Oxford Futures Library

Sainsbury Library, Saïd Business School

Scenario Planning

Scenario planning saw its origins with the possibility of nuclear war. It borrowed the term ‘scenarios’ from the arts, but considered the serious implications of ‘what if’ in one of the most terrifying possibilities of human history. Of course, the WW2 quantum jump in the practice of scenario planning built on many precedents, notably in France with the work of Gaston Berger. For a while, during and after WW2, scenario planning was used not only for military, but also for public policy purposes in both France and the US. In the US, institutions such as the RAND Corporation, the Hudson Institute (where Herman Kahn wrote his famous book and gave rise to the ‘thinking the unthinkable’ phrase), The Institute for the Future and The Futures Group further developed this thinking; while in France it was mostly the French government (and government-controlled firms) that pursued this practice.

It is only later that the practice was tried out in companies such as Royal Dutch/Shell and GE; and EDF, the French Railways and Elf.

The hiring of Pierre Wack from Shell France into Group Planning brought together aspects of the French and of the American approaches into a very potent combination. Pierre’s knowledge of Eastern mindfulness also brought those considerations to Western corporate mindsets. Wayne Boucher was a key figure on the US side, in RAND, The Institute for the Future and The Futures Group. It is these two histories that are recorded in the two collections of our library.

Scenarios were always a practice-led field. It is our role as scholars to determine whether the practices ‘work’ well, or not; on what basis this is ascertained; what the difference between effectiveness or lack of it consists of; and how rigorous research can help the practice become better and avoid being ‘bad’.

Since 9/11 we have seen a steep increase in the production of scholarly work on scenario planning. Currently, some 200 academic papers are published on scenario planning every year, and there are several hundred books whose titles include “scenario planning”.

This library is of help for scholars studying scenario planning — there are many within the University, in fields such as politics, immigration, environmental studies, geography, and, of course, the business school. We strive to compare scenarios with other disciplines — for example in the Oxford Futures Forum; to research scenario practices and teach them — in the MBA and Diploma programmes, and in the Oxford Scenarios Programme. A steady stream of publications has been produced, and an Oxford Scenarios Approach has emerged from this work. Our hope is that the Oxford Futures Library will further catalyse work on scenario planning in Oxford.

Rafael Ramírez
Oxford, 21st April 2014

Rafael Ramírez  is Director of the Oxford Scenarios Programme and Professor of Practice at the University of Oxford.