7 Scenario methodology

The paper you will shortly read by Robin Roy and Steve Potter, on the use of scenarios to identify innovation priorities in the UK railway industry, is largely self-explanatory, as it was specifically written to explore the method of scenario building. Although this is based upon a specific engineering sector and the specific circumstances of the (then) approaching rail privatisation, the lessons contained are entirely generic and could be applied to any area of technology foresight. Indeed it can be applied to any exploration of ‘futures’ quite aside from their technological or innovation aspects.

Activity 31

Please read Potter, S and Roy, R (2000) ‘Using scenarios to identify innovation priorities in the UK railway industry’, International Journal of Innovation Management, 4, pp 229-252.

As is noted in the paper, scenarios are particularly useful as a way of exploring a range of possible futures, and to focus attention on what could cause (or is needed for) such a future to come about. Scenario methodology has another major advantage over some methods - it can be participatory. It is flexible enough to be used both by small groups of experts and planners, but can also be used to engage rail commuters, for example, and those who might rail commute if changes were made to attract them.

Scenarios are good at identifying the answers to the following sorts of questions:

  • Are there key ‘stepping stones’ towards that future? (i.e. stages on the way);
  • Are there key barriers (e.g. might there need to be legislative change for one of those ‘stepping stones’ to be achieved);
  • Are there key thresholds? – (e.g. the cost of alternative clean fuels would have to drop below that of existing ‘dirty’ fuels);
  • Are there key ‘actors’ – people or organisations who need to back the path towards a particular scenario?
  • Are there key stimuli that might make this scenario more likely to come about?

The paper provides details of the four scenarios that were developed. These scenarios were developed by first undertaking a literature search and taking the results to a workshop of experts covering both rail marketing and technical expertise. The final scenarios emerged from this process. The paper finishes with a consideration of how rail markets actually developed in the first five years of privatisation, and reflects on the usefulness of a scenario methodology in this context.

Activity 32 Scenario Exercise

The following is an exercise that is best done as a group of 4 – 6 people, although it is perfectly possible to do it on your own. It is designed to be completed in just over an hour and allows for a final presentation to tutors and/or to other groups of students doing the same exercise.

A very useful function of this exercise is to help you quickly explore the usefulness of a scenario approach for your own research topic or one on which you may be interested in conducting research later. This is a ‘quick and dirty’ scenario scoping exercise.

Stage 1 (5 minutes)

Choose a topic area for which you want to explore possible design, technology, development or environment futures (or some other factor as discussed above). It needs to be one about which you or the group is reasonably familiar. Possible topics might be cars, shopping, housing, health and education.

The viewpoint should be from that of a company or organisation providing a product or service and seeking to explore what may affect its position in these markets. For example, a supermarket chain as retail stores; Toyota or Ford as a car manufacturer, Save the Children or a national health service for children’s health, a waste recycling non-governmental organization for local environmental waste systems.

Timescale: 15 years

Stage 2 (10 minutes)

Think about what have been the major recent factors and trends in determining the design of the product, service or system) in the last 15 years.

“Starter” ideas are:

AdaptabilityLifestyle changes Smaller households/changes in family structures and demographicsConcentration on larger shops
In car equipmentChildcare systemsPrice competition
New meanings of ‘performance’Distances from formal health clinicsSpecialist retailers
Leasing or other new ways To get the use of a carAvailable financial resourcesService quality
Environmental concernsShifting from a chore to a ‘leisure experience’

Discuss what have been the really important factors and trends that have affected the way the product/service is designed. Have any technologies or factors been crucial to the way in which it has developed? Have any of these trends required a change in managing the design and delivery of the product/service?

Stage 3 (30 minutes)

Having looked at past trends, start thinking about the future. Think of different ways that the demand/market for these product and service areas could possibly develop in the next 15 years. Some questions to ask would be:

  • Are there ways the product’s function could be fulfilled in a different way?
  • Are there any important trends emerging that could force these products and services to develop in a different way to the past?
  • Are there any key technologies likely to produce a change in the way the end-service is delivered?
  • Are there any ‘invading’ technologies that might suit the future better than adapting existing technologies? If so, how might they be introduced? What would be the pioneering applications?

For example: environmental performance of cars will have to be vastly improved; environmental performance of transport as a whole will have to be vastly improved; might shared car systems be developed for cities; will out of town shopping face big planning restrictions; home deliveries for basics/concentration on leisure shopping; teleshopping; would vaccination campaigns improve child health more than provision of more local health clinics; would resources for child health better be concentrated on women’s literacy, etc.

Brainstorm all sorts of possibilities (on Post Its) and group into 3 or 4 scenarios.

Stage 4 (10 minutes)

Sensitivity Analysis (to what particular factors will scenarios be sensitive)

  • What sort of technologies, systems and designs etc. would be crucial for each scenario to come about? (Exact technologies need not be specified – but an idea of what they should do – e.g. nature of IT development – IT widening choice/price competition for shopping, providing in-car guidance systems), or overall infrastructure for child health in the poorest countries;
  • Are any of these common to more than one scenario?
  • Are there any factors that are crucial to a scenario coming about? (e.g. government policies to give alternative fuels a price advantage)
  • Will the scenario depend upon the action of any particular organisation?
  • Do you feel that any of the scenarios have an equal chance of coming about, or some are more likely than others?
  • If you were in charge of a company operating in this sector, what would be your development priorities or strategy?

Stage 5 (10 minute preparation)

Report back on your findings (10 minute presentation).

Describe your scenario via telling your audience of a journey, or a ‘shopping experience’ in 15 years time under this scenario (e.g. as a telephone conversation to a friend or your mother), or an agencies description of a child health care system in 2020. Adapt this if you have chosen a different product/service area.

You could split up and get a couple of people each in your group to prepare each of these.

Comment on any insights you gained from this exercise, both in terms of the process and your chosen topic.


One unusual aspect of this paper is that the assessment of the scenario building is undertaken by the builders themselves. It is unusual and positive to find researchers looking critically at their own work. Obviously, this is a different type of evaluation to one undertaken by external assessors – ideally both are important but often neither get done.

This method can be relatively more participative than others, in that a broad range of social actors can be actively involved if they can be mobilised and encouraged – this mobilisation is not always done well and those less expert groups get missed out or alienated. In theory, however, it is, in principle, a relatively more participative method than some other forecasting and foresight methods. But perhaps you should assess that statement after the next section!

6 Quantitative modelling-cost benefit analysis

8 Technology foresight