Scenario Planning: Interview with Stefan Hajkowicz

Stefan Hajkowicz is a principal scientist in strategic foresight at the Australian science organisation CSIRO, leading its Data61 foresight team. I interviewed Stefan for my recent piece on scenario planning in Australia’s magazine for civil servants, The Mandarin – and the full interview is included here.

Stefan Hajkowicz standing outdoors, facing the camera
Stefan Hajkowicz of Data61

I began by asking Stefan: What should readers know about Data 61?

We take data driven approaches to strategic foresight, using AI and machine intelligence to analyse data and turn it into stories that help you to make choices.

On an issue like climate change, for example, the science might be well and truly settled, but the social and cultural aspects of our response to the issue are still uncertain – and depending on these choices, we’ll come to inhabit very different futures. Scenarios help us to think through these outcomes.

Both reason and intuition have a part to play, and the best decisions combine both – though no model is 100% perfect. History is our dataset for the future. Although, to quote Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. If we can gain the ability to look ahead twenty years, and bring the future forward to now, we can make better informed choices.


How did you come to scenarios work?

My background is originally as a geographer. In 1999, I was at CSIRO, working on analytic versus intuitive decisionmaking in a natural resources and environmental context. I spent ten years advising governments on getting the best bang for their buck on environmental expenditure.

Targeted interventions are needed to manage resources well in that context; we had computational models built to help us answer our questions, but I came to see that whatever numbers you put into, say, a water resource decision didn’t change the final decision: changing the criteria did. The definition of decision options was all-important, though it was fuzzier and more qualitative.

My doctorate explored what it meant to bring together intuitive and rational approaches; what I found was that good decision making is a mix of intuition, reason, and analysis.

Tell us about ‘megatrends’, a term which we sometimes hear hand-in-hand with scenarios.

Megatrends come into being when multiple trends and drivers combine for a trajectory which builds gradually to profoundly transform our setting. We can be especially vulnerable to them when they haven’t been fully perceived or understood.

Think of an ocean rip: you can’t see it, yet it’s really powerful. The instinct is to fight against it, and there lies the danger. You have to relax, let yourself go with it, and then think about how to get where you wish to go. Surfers even use rips positively to take them out from the shore. Researchers at the University of New South Wales put purple dye in seawater to make rips visible – this is analogous to foresight work uncovering megatrends.

When megatrends interact, they can play out very differently depending on human responses to these vast trajectories: scenarios can locate stories at the intersection of megatrends and help us to imagine how these responses could evolve.

What makes for good scenario planning? What would be a good first step for people interested in doing scenario work?

Start by having a conversation with peers, colleagues, and stakeholders, building understanding of how they see the future, what will affect it, what decisions will need to be made. You’re looking for risks and opportunities which may currently be untapped. Alongside this, you’re making a commitment to be better at anticipation, bringing issues forward from the future into the present to make better decisions.

Scenarios are most powerful when the decision problem is clearly defined. Think of police facing a hostage siege – they need to know what is happening on the other side of a locked door, how many hostage-takers, their intent, their armament. There’s a clear objective, and building scenarios of what might be happening on the other side of the door helps us to imagine how we address the situation.

Scenarios can make tough choices and their consequences much more accessible for the public. Right now I’m on holiday in a coastal town which is choked with traffic in the high season. People want to be able to take their car to their holiday apartment, or to the beach, but they complain about the congestion. The issue becomes emotive, and hard for us to think through, but if we start working now we can find a long term solution.

In such a case, scenarios for transportation and parking could help us see what could be possible if we respond really well. It can shock the system in terms of what we know and accept: maybe you don’t get to take your car to the apartments where you’re staying, but the resulting transformation of the beach town makes for a much more pleasurable experience.

What aspects of scenario work should policymakers be cautious about?

Human psychology when we see scenarios is pretty powerful. Some futures will seem appealing, some will seem unbearable. We often find decisionmakers want to chose a scenario from the options we present – but these future contexts we’re presenting are exogenous, beyond the decisionmaker’s direct control. It’s important not to confuse them with endogenous planning – scenarios are about the futures we may have to inhabit, not the ones we would choose for ourselves.

In recent work on the future of healthcare in Queensland, we’ve been developing aspirational scenario plans to address this challenge. After examining megatrends and developing some of the futures we might face, we’ve set out four pathways for healthcare to be done very well in terms of key policy areas: “If we do well, under these circumstances, healthcare could look like this.”

This can be a useful and more publicizable framework for making good decisions; there’s a bias against publishing futures which seem negative. Some scenario work needs to be done behind the scenes – some futures are too troubling to be helpful in public debate, as we may raise unacceptable future conditions.

Consensus building on a set of scenarios is hard – these future visions only offer an approximation, and there are always aspects which will trouble at least one stakeholder group. Policymakers may be challenged to bring foresight into a decision environment that could be politically charged; sometimes there will be good options on the table which simply can’t be taken politically. All this has to be taken into account when embarking on scenario work.

Find out more about Stefan and his work at the Data61 website, and read more about scenario planning in my article for The Mandarin.

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