Anticipating change in a time of uncertainty

Learn how Matt Finch, strategy and community engagement consultant for libraries and information institutions, is utilising scenario planning to combat uncertainty.

Matt Finch is an Associate Fellow of the Saïd Business School and a strategist at He has consulted on strategy and community engagement with a wide range of libraries & information institutions around the world.

“Que sera, sera?” -- anticipating change in a time of uncertainty

So many events have rocked our world in recent years that it might seem as if the much-discussed “new normal” consists entirely of unpredictable uncertainty. The coronavirus pandemic is only the most obvious example of what some strategists call “TUNA conditions”: times characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity, when the future cannot be expected to behave like the past.

COVID-19 has laid bare weaknesses, injustices, and inequalities. It has put unexpected pressures on long-standing institutions and systems. Our responses to the virus have in turn created new difficulties and entanglements. The pandemic has also created new opportunities and spaces for change, but these are entwined in complicated ways with the global health crisis and its enormous human cost.

COVID has also reminded us how important it is to practice strategic foresight. As the Centre for Economic Policy Research’s Beatrice Weder di Mauro put it in 2020, the pandemic caught economists by surprise because “There was no imagination to see where something like this could come from.”

Whether change comes as a swift, sweeping force or a slower, incremental shift, an altered context has implications for our operations, our choices, our strategies - and even our identity.

Libraries are an institution with a long and storied global history, but their context is transforming too. Our societies’ relationships to fundamental notions of information and trust are subject to change. The social, economic, and political orders within which libraries have survived or thrived are not set in stone. Library leaders seeking to make sound judgments need to be able to anticipate futures beyond those currently expected or predicted. By stretching our sense of what awaits, we can gain insights from the future before it arrives - rather than having to “learn the hard way” from the brutal audit of real crises and changes.

Scenario planning is a methodical way of supporting decision-making by creating plausible assessments of the future contexts which we may have to inhabit. Tailored for a specific user and purpose, scenarios can provide enlightening contrasts to current expectations about the future, reframing our understanding of the situation we are in and the changes which lie ahead.

This isn’t about prediction or probability - we don’t create scenarios to compare how likely it is we reach one future or the other. Instead we focus on plausibility: does this imagined future stretch our assumptions in a way which usefully informs decisionmaking?

OECD foresight analyst Joshua Polchar suggests that scenarios resemble folk tales like the Tortoise and the Hare: they don’t have to be “true” in order to teach you something. This way of working can provide a useful counterbalance and complement to the current vogue for “data-driven” decision-making, given that we cannot actually gather data or evidence from events which haven’t happened yet. As the Bodleian Libraries’ Frankie Wilson puts it, sometimes organisations have to do things strategically which the evidence seems to tell them not to.

Imagining future contexts which were not the ones we expected or assumed can also have implications for organisational identity. In a changed world, we may have to become something which we weren’t - or didn’t see ourselves as - in times before. This could be a particular challenge for long-standing institutions like the library: in so many languages, the institution’s very name has roots in ancient words for the book, Latin liber and Greek biblion - and often discussions about the library’s future become trapped in stale debates over the much-predicted “death of the book”.

At Reading Public Library in Pennsylvania, staff prepared for the post-COVID world by creating a set of scenarios for the year 2040. Looking ahead twenty years allowed them to reflect on uncertainties emerging around them, and how they might play out over time. The political polarisations of a state that was heavily contested in the 2020 presidential election, and the question of whether civic life will take place on- or off-line post-COVID, loomed large in these discussions.

One Reading scenario showed a future in which the library might have to become a “public information commission”, ensuring equity of access to digital spaces in a heavily online world and even contributing to discussions around telecommunications infrastructure. In another, the public library was more significant as a cultural venue, and formed a symbiotic relationship with local higher education institutions. In a third, political polarisation and fragmentation profoundly challenged the notion of a single publicly-funded library service for the region. This is not to say that these are the only futures which might await, nor even that they are the most likely, but that they usefully stretched the library’s planning group in thinking strategically about how they emerge from the pandemic’s current phase.

The iterative, collaborative, and scalable aspects of scenario planning make it a tool useful for convening strategic conversations across jurisdictions and at a different levels, from the local to the global. Information professionals at the European Patent Office, one of the world’s largest civilian databases, have used scenarios to inform their strategic decisions on several occasions, forcing decisionmakers to confront radically different possibilities of “who we are and what we do”. Even quick, frugal “back of the napkin” scenario processes can yield surprising insights - like the 2019 State Library of New South Wales workshop which generated a climate-ravaged vision of 2050 in which internal passports were required for travel between states. That plausibility-stretching future proved closer to reality than expected when Australian federal borders were closed under COVID.

Top scenario planning experts like Oxford’s Rafael Ramírez and Trudi Lang remind us that quality control is important when engaging in strategic foresight: there are many pitfalls as well as great opportunities when we face the future in this way. But the most important thing is precisely to face those futures which may await, and not shy away from the discomforts of uncertainty, or ignore our inevitable blindspots. This isn’t just about bracing yourself for future crises, as those blindspots might include new opportunities and new adventures for institutions who understand that change is always coming. If we open our eyes and look to the horizon, the futures which once seemed too bright to hope for might yet be those that dawn.


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