The Scenario Exploration System was developed to facilitate the application of futures thinking to policy-making originally geared at engaging EU policy-makers with foresight scenarios very easily.
The tool operates as a multi-role board game that makes participants naturally grasp complex opportunities and constraints in a future-oriented perspective. Never before had a tool been able to facilitate the uptake of foresight for policy-making and systemic thinking to such an extent.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wants to put foresight at the heart of European policy-making. This requires not only building foresight capacity in general, but also tools adapted to the circumstances. The Joint Research Centre (JRC) has long worked on foresight and in 2015 it developed the Scenario Exploration System (SES), a foresight gaming system to facilitate the application of futures thinking and the use of scenarios to policy-making. This filled a gap as most foresight work requires time and in-depth engagement, thereby preventing the high-level decision makers who would benefit most from the exercises from participating. From weeks or months, the SES provides in-depth strategic foresight exercises that can be performed in hours.
The SES was originally geared at engaging EU policy-makers easily with scenarios in a structured process. It was designed to help participants, in less than three hours, engage in systemic thinking with a long-term perspective and explore alternative futures on specific issues. Following multiple diverse experiences, the JRC also discovered that the SES has a much broader range of applications. This led to the emergence of small communities of practice around the tool. Successful responses to various requests to apply it beyond its original focus demonstrated the versatility of the SES. Specifically organisers discovered its ability to accommodate a very large array of scenarios to discuss an almost unlimited range of issues. This experience showed that the tool can be used as a platform for futures thinking and that sharing broadly the know-how for the creation and application of new versions would be beneficial to many people.
This experience resulted from running tens of demonstration sessions with very diverse audiences to understand better the strengths and limitations of the tool. This led progressively to participants coming to the JRC with specific requests for application of the SES beyond its original scope. Current estimates are that so far, 2000 to 3000 people worldwide have participated in a scenario exploration session on a wide range of topics and for different purposes (strategic reflection, citizens engagement, reflection on new applications of technologies, discovery of a topic in a systemic perspective, search for ideas, quick screening of solutions to concrete problems, etc.). The JRC are now entering a phase in which spontaneous demand for the tool is slowly picking up.
The course of action was determined on the basis of a clearly recognised need at a moment where organisers discovered the potential of serious gaming. They then engaged with serious gaming professionals in a co-creation process to combine technical competence in gaming with knowledge of content, culture and context on the policy-making side.
So far, beyond EU policy makers, the SES has been used with national policy makers, academics, students, people from business and industry, consultants, teachers, museums staff, children, people from NGOs and associations of many sorts as well as numerous members of the public. The JRC have also been able to engage with high-level decision makers from business (CEO), research institutions (president of science academy) and policy-making circles (Directors General at EU and national level) with positive follow-up.
The JRC are now reaching the point at which a few peer reviewed publications have been published, instructions for use are available in about 10 languages, the tool is available in Creative Commons, instructions for adaptation are available and organisers provide practical support whenever possible, both to train users and trainers and to support the creation of new versions of the tool. The recent exercise on the future of customs provides a test case of how to use the SES optimally in a foresight process for policy at the highest level and opens the door to institutionalisation, especially now that the new European Commission puts so much emphasis on foresight for policy-making. The SES is available as a foresight tool within the EU’s better regulation package. The tool is starting to disseminate and as more people become proficient in its use, the more it is likely to disseminate further. This is especially the case as users discover quickly how easy the SES is to use in spite of the fact that it remains what professionals call a “high-level foresight tool”.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Scenario Exploration System (SES) is the first tool that allows people with no experience in foresight to actually use the results from in-depth foresight exercises in just under three hours without any need for preparation and in a way which is truly meaningful to them.
To the organisers' knowledge, and based on the feedback from all the people they have engaged with, nothing comparable was ever used previously in the European Commission and many other organisations.
The SES has the ability to create conversations that are specific to the interests of the user and very concrete while connecting to the 'big picture' and keeping time investment and pre-requisites to a minimum. This is a key characteristic to stand a chance of engaging with high-level decision makers. Another key characteristic is its ability to be applied to any topic. Usually, tools of this kind are topic specific, only usable with the results of one project.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The Scenario Exploration System is in the “implementation” and “diffusing lessons” stage. It is already used to identify problems and opportunities and to generate ideas for action.
One peer reviewed publication has just been accepted by the World Futures Review that presents the lessons from its application in 10 different projects ranging from policy strategy to teaching, passing by finding solutions to waste or mobility issues and citizens engagement on future applications of nanotechnologies.
What is now needed is to scale up its application to make as many people as possible enjoy its benefits, helping more people engage in systemic thinking for the long-term applied to their specific issues of interest.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The innovation was created by two foresight experts from the European Commission's EU Policy Lab familiar with EU policy-making and two experts on foresight and serious gaming from academia. The post-development testing carried out by the EU Policy Lab engaged with people from all backgrounds and profiles in diverse configurations (homogeneous, heterogeneous, with people in or out of their comfort zones, with tests for moderators, etc.). The JRC involve the customers in the tailoring process.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
For all the cases that organisers know the SES has been used in:
• Policy-makers: strategic reflection and engagement or testing with their stakeholders;
• Civil society organisations: to structure future-oriented conversations on complex issues;
• Companies: to test business models, find solutions and develop strategy;
• Research: stakeholder engagement and idea generation.
• Teachers: make students learn by applying knowledge in a complex realistic setting or engage students in systemic thinking (from school to Masters level).
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
In most scenario exploration sessions, the JRC use a standard feedback questionnaire to survey the impressions from the participants. Typically, 70-80% of participants say that the SES has allowed them to think strategically and to engage with the scenarios in an enjoyable way. The same proportion also indicates that they have learned something. However, this is only recording immediate reaction. It is a lot more difficult to measure long-term impact. This can be inferred from the people who have become proficient independent users of the tool or from participants from a long time ago. These numbers are growing and the anecdotal reports are overwhelmingly positive, even if it is difficult to assess the true long-term impact. So far mostly 5 groups of users emerge: teachers at university level, people involved in strategy, consultants, innovative policy makers and foresight professionals. The consultants work mostly for policy-makers, companies or research projects.
Challenges and Failures
The Scenario Exploration System emerged from the desire to overcome a barrier to the uptake of the results of high quality foresight work, which is often perceived as requiring too much time and resources and delivering results which are too general to be applied. At the start, organisers were not able to assess whether the work would deliver anything useful. Once the tool had been developed (after three months), the reaction of the hierarchy was to consider the project ‘completed’ and to move to another project. No space was foreseen to actually start to use the tool. It took a year of informal demonstration sessions to start to actually get a few people interested and to receive the first request for real life application. This got the ball rolling, if slowly. No major setback was experienced, it was more a general scepticism and cultural barriers. Sometimes, sessions had to be organised by stealth otherwise people would not have come.
Conditions for Success
What is needed is perseverance, adaptability and imagination to find the best way to be useful, plus a little bit of freedom to get the space to experiment.
This being a tool, there is not so much need for replication. What is needed is dissemination and training of users so that they can become actors of further dissemination. The success of this innovation has led to most foresight projects in our team to also develop serious games.
Listen to your customers
Be solutions oriented
Know your stuff
Prototype and experiment
- Implementation - making the innovation happen
- Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways
5 January 2021