Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Exploring Environmental Futures

Using Scenarios to Improve
Environmental Decision Making

A 90-Minute Experiential Workshop

We have described this workshop previously, and we continue to be very pleased with its reception and utility. We are pleased to announce that the Society for Organizational Learning will be offering this program to members as part of its Conversations with Global Citizens program on December 10th from 3:15 to 5:30PM. Participation may be available to non-members. Chris Doyon (617-300-9515) at the SoL office if you wish to attend.

Overview: There are multiple, conflicting perspectives on the threat posed by the aggregation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the strategic implications of climate dynamics remains a hotly debated topic. Instead of imposing any one point of view, this experiential learning approach uses the thoughts, feelings and impressions of a group of participants to explore the implications of four archetypal scenarios for organizational choices and strategy development. It encourages robust conversations regarding the facts associated with greenhouse gases while legitimating a range of differing opinions. Better strategic decisions emerge when a group engages a controversial subject using a process based on mutual respect. This program has been piloted to positive reviews in 2009 at the University of Hawaii’s Research Center for Futures Studies and the Association for Strategic Planning’s national conference.

Elaboration: Despite an enormous body of scientific evidence emphasizes its dire consequences, global warming remains a virtually invisible, low priority issue to the vast majority of people and organizations in the world. Discussions of global warming and climate change often take place among people who already agree with each other. And, as captured in Jared Diamond's of the environmental debates that are raging in Montana and elsewhere, when people don’t agree about ecological matters, their conversations and their actions quickly polarize. What is needed is a method that gets people to listen to each other, consider possibilities and arrive at decisions together.

We believe that it is not necessary for participants to fully embrace the reality of global warming in order to support cleaner, healthier environments and sustainable practices. No one wants to live in a waste dump. And, there is no disagreement that CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere and that temperatures are rising. What these facts mean and how much they should concern us is, however, a source of intense contention.

This workshop uses the impact of the rising level of atmospheric CO2 as a “critical uncertainty” upon which to focus. It is critical because greenhouse gases have tremendous actual and potential impact. While most people accept as fact the rising level of CO2, the impact is uncertain; there is wide spread divergence over what can be done and when to take action.

Using Art of the Future’s Scenario Game Board, participants position themselves according to their beliefs regarding two dimensions of change:

• The speed with which greenhouse gases will exert an impact on human life -- one person may feel that New York City will be under water in the foreseeable future while another might contend that climate change is a complete hoax.

• The nature of the response to these impacts -- paralyzing fear or engaged action?

Divergent perspectives spark the process; they are woven into alternative scenarios for the group’s consideration.

Our own research indicates that these dimensions (gradual vs. abrupt impact and reactive vs. creative response) are fundamental to understanding the images of the future held by people across a wide-range of cultures. The future will always be different than what we expect, and our expectations are frequently way off the mark. However, learning to see and accept a range of possible future conditions is a powerful step forward in the expansion of thought and resulting action.

The dimensions create a two-by-two matrix that provides the basis for four archetypal scenarios crafted by Jim Dator and his colleagues that can be applied to many critical uncertainties. Briefly stated, these scenarios are:

1. Discipline: Making forward movement through mature, disciplined choices.
2. Status Quo: Preserving current or idealized values and life-styles
3. Transformation: Finding a breakthrough pathway to a dramatically improved set of conditions
4. Collapse: A breakdown of social, economic and/or political systems

The participants in this workshop, based on their position along these dimensions, discover that they are aligned with one of these archetypal scenarios. They are then asked to elaborate the conditions of life in that scenario, exchanging information and insights that everyone finds useful, surprising and provocative.

The workshop concludes with the search for robust and contingent strategies. The group arrives at its own conclusions regarding strategies that would be effective in all scenarios (robust) and those that work in one or several (contingent).

Art of the Future offers versions of this stimulating workshop to any organization, institution or community that would like to explore the range of perspectives held on environmental issues. Please contact us via email by writing or by phone at 617-335-9776.

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