Making sense out of uncertainty

Making sense out of uncertainty

Volatile governments, erratic leaders, patchy legislation, capricious
consumers and a climate balanced on a knife edge: the world is becoming
increasingly unpredictable. Making sense of a seemingly chaotic future
is a daunting task for businesses and governments, but Ricardo Strategic Consulting has developed a set of planning tools to help organizations prepare themselves for a wide range of future worlds, whether in 2030, 2050, or even further ahead.

“Never make predictions, especially about the future.” This familiar warning
has been ascribed to many different people, but it has not deterred the many generations of writers and film-makers, from Jules Verne through to George Orwell, Arthur C Clarke and Margaret Atwood, who have captivated audiences with spellbinding visions of future societies and how they might evolve.

Yet, compelling though those highly detailed visions are, they represent at
best the imagination of one individual or a single team; they may contain
penetrating insights, intriguing concepts and timely warnings, but at the end of the day these are works of fiction and a very personal take on the future.

In the real world, with pressing social and environmental issues and major
investment decisions to be taken, such fanciful predictions have little place and a broader and more robust approach to preparing for the future is required. Accepting that no one can reliably predict the future, it is nevertheless perfectly possible to anticipate – and thus prepare for – a range of plausible alternative future outcomes, several decades ahead. This
is especially important at times of rapid technological and political change, like now. The outlook is highly confusing and all types of business, from large manufacturers to government departments, are seeking guidance in how to plan their strategic future investments.

New dimensions to futures research

Ricardo is among the leading international consultancies to have developed a suite of tools to help clients address the uncertainties of the future. In the case of Ricardo’s Technology Strategy team, this is underpinned by deep technical knowledge and many decades of experience in generating technology roadmaps extending decades into the future. Yet in order to capture the influence of the many complex extra forces now affecting every aspect of industry and society, the new approach is much broader and goes much further than the familiar
technology roadmaps. Horizon Scanning continuously monitors scientific, political and social developments around the world in order to flag up incipient trendsor shifts; Opportunity Workshops help customers to focus their goals in the context of a longer-term future, and Scenario Planning distils this vast array of information into a handful of feasible future outcomes representing different combinations of influences.

Vivid written descriptions of possible future scenarios, along with graphic illustrations (above] help companies and their strategists prepare for a variety of contrasting outcomes

This, says Carl Telford, chief engineer in the Technology Strategy team, allows engineers and decision makers to apply a proper structure to futures research – something which is especially important in sectors where long-term planning and investment are required. “Energy sector
companies are the perfect example of organizations who can benefit from
long range scenario planning, because of the large infrastructure investments involved,” says Telford, who worked for 15 years in futures research consultancy prior to joining Ricardo in 2015. “The [UK] National Grid, for instance, has just spent three years developing its scenarios for 2050 and automakers and chemical and materials companies are also becoming involved.”

Current Ricardo futures research clients include fuel and lubricant companies, carmakers, and governmental organizations. Yet, according to Angela Johnson, head of Technology Strategy, that list is set to expand significantly as unexpected events such as Brexit, the Trump election win and the diesel scandal challenge conventional thinking on forward planning and prompt companies to adopt a more holistic approach.

“Companies want to ensure that the technology option they select as their main solution is going to be robust for the future, whatever the scenario might be”

Angela Johnson, head of Technology Strategy

Read the full article in RQ Q4 2017