Transformative Scenario Planning: There’s method in the madness!

8 Aug 2017 - 14:45

By Soundarya Iyer

It was just the beginning of my postdoctoral fellowship at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) when I was roped in to help organize the first Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP) workshop around Bangalore city’s water situation. Even before I joined IIHS, my friends who had worked in the institution told me that, unlike many other academic institutions, IIHS would let me experience a unique blend of academia and practice. My experience with practice began with the TSP workshop.

TSP is a participatory approach that ASSAR uses to engage with multiple concerned stakeholders, often around conflicting, problematic issues.

My PhD programme had taught me to be most comfortable reading, writing and collecting data. My dissertation on the processes of rural transformation in different regions of Karnataka used history to understand the present, and to illustrate the ways that changes in land tenure and livelihoods occur in a place-dependent manner. Throughout my research, I had spent very little time thinking about how the past and present impinge on the future. Given that this is a key aspect of the TSP process, I knew I was going to find the workshop challenging.

Our TSP team spent nearly two months putting together a list of diverse stakeholders working on diverse facets of Bangalore’s water issues. This list included key government officials, representatives of non-governmental organizations, activists, artists, lawyers and community representatives. As we prepared for the workshop and enrolled stakeholders, I found myself reading about the TSP to explain and answer questions posed by the stakeholders. However, this reading left me with more questions than answers. I later realized that to be truly understood, TSP must be experienced rather than intellectualized.

Creating a future consciously

As I was growing up, my parents would encourage me to visualize the future and set goals by writing them down on paper. While I barely managed to achieve any of those goals, thinking about the future triggered a series of thought processes in my mind. In essence, the purpose of those exercises was to think about the future consciously. Now that was just me thinking about my future.

This TSP workshop allowed a group of diverse stakeholders concerned about the future of Bangalore city to collectively visualize the future. By working backwards from 2030, stakeholders had to think of what was plausible for the future, given current conditions (rather than imagining something beyond the current reality). Creativity and probability were combined  to think about the future.

Photo Credit: Soundarya Iyer: Scenario construction using headlines

Working with materials

To enable a creative process one has to break away from the normal order of things. Our facilitators did this by using materials extensively throughout the workshop. Newspaper-cuttings, Lego, flip charts and a whole lot of stationery urged the stakeholders to work with their hands. Karen Goldberg, one of the facilitators from Reos Partners, also made sure that discussions of the previous day were posted on flip charts that were visually available for any further reference. During the scenario construction session using Lego models, R. Shankar, a facilitator from Changeworks, made it a point to go around and tell the groups to not think with their minds, but with their hearts and their hands. These exercises helped make abstract ideas about the future tangible. Extensive use of tactile and visual stimuli allowed the development of scenarios that could then be put into words by the stakeholders. Making the future a deeply personal, yet collective, endeavour was the thrust of this first workshop.

Photo Credit Soundarya Iyer: Scenario Construction using Lego models

Although this is the first time that TSP is being used in India, it is just one of the conversations about the future that have begun in Bangalore city. What distinguishes TSP from the others is its guiding principle: there is no predetermined future; rather, there are many possibilities, and collectively we can influence a future closest to the one we desire.  

Shortly after the TSP workshop, I participated in another conversation on Water Futures in the Indian Institute of Science, a leading scientific institution in Bangalore city. Scientists there also agreed that a major function of science was not only to explain the present, but also to predict the future. The conversation on futures-thinking and scenario-planning is taking place globally and has gained momentum with the growing relevance of climate change. As the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy wrote in his book The Great Unknown,

“What we cannot know creates the space for myth, for stories, for imagination, as much as for science. We may not know, but that doesn’t stop us from creating stories, and these stories are crucial in providing the material for what one day might be known. Without stories, we wouldn’t have any science at all.”

Our endeavour with TSP is just that: to create stories that might inform the future of water for Bangalore.

Photo Credit Karen Goldberg: Group photo at the end of the first TSP workshop

The TSP workshop was a refreshing start to my postdoctoral fellowship at IIHS. The ASSAR project is teaching me to broaden my understanding of research in creative and unconventional ways. In my opinion, TSP provides a method to analyze the future in the chaos, complexity and madness of the present.