2. Scenarios: A user guide

The purpose of this chapter is to explain how scenario planning can be used by a variety of audiences, those who want to use ideas about futures that haven’t occurred to play their part in shaping the future that will. For those wishing to become practitioners of strategic foresight or to create their own scenarios, please refer to the many resources on this topic.1

Education systems currently face multiple pressures, including economic disruption; international tensions; polarisation and declining trust; large-scale migration; and ageing populations. The immediacy of today’s challenges often means that governments fail to take the time to step out of the here and now and engage with the future at all (Fuerth and Faber, 2012[1]). At the same time, the future will be no less challenging: climate-related crises, further digitalisation of economies and societies, and new forms of political turbulence both at home and abroad could make for a future that is very different from what is commonly expected.

What does it mean to be future-fit in such a challenging context? Attempting to predict or forecast the future is of limited benefit in a world of high uncertainty. What is highly valuable, however, is to identify a number of different plausible future scenarios, explore what impacts they could have and identify potential implications for policies. It is also important to look beyond the scope of traditional policy silos and consider how multiple developments can intersect and interact in unexpected ways. Change may be happening further and faster than our deliberative (and sometimes lengthy) policy processes are designed to cope with, and when change grows exponentially, so too must an education system’s ability to respond to it.

Strategic foresight is a discipline which involves the structured consideration of ideas about the future to identify ways to make better decisions in the present. It is founded on the principle that our ability to predict the future is always limited, but that it is possible to make wise decisions anyway by imagining and using multiple futures. Strategic foresight is required whenever there is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding changes to the relevant future context. This applies as much to broad national decisions as to decisions in particular sectors or policy domains such as education. Strategic foresight has three main benefits:

  • Anticipation: identifying what’s changing and how to prepare for it; avoiding blind spots; considering developments that do not seem intuitively relevant, likely, or impactful, but which could catch us by surprise.

  • Policy innovation: revealing options for action that make sense in new circumstances, and which reframe or refresh our understanding of the present.

  • Future-proofing: stress-testing existing plans, strategies, or policies by subjecting them to varying conditions.

The word ‘user’ occurs frequently in strategic foresight practice. This is because, unlike prediction and forecasting, which attempt to identify one correct future that is the same for everyone, strategic foresight explores multiple versions of the future that help someone in particular. The envisaged user in this publication is the reader’s educational establishment or organisation – for example a school, a ministry of education, or a municipality.

Strategic foresight uses many different methods such as scanning the horizon for signals for future change2; building visions of desirable futures and working out what steps would be needed to realise them; and road mapping the development of technologies. For the purposes of this chapter, two sets of methods are particularly important: trends and scenarios.

Trends are a fundamental part of futures thinking. They show multiple ways in which the past and the present give rise to the future by forecasting what might happen if a trend were to continue. Trends help us to tell the difference between what is constant, what is changing, and what is constantly changing. They also often challenge our assumptions and biases about what is really happening. Publications such as Trends Shaping Education (OECD, 2019[4]) have the additional value of demonstrating the importance of broader developments outside a given domain because the biggest disruptions to a system may well originate outside that system.

Scenarios are intentionally fictional, and never contain predictions or recommendations. Participation and dialogue are indispensable to the effective use of scenarios.  

Scenarios are sets of alternative futures (usually three or four to compare) in the form of snapshots or stories giving an image of a future context. They are intentionally fictional, and never contain predictions or recommendations. They are constructed for the purpose of learning and taking action in the present. This is achieved by generating, testing, and reframing ideas about what might happen.

Scenarios are more than just an extrapolation of a given trend, but they can take trends into account by describing how the future might look if one or more trends were to continue (or change course). Scenarios themselves have no intrinsic value; it is the process of creating or using them in the context of strategic dialogue that makes them worthwhile.

Scenarios are particularly widespread in the practice of strategic foresight, and multiple schools of thought exist on how they should be developed and used. In general though, for readers of this publication, scenarios are a particularly beneficial foresight approach because of three aspects:

  • Exploration: scenarios offer a safe space for experts to disagree and challenge each other’s assumptions. Knowing that a scenario is not a future we expect to occur means we can be freer in our discussions. It is not possible or desirable to be ‘right’ about the future in a scenario discussion. This is partly why scenarios come in sets rather than just as one. Exploring the future allows us to let go of our deeply held assumptions which may be proven unfounded and harmful if left unchallenged.

  • Context: scenarios encourage us to consider what the future will feel like; what it would be like if the paradigm that governs our way of thinking were to change. Whereas forecasting and predictions tend to focus on individual metrics or events, scenarios allow us to consider the future as a whole: ‘the big picture’.

  • Narrative: scenarios can become powerful tools for creating shared understanding within an organisation on how to act. By creating a set of experiences about the future with their own characters, events, and logic, good scenario narratives are memorable enough to become part of an organisation’s way of thinking.


[2] Airaksinen, T., I. Halinen and H. Linturi (2017), “Futuribles of learning 2030 - Delphi supports the reform of the core curricula in Finland”, European Journal of Futures Research, Vol. 5/1, https://doi.org/10.1007/s40309-016-0096-y.

[1] Fuerth, L. and E. Faber (2012), Anticipatory Governance Practical Upgrades: Equipping the Executive Branch to Cope with Increasing Speed and Complexity of Major Challenges, Institute for National Strategic Studies, Washington, DC.

[5] Ministry of Education (2020), Learn for Life – Ready for the Future: Refreshing Our Curriculum and Skillsfuture for Educators, https://www.moe.gov.sg/news/press-releases/learn-for-life--ready-for-the-future--refreshing-our-curriculum-and-skillsfuture-for-educators (accessed on 25 March 2020).

[3] Ministry of Education and Culture (2019), Anticipation of skills and education needs in Finland, https://minedu.fi/documents/1410845/4150027/Anticipation+of+skills+and+education+needs/d1a00302-8773-bbe0-39a0-46e0d688d350/Anticipation+of+skills+and+education+needs.pdf.

[4] OECD (2019), Trends Shaping Education 2019, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/trends_edu-2019-en.


← 1. For example, Ramírez, R., and A. Wilkinson (2016), Strategic Reframing: The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

← 2. Horizon scanning itself can be done in an infinite number of ways, depending on what the user is looking for. This can include iterative reviews, automated text mining, expert surveys, and web scraping. The purpose is not to find the ‘right’ ideas about the future, but to identify instead the strong and weaker signals of change occurring in the present that could be surprising and significant in the future from the perspective of the user.

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