Curious about what the world will look like in the future? Ask the AMIDs!

It’s December 2019 and our year at AMID is reaching its end. The trainees are preparing their final Position Papers while planning their next career steps. We’re realising that the high intensity and wide scope of the AMID degree have taught us a lot - both about ourselves as well as the world around us. In such a mood of reflection and looking ahead, what could be more appropriate than synthesizing all the knowledge that we’ve gathered, and planning possible scenarios for the future of the world? For this particular exercise, the focal themes were food security and climate change. Let us walk through the journey.

 

STEP 1: STUDY THE SYSTEM

Scenario planning is a common practice in international development, which looks at existing/emerging trends and their plausible combinations in order to manage risks and guide strategic decisions and actions. To create well-informed scenarios, we need to first investigate the current state of affairs with thorough scrutiny and gather enough base-line knowledge. Prof. Dr. Ruben (WUR) joined in to provide us with exactly that. He started out by expressing that “I am not looking for harmony, I like tensions. And to address tensions, we need a systems approach.” Indeed, both focal themes of our scenario-planning exercise - food security and climate change - can be characterized by high complexity (for illustration, see a depiction of global food systems below). 

 

This means that we need to resort to the perspective and tools offered by systems thinking, which allow us to examine how various elements influence each other (complementarities vs trade-offs), consider how multiple actors have competing interests or different views of the problem, and accept that there is no single explanation for its cause - nor a single solution that fits all situations. To exemplify systems thinking in the context of food security and climate change, Dr. Ruben outlined various potential trade-offs, which triggered AMIDs to think and debate:

 

Increase intake of vegetables and animal-based products

→ 

Lower crop yields and more input use for cereals

High dietary diversity

Less biodiversity

More (ultra)processed foods (saturated fat) 

Loss of nutritional quality and food safety

Lower income share for food

More investments required for climate-smart agriculture (CSA)

 

STEP 2: DETERMINE DRIVERS OF CHANGE

After investigating the system and harvesting sufficient background information, the next steps in our scenario-planning exercise was to understand the most influential trends or drivers of change: these are the factors whose strengthening or diminishing has the strongest effect on future outcomes. Some drivers of change are fairly certain and predictable. For example, global population growth during the upcoming decades could be considered a given. However, for visionary scenario-planning, one needs to uncover and build their analysis around critical uncertainties, which are those drivers of change that will “most profoundly and unpredictably impact the focal question” (Scenarios Analysis of Food Systems by World Economic Forum, 2017).

Scenario-planning essentially entails creating an axis where the drivers of change are appointed as the titles, and their two poles indicate the two potential extremities: the maximally “good” and “bad” outcomes. For WEF’s analysis, for instance, the selected drivers of change were “Markets” and “Demand Shift”:

 

To design their own axes, the AMID trainees gathered in small teams to brainstorm on which drivers of change are the most influential yet uncertain in the context of for food security and climate change. Here are three examples of axes that they came up with:

 

 

STEP 3: DEEPEN & DESCRIBE

 

Once the two uncertainties are paired, a scenario-planning matrix reveals four possible futures which - very simply put - range from the best (Good+Good) to the worst (Bad+Bad). It was time for the AMIDs to deepen their understanding of what each of their quadrants would look like, describe them in detail and find the most informative, yet catchy headlines. This process involved asking ourselves various questions (Who has the power? Who are the winners/losers?) and figuring out the causes and implications of each outcome. To illustrate the process, let us examine the worst-case scenario by WEF- the “Survival of the Richest”:

 

STEP 4: VISUALIZE THE SCENARIO

 

Words are important, but images can be even more powerful. The final stage of the scenario-planning exercise involved the visualization of the potential futures as well as presenting - or rather acting them out - on the stage, without using any words. These acts were judged by a jury of professionals from the field. This task spurred a wave of excitement among AMIDs, who welcomed the opportunity to complement their rational and evidence-based scenarios with images, poetry and music. There could not have been a better way to end an intense year of the traineeship than with a bit of fun and creativity. Here are three of the outcomes!

 

References:

World Economic Forum. (2017, January). Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenarios Analysis.
In
World Economic Forum. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/IP/2016/NVA/WEF_FSA_FutureofGlobalFoodSystems.pdf

Global Food System. ShiftN, 2009. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Global-Food-System-Map-3-Source-ShiftN-2009_fig1_331311296

Informative videos:
https://youtu.be/krU01hlCdxo 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVgxZnRT54E 

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Written by Maria Sakarias (Masterpeace) on the lecture on Scenario Planning by Ruerd Ruben (WEcR), 29 November 2019