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A note on process

A note on process

A (large) number of correspondents want to know how this process is being handled. The normal approach is an iterative one. Ideally, people with a lot of experience in broad issues of this sort will typically retire to sit in dusty gray rooms and together develop their thoughts. Typically, this starts with a series of discrete issues, such as "the consumer" or"our shareholders". Participants strive to make these abstract concerns more concrete, more connected to practical issues that need to be settled and also more connected together. Many flip chart leaves must curl off the wall, drift down and turn brown before the project ripens. Its fruits are descriptions of how the world may develop that are directly relevant to those who have commissioned the work.

There is nothing wrong with such an approach, although it is enormously people-intensive and, if not managed carefully, prone to revolve around the platitudes of the day. In addition, we are creating these scenarios pro bono, and there is no 'problem owner' on who our efforts are focused. The Challenge Network has the enormous privilege of access to a wide range of extremely competent and practiced individuals, however, and this allows us to interpolate our ideals in ways which are difficult for those who are just beginning to use the discipline. We have chosen to follow a different, less structured route. After what is in some cases four decades of experience, we feel the need to experiment.

What we have done is this. First, we selected four pillars, issues which mattered deeply and on which we also had a great deal of experience. In several instances, these issues were a part of on-going practical projects. Each of these issues has been subject to formal discussion papers and to one or more workshops, often carried out with client groups, most of them scattered around the world. The aim has been to think how a given topic may evolve entirely within its own frame of reference, with little thought of the grand global picture. We have learned a lot from this, and it has helped us to think about the grander issues anew.

In parallel, we have taken a judgment that the 'tone' of the 2030s will be set less by individual nations than by social and economic forces, and the minimal elements that express these: social groups, individuals, companies and institutions. In no sense are nations to be thought of as being irrelevant. They have a limited but important role when they act as sovereign powers, but the importance of knowledge, consumption patterns, mechanisms of adding value and other interactions will be at least as important and these are either not within the control of nation states or under a control for which motive and toolkit are set by issues of, for example, social aspiration or economic competitiveness. States fund a great deal of the nation provision of education in the rich countries, for example, but it is not reasonable to see the ruling elite of these countries setting a course that is not calculated to deliver economic competitiveness. (Which is not to say that some legacy politics does not come into play, as with Britain's fortunately geriatric class warrior's determination to avoid mechanisms that will create selection in state schools.)

What we have done with this issue-focused knowledge is to plot mini-scenarios - amounting to no more than plausible cases - for the individual 'pillars' that we have discussed. That done, we have started to look at the interactions amongst these dynamics, and to ask ourselves what this says about the international arena. Another paper details our first take on this, but does not offer much insight into the mini-scenarios themselves. However, it is clear that international constraints prevent many options that are, to the naive eye, open from coming about. A China that fulfills it true potential is a China that works hard to keep the rest of the world happy; and so manages its impact, for example.

This bottom-up approach has proven very laborious. However, after sifting through a mass of material, we feel confident in a view about the mini-scenarios. We shall begin to publish aspects of these in the weeks ahead.

Gradually, we shall begin to see what it all suggests to us. Essentially, however, we began this process with a view that the world needs to navigate - rather than drift - through narrow straits. Our current sense is that these straits are narrow indeed: we shall have to manage ourselves actively in order to attain a desirable future. Nine billions is a lot of people, the fertile land is all used up, the easy energy supplies are going to be used up, and the professionalisation of politics means that it is easy to create dissent and far less easy to cement relationships into a positive outcome. The trick is to find futures from which few lose badly and many gain a great deal.

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