Imagining alternative futures

Programme Researcher, John Magrath, describes the process of applying ‘participatory scenario development’ to explore how Bangladesh might achieve zero hunger and zero carbon emissions by 2041.


It is tempting to assume that the future will follow much the same trajectory as the past. Imagining alternative futures can be dismissed as dreaming, or science fiction. And if we do imagine the future, we often imagine the worst, and retreat from the exercise. Yet we are being buffeted by unprecedented rates of change in almost every aspect of our lives, and this is only likely to accelerate. How can we envisage the futures we really want, and how to get to them, while avoiding the ones we don’t?

A key challenge lies at the intersection of food and climate. This arises from two imperatives. One is the Paris Agreement to halt runaway climate change, and move rapidly to net zero carbon emissions. The other is enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly the goal to achieve zero hunger. All nations will have to totally transform their economies to meet these goals. It seems inevitable that this will involve difficult choices, hard compromises, and trade-offs – winners and losers. Those who lose are likely to be the people whose voices and influence are already least heard and felt.

How can we ensure that experts are better informed and influenced by the wider citizenship?

It is tempting to leave such massive and complicated issues to experts. But how can we ensure they are better informed and influenced by the wider citizenship?

To explore how societies can have more meaningful discussions about pathways to the future, Oxfam GB and Oxfam Bangladesh were part of year-long pilot project called “Zero-Zero” – named after the challenge of attaining the twin goals of zero hunger and zero emissions.  We partnered with the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh.

Applying participatory scenario development

The project used a process called participatory scenario development to imagine a range of different development trajectories. Widely used by business, industry and the environmental community, scenarios are “plausible descriptions of how the future may develop, based on coherent and internally consistent set of assumptions about key relationships and driving forces.”

Staff from Oxfam Bangladesh interviewed young people in rural areas. They asked them about their lives, the challenges they faced, their views on climate change, how they saw the future of their country and their own futures.

Then last April, some 30 experts from the food, climate change, and energy communities came together for two days of discussions in Dhaka. After much deliberation, they concluded that the crucial components that underpin or undermine progress on development – especially food security – are two-fold: the status of governance, and the status of the environment.

They began to sketch out four potential scenarios that might describe Bangladesh in 2041. These were developed further over the following months, and then shared with rural people and students for their reactions. In September, a further meeting in Dhaka brought together some of the original participants and others to finalise the scenarios. The next day they were presented to the Government’s Planning Commission.

Roads to the future

The four scenarios were conceived as “roads to the future”, pointing to different destinations.

The Green Road: Bangladesh uses the SDGs to guide it, and ‘leave no-one behind’. It places high priority on good governance, a more inclusive society, a healthy environment and active environmental management. But this involves trade-offs with food production and profit targets.

The Middle Road: There are few radical departures from current policies and practices. Policies are good but implementation is patchy. Climate change impacts and environmental degradation increase. Governance systems are unable to do much more than simply react .

The Divided Road: The government vows to ‘clean up’ crime and corruption. It moves towards a digitally controlled, more authoritarian state.  Inequality becomes even greater. How people experience the state of the environment depends on where they sit in society.

The Rocky Road:  Political, economic, and environmental shocks see Bangladesh’s development trajectory take a sharp downward pitch and put the political system under immense strain. Drug cartels exert considerable influence. Environmental management and food security are largely off the agenda.

How are scenarios helpful?

Decisions taken in any one sector must not be considered in isolation

These scenarios are not meant to be probable; but everyone involved in the process agreed they are plausible, and this helped stimulate thinking about their implications for trends set in motion today.

Planners were asked to imagine themselves in 2041, living in a particular scenario and answering questions from their children or grandchildren. This highlighted the long-term consequences of their decisions, and that decisions taken in any one sector – agriculture, food, energy, gender, social policy – must not be considered in isolation because they have knock-on effects elsewhere.

This pilot has been a good way to explore pros and cons, and provoke discussion. Participatory scenario development evoked creative responses through theatre and art. But it proved very difficult to create genuinely participatory discussions where rural people and young people could talk directly to policy makers.

The final steps in the Zero-Zero project will be to write up the methodology and lessons learned to help Oxfam Bangladesh, and hopefully other Oxfam programmes, decide whether and if so, how, to use participatory scenarios in future.

[btn btnlink=”” btnsize=”medium” bgcolor=”#38b522″ txtcolor=”#ffffff” btnnewt=”1″ nofollow=”1″]Read about the process and the four scenarios in more detail[/btn]

Originally this article was published on February 5th, 2019 at Views & Voices .

About The author : John Magrath is a researcher and writer who has worked for Oxfam GB for over 30 years in a variety of roles. His background is as a journalist, writer and researcher. His work in the Research Team has focused mainly on climate change and its implications for Oxfam GB’s work. He has written, edited and/or assisted on many reports that are available on Policy and Practice.