the expense of other areas of life; only one scenario gives an impression of what every day life might be like, and in this the suicidal man surrounded by an automated home doesn't encourage one to identify with him! There is little describing personal futures and thus the scenarios have a tendency to seem slightly abstract and distant, unless the reader is concerned about the future position of his/her new media company. Which may of course be the sole intention.

Why is this? It could be that there was limited space in which to publish the scenarios, so they had to be brief, and tightly focused. There may well have been descriptions of the everyday life which we miss in the final form. On the other hand, it sounded like the large number of contributors were all drawn from the new media industry and perhaps more "outsiders" would have generated more variety. In fact, the report expresses surprise at the level of consensus found within the group:

"Bandwidth will increase. Browsers will improve. Hardware will be upgraded. Legislation will be benign. Laden down with share options, our boat will still come in."

Perhaps the narrow experience of the participants and the short period of time taken to generate the scenarios restricted the amount of "out-of-the-box" thinking that went on. A wider variety of viewpoints on technology, and more time spent encouraging fresh thinking may have created more varied, useful and in-depth scenarios.

[ Scenario 1 | Scenario 2 | Scenario 3 ]

Index of papers Phil Gyford: web | email