Psychological future scenarios

Rea­ding time: 4 minu­tes

It is not pos­si­ble to look into the crys­tal ball. But there are methods that can pro­vide plan­ning cer­tainty and inspi­ra­tion. A cri­ti­cal com­pa­ri­son of fore­cas­ting methods.

Rarely has uncer­tainty about the future been grea­ter than it is today (at least as far as the last few deca­des are con­cer­ned). Hardly anyone who does­n’t ask them­sel­ves ques­ti­ons like: Will there be a new lock­down in a few weeks? Should I bet­ter buy toi­let paper? What will 2021 bring us? Will there be a vac­cine then? What will the world look like in the next few years? How will my indus­try deve­lop, how will the mar­ket deve­lop, what new risks will I face? How will my cus­to­mers think and act? Do I need to change my stra­te­gies, and if so, how and when?

But fore­cas­ting is dif­fi­cult, as a look at the various sci­en­ti­fi­cally based fore­cas­ting approa­ches shows.

Futu­ro­logy uses quan­ti­ta­tive and qua­li­ta­tive methods and (com­pu­ter) simu­la­ti­ons to inves­ti­gate future deve­lo­p­ments in tech­no­logy, busi­ness or society. The suc­ces­ses are mode­rate, as retro­s­pec­tive obser­va­tions show. One exam­ple: Of the pre­dic­tions for the year 2000 published by the Hud­son Insti­tute in the 1960s (“You will expe­ri­ence it — Science’s pre­dic­tions up to the year 2000”), only about half came true. The pro­ba­bi­lity esti­mate pro­ved to be not very relia­ble. What was inte­res­t­ing about the com­pa­ri­son of the pre­dic­tions and the deve­lo­p­ments that actually occur­red was that desi­ra­ble events ten­ded to occur more fre­quently. A simi­lar pic­ture emer­ges for the pre­dic­tions of the Club of Rome in 1972. The fact that most of the gloomy pre­dic­tions did not become rea­lity to the ext­ent pre­dic­ted is attri­bu­ted to the fact that the war­ning was suc­cessful and led to a change in thin­king. The pre­dic­tions appar­ently influen­ced the future.

Trend rese­arch
Trend rese­arch is, in a way, the little sis­ter of futu­ro­logy. It exami­nes cur­rent deve­lo­p­ments and makes pre­dic­tions for short- to medium-term peri­ods at best: What is curr­ently appa­rent and is likely to remain valid in the near future? A large part of mar­ket rese­arch is quasi-trend rese­arch; its results are usually only imple­men­ted one or two years later any­way, e.g. in the deve­lo­p­ment of inno­va­tions that are then expec­ted to be suc­cessful for a few years. In times like the cur­rent Corona cri­sis, howe­ver, trend rese­arch also rea­ches its limits. Moreo­ver, it only assu­mes unques­tio­nin­gly that cur­rent trends will con­ti­nue and does not sys­te­ma­ti­cally inves­ti­gate future developments.

Del­phi method
In the Del­phi method, experts are asked about their assess­ment of future deve­lo­p­ments. As a rule, this is car­ried out in seve­ral stages and with the aid of a cata­log of ques­ti­ons and topics. This method also gene­ra­tes more incor­rect fore­casts and does not pro­vide a relia­ble basis for stra­te­gic cor­po­rate decis­i­ons. Experts also can­not really look into the future.

The fact that all these methods pro­vide little in the way of relia­ble fore­casts is not sur­pri­sing. In com­plex, inter­ac­ting sys­tems, this is not pos­si­ble in prin­ci­ple. A trend can con­ti­nue, acce­le­rate, wea­ken and be repla­ced by com­ple­tely dif­fe­rent deve­lo­p­ments. A “wild card” — an unex­pec­ted event — throws ever­y­thing over any­way. Corona is such a wild card.

Sce­na­rio tech­ni­que
Only the sce­na­rio tech­ni­que per­forms well. Strictly spea­king, howe­ver, it is not a fore­cas­ting method. It does not pre­dict any­thing, but deve­lops alter­na­tive “futures” based on the actual situa­tion. It coll­ects and struc­tures influen­cing fac­tors — usually for a cle­arly defi­ned area — and descri­bes their pos­si­ble inter­con­nec­tions, effects and pos­si­bi­li­ties for influen­cing each other. This sys­te­ma­tic ana­ly­sis usually results in seve­ral and often very dif­fe­rent future scenarios.

The pur­pose of the sce­na­rio tech­ni­que is also not to pre­dict the future. Rather, it is inten­ded to pro­vide bet­ter plan­ning cer­tainty, to help peo­ple find their way through the com­ple­xity more easily. In the 1970s, for exam­ple, Shell had alre­ady used sce­na­rio tech­ni­ques to play through a sud­den reduc­tion in sup­ply on the crude oil mar­ket and the­r­e­fore alre­ady had pos­si­ble solu­ti­ons for the oil cri­sis in the pipe­line. In the end, the group had bet­ter balance sheets than its competitors.

Psy­cho­lo­gi­cal sce­na­rios
Psy­cho­lo­gi­cal sce­na­rios are an appli­ca­tion of the clas­sic sce­na­rio tech­ni­que to the con­su­mer sec­tor. We create such sce­na­rios — usually fol­lo­wing a base­line and trend study — as part of the “Future Guide”. In addi­tion to exter­nal influen­cing fac­tors, psy­cho­lo­gi­cal fac­tors are expli­citly taken into account. Inte­res­t­ingly, such fac­tors pro­vide a cer­tain con­stant in the equa­tion with many unknowns, because not­hing signi­fi­cant has chan­ged in human needs at a fun­da­men­tal level over the mil­len­nia. Even today, we can still relate to the psy­cho­lo­gi­cal dra­ma­turgy of love, betra­yal, power, or envy in Shakespeare’s works as if they had been writ­ten today.

Of course, it is impos­si­ble to pre­dict what will be fashionable in 5 or 10 years’ time, or which pro­ducts will excite peo­ple. But what basi­cally tou­ches, frigh­tens, fasci­na­tes or exci­tes peo­ple about pro­ducts, brands or mes­sa­ges can. This helps — despite all the unpre­dic­ta­ble exter­nal fac­tors — to describe sce­na­rios with at least rough pro­ba­bi­li­ties of occurrence.

But be careful: It is not hel­pful to sim­ply ask con­su­mers about their needs or desi­res. Most peo­ple can­not sim­ply ima­gine — and thus “wish” — what will be pos­si­ble in the future. Ever­yone knows the famous phrase attri­bu­ted to Henry Ford: “If I had asked peo­ple what they wan­ted, they would have said: fas­ter hor­ses”. This requi­res a tho­rough psy­cho­lo­gi­cal ana­ly­sis, unco­ve­ring the pri­mal human level “behind” the cur­rent desi­res. Fac­tors such as iner­tia, con­ve­ni­ence and social desi­ra­bi­lity must also be sub­trac­ted. For the sce­na­rios, these are then trans­la­ted back to the con­crete and ever­y­day realm.

In addi­tion to incre­asing plan­ning relia­bi­lity, such psy­cho­lo­gi­cal sce­na­rios also have ano­ther advan­tage: they are inspi­ra­tion for a future that we are only crea­ting, much like sci­ence fic­tion has suc­cee­ded in doing for deca­des. The psy­cho­lo­gi­cal sce­na­rios we have deve­lo­ped on behalf of cli­ents as a “Future Guide” have often pro­ved to be a good basis for the deve­lo­p­ment of ideas and innovations.

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