COVID-19 Recovery Scenarios For Young People – Part Four: Planning and Preparedness for Critical Uncertainties

Authors: Peter Kelly & James Goring

Until the end of last year, we had blindly turned away from doing anything to address many of the challenges that have been laid out by science and respected commentators. Bigots in our media and parliaments have held sway and prevented much from being done. The result has been a lack of preparation to deal with the serious issues we confront.

This lack of preparedness concerns me. I spent more than 40 years in the defence force watching for events that could present challenges to our national security. Successes under my leadership were made possible by preparedness and a federal government that listened carefully and acted appropriately.

With the shock of the bushfires and fire storms of the last summer followed by floods and now with the global Covid-19 pandemic Australians have experienced first-hand the manifestation of a significant lack of preparedness fostered by the absence of strong, principled and effective leadership. The impact of these shocks will have a lasting impact on our economy, our society, and our wellbeing. The current pandemic is a wake-up call for what needs to be done to counter predictable and potentially existential threats from global warming, and their impact on the climate and other systems critical to human life on the planet.

Chris Barrie, I spent over 40 years in the Australian defence force. The lack of readiness to deal with coronavirus is a wake-up call

Scenario Planning

‘Scenarios are stories about the future,

but their purpose is to make better decisions in the present.’

Ged Davis (2002) Scenarios as a Tool for the 21st Century. (Davis was Vice President, Global Business Environment in Shell International Limited and head of Shell’s Scenarios Team)

In this final post of this series (see, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) we want to provide a brief introduction to some of the principles of scenario planning. This section draws on EY’s work on Future-Back Thinking, and a Field manual prepared out of a scenario planning process facilitated by the European Trade Union Institute. It also draws on a scenario planning process conducted by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), on the Four Futures of Work.

In the first three posts in this series we introduced EY’s concept of Futures-Back Thinking as a means to imagine our futures. As we said,  if we can imagine these possible futures then we can develop a range of plans, a range of options, to embrace the opportunities and meet the challenges that these futures might hold.

Source: Megatrends 2020, p.8

Futures Uncertain

Contexts are changing faster today than in previous times – context itself has become a variable. Scenarios deal with the uncertainty arising from the fact that we don’t know in what kind of future today’s plans and decisions will unfold. Just as maps help us to find our bearings and move around in space, a set of scenarios can illustrate different possible pathways into the future. 

Sascha Meinert (2014). Field manual: Scenario building (p.7)

Scenario planning: a method for uncertain times 

The debate around technology and the future of work grows louder by the day. Rightly so; we’re confronted regularly with news of apparent breakthroughs in radical technologies, seemingly capable of disrupting whole industries, perhaps our very conception of work itself. With livelihoods at stake, it is natural that the public conversation is growing in urgency, along with the expectation for positive action to safeguard a future of good work. This is the need the RSA Future Work Centre was founded to address. Now eight months into our programme, this report marks our attempt to look into the future, highlight critical challenges that may face workers, and offer policy and practice interventions as potential remedies. 

In doing so we have entered a crowded field. Consultancies, think tanks, government departments, media pundits – a wide range of stakeholders have offered their view on how the world of work will shape up in the coming years. But such opinions are largely expressed as predictions: one commentator says 10 percent of jobs are at risk of automation. Another says 5 percent. Yet another claims the true figure is closer to 35 percent. We find these numerical forecasts to be flawed. They are reductive, prone to bias and often based on mistaken assumptions. Above all, they are futile in the face of the vast complexity and unpredictability of major forces in the world, including the development and adoption of new technologies; trends that are impossible to predict with certainty.

Benedict Dellot, Rich Mason and Fabian Wallace-Stephens (2019). The Four Futures of Work (p.5)

Scenarios and Futures

A scenario is a presentation of a possible future situation in narrative form. As a rule, it also portrays causal relationships, which explain how, from the vantage point of the present, we arrived at that particular future in this particular story (‘How might things come to this?’). One important characteristic of the scenario method lies in its explicit inclusion of uncertainties and its comparison of development alternatives that could shape the course of events. Scenarios are distinct from prognoses because they do not set out to predict the future. They are also distinct from utopias (or dystopias), which draw up a desired (or feared) future in the absence of any concretely established connections with the present. While prognoses are suitable for questions dealing with the nearer future, in relation to which developments can be ‘calculated’ with high probability and without major difficulty, utopias deal with the distant future, in relation to which many of today’s certainties no longer hold good. Scenarios, however, play themselves out amidst the realities of today and the mid- to long-term uncertainties.

Sascha Meinert (2014). Field manual: Scenario building (p.8)

In this report we suggest an alternative futures method in the form of scenario planning. Rather than offering a singular prediction for the future of work, this method yields several distinct and divergent visions of what may come to pass. Following this exercise led us to generate four scenarios for the UK labour market in 2035: the Big Tech Economy, the Precision Economy, the Exodus Economy, and the Empathy Economy. While they are not exhaustive portrayals of the future, they capture a wide range of plausible outcomes and present them in a way that is vivid and easy to grasp. Ultimately, we hope these scenarios are a practical tool to help those in positions of responsibility adequately prepare today’s workforce for tomorrow’s workplace, whether that is civil servants in the Treasury advising on changes to tax policy, or FE college leaders questioning how their curricula should evolve to meet new skill demands.

Benedict Dellot, Rich Mason and Fabian Wallace-Stephens (2019). The Four Futures of Work (p.5)

Building scenarios 

Working with our research partners at Arup, we used a method called Morphological Analysis (MA) to help us create our future work scenarios. MA has several advantages but the main one is that it can account for several high impact, highly uncertain drivers of change (or “critical uncertainties”). Given most debates on the future of work hinge on a single uncertainty like the trajectory of artificial intelligence, MA felt certain to offer a fresh and more vivid outlook on the future of work. 

The MA approach entails four main stages: 

1. Identify which high impact drivers are relatively certain versus those that are relatively uncertain, and of the latter decide which are of critical importance (e.g. a critical, potentially highly impactful uncertainty could be the stance of regulators towards technology). 

 2. Devise a range of projections that describe how each area of uncertainty could play out over time (e.g. technology regulators could take a laissez faire stance or encourage self-regulation or even outlaw some innovations) 

3. Undertake a critical analysis to see which projections naturally align across all areas of uncertainty to form a coherent narrative (e.g. a public backlash against technology could plausibly correlate with, or indeed lead to, a regulatory clampdown). 

4. Select the most compelling combinations of projections and use these as the basis for crafting a set of 4-6 scenarios, being careful to ensure they are internally consistent and have limited overlap.

Benedict Dellot, Rich Mason and Fabian Wallace-Stephens (2019). The Four Futures of Work (p.28)

Critical Uncertainties

Any glance into the future is necessarily tied to imponderables; there is always more than one possible development path – because there is so much that simply cannot be foreseen and because the future will also be shaped by decisions that we still have to be taken.

The future is not an extension of present trends – it is full of surprises. We do not know what the future will look like; we know only that it will be different from today. Moreover, whether we are speaking of the financial and economic crisis, of the depletion of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources, of global warming, the loss of biodiversity or the increasing lack of drinking water in many regions, the challenges facing humankind are considerable and the prospects often represent cause for concern. 

Scenario-building has proven to be particularly helpful in situations of great uncertainty and discontinuity. Instead of neglecting these areas of uncertainty, scenarios make them explicit and offer a framework for exploring them with others

Sascha Meinert (2014). Field manual: Scenario building. (p.7)

In our research project COVID-19 Recovery Scenarios for Young People in Melbourne’s Inner North, we are working with this methodology – and with youth organisations and populations of young people – to understand, to explore, to build ‘future’ scenarios that address these ‘critical uncertainties’ that are emerging during the COVID-19 pandemic (and, during a ‘stage 4 lockdown’ across Metro Melbourne). 

As we suggested in this earlier post the problem of an ‘uncertain future’ has been imagined, increasingly, as a problem for education and for young people over the last 40 or so years – with organisations such as the FYA, the OECD, UNESCO, and the World Economic Forum, and others, each having a voice, a say, in shaping the future that we want to imagine.  

But COVID-19 changes everything. We know that young people have, and will carry a particularly heavy burden in the downstream of crises. In terms of their health and well-being, their engagement in education and training, and their transitions into work. And certain populations of young people are more at risk in relation to these challenges. 

Our aim, in working with the Inner Northern LLEN on this project is to develop place-based partnerships for young people’s futures that are disruptive, transformative and shaped by shared visions for social and climate justice, inclusion, and difference and diversity.

Feature Image credit


By Peter Kelly

I am a Professor of Education at Deakin University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s