Analysis: a new project is using scenario planning to look at various futures which could await Europe and the EU 

By Marie MahonNUI Galway and Matt FinchUniversity of Southern Queensland 

This year has given us a clear reminder of how easily events can surprise us. Even though experts had been warning a new pandemic was likely, few of us were prepared for the upsets we've seen in 2020. From the financial crisis in 2008 to 2016 US presidential elections, the Brexit referendum and now Covid-19, we're living through an age of uncertainty. Predictions fail to come true and forecasts break down. All too often we simply don't know what's coming next or how to prepare for it.

People like to talk about using data to support decisions, but you can't gather data from the future, so they're also expressing faith in a predictive model. If that model has blind spots, the future can take you by surprise. As the economist Thomas Schelling put it, "one thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him."

Schelling worked in foreign policy in the years after the Second World War where he tried to understand the unprecedented possibility of nuclear war. One tool developed to deal with this challenge was scenario planning - a way of telling stories about the future to test our assumptions and find our blindspots.

Scenario planning became increasingly popular with big government and big business during the 20th century

Scenario planners knew they couldn't make strategic decisions based on examples from the past, so they devised examples from the future. These weren't predictions, expected to come true; the aim was to find futures which stretched and challenged our sense of what was possible. Scenario planning became increasingly popular with big government and big business during the 20th century and is now widely used by policymakers and institutions trying to spot futures that regular forecasts might have missed. 

At the IMAJINE project, researchers study regional equality across the European Union. In principle, the EU promises citizens equal rights and opportunities. We're interested in whether different places in Europe are treated fairly: is your ability to enjoy those rights and opportunities affected by where you live and work? 

Our researchers are investigating regional equality in the past and present, but we also wanted to look ahead to how things might change. To do this, and find any blindspots in the way we currently understand inequality, we're building scenarios for Europe thirty years from now. They're based on key factors like how well EU member states and their regions pull together,  whether Europeans prioritise wellbeing over economic prosperity in years to come, and whether the Union's human resource base remains strong enough to achieve those goals. 

The scenario involves a huge cultural break-up across Europe, with people unable to agree on basic values

Under our first scenario, the EU achieves economic equality across all its regions. Next-generation manufacturing technology helps the Union to thrive, and a prosperous Europe expands to include Turkey, the Ukraine, and even Belarus. However, this creates tensions and sporadic military conflict on its eastern border. The rise of automation also means fewer low-skilled migrant workers are needed, and "Fortress Europe" becomes increasingly aggressive in fending off climate refugees.

In our second scenario, ongoing pandemics and climate change drive people away from cities and coasts to rural regions. A new world order emerges, focused on sustainability and resilience. Businesses and individuals are given ratings based on sustainable development goals. These determine access to contracts and opportunities for advancement. Life is hard, but people celebrate their sense of community. A new humanitarianism shapes Europe's values. 

A third future explores a world where digital technology reshapes the economy and our ideas of citizenship. When people work with colleagues around the globe using next-generation communications technology, communities and businesses might no longer be defined by physical distance. You're as likely to collaborate with people in Shenzhen, Melbourne, or Mexico City as colleagues in Dublin or Galway, and corporations have as much clout as nations. If citizenship becomes digital too, then its rights and privileges might become things you can split up, share, or trade - loaning your healthcare or residence rights to someone elsewhere in the world.

Another scenario explores a world where digital technology reshapes the economy and our ideas of citizenship

The last scenario involves a huge cultural break-up across Europe, with people unable to agree on basic values. Existing institutions are unable to command consensus and there is widespread collapse in public trust.  Different regions embrace wildly varied notions of identity, social value and human wellbeing.  In some regions, people become increasingly strict about traditional values. Others are highly progressive; they treat animals as equals and have granted special status to rivers, mountains, and even digital devices.  This fragmentation has created opportunities for degrowth and a "back to nature" pastoralism, but also huge spatial inequalities and diminishing solidarity.

You can read the initial IMAJINE "scenario sketches" here. From now until 2021, we'll be exploring each scenario in greater depth. We'll also relate these future visions back to the choices Europe faces in the present. We'll look at current trends and signs of change highlighted by these futures, and help decisionmakers think about what it would mean to inhabit worlds so different from our own; in particular, how perspectives on equality, prosperity and solidarity would become framed.

The IMAJINE project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme 

Dr Marie Mahon is Senior Lecturer in Geography at the School of Geography, Archaeology & Irish Studies at NUI Galway. NUI Galway leads the work package 'Participatory Scenario Planning' for the IMAJINE project. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Matt Finch is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland, and a regular facilitator on the Scenarios Course at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ