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Book Review: Uncertainty by Design

Book review of Limor Samimian-Darash's Uncertainty by Design: Preparing for the Future with Scenario Technology (2022)

Published onDec 01, 2022
Book Review: Uncertainty by Design

Uncertainty by Design: Preparing for the Future with Scenario Technology, by Limor Samimian-Darash (2022). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 

Uncertainty by Design: Preparing for the Future with Scenario Technology by Limor Samimian-Darash highlights the different ways that this technology can be used to prepare for, and manage, future uncertainties. Scenario technology is “one particular technology for systematically thinking, envisioning, and preparing for future uncertainties” (p. 1). Samimian-Darash uses an anthropological lens, studying present and past uses of scenario technology, to understand how large organizations can prepare for the future. 

First, the book provides a historical overview of scenario technology (Introduction and Chapter 1). Second, Chapters 2 through 5 discuss the use of this technology in three case studies – in a government setting and in the energy and healthcare industries – and its implementation across different spatial scales: national, regional, international, and global. In the first case study, on Israel’s Turning Points, which are national scenario exercises organized by the country’s National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA), Samimian-Darash illustrates the use of scenario technology in the government sector and at the national scale. The second case study is on the World Energy Council, which is an example of energy-sector scenario-planning applied at the regional and global scales. The last case study takes place in the World Health Organization (WHO), an example from the health sector that is played out at the international scale. Apart from the sectors and spatial scales under analysis, the case studies also differ in how and when the participants are engaged with scenario technology.

Samimian-Darsh used ethnographic methods including participant-observation and interviews for the first two case studies – NEMA and the World Energy Council – but only remote interviews for the WHO one, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Her ethnographic research was supplemented with content analysis of official websites, booklets, standard operating procedures, and external reports on the three organizations. Furthermore, each case study and the scenario technology under analysis were viewed through the lenses of “veridiction (knowledge making),” or who was creating the scenarios and narratives; “jurisdiction (power, exercising),” or who could participate in playing out the scenarios; and “subjectivation (the experience of the subject),” or what the experience was like for each of the participants (p. 2). 

The Introduction and Chapter 1 focus on the historical development of scenario technology through its two modes. Mode I represented a shift from “knowing” the future, or learning how to forecast the future as if it could be accurately predicted, to thinking about the future and preparing for uncertain outcomes (p. 27). This mode is associated with Herman Kahn (1922-1983), an American planning expert who pioneered scenario-planning techniques in the U.S. government and military sectors in the post-WWII era (pp. 30-31). Mode II involved the participants in thinking about future uncertainties, in what the author refers to as subjectivation, or how the participants feel and think about scenarios (p. 32). The latter is attributed to Pierre Wack (1922-1997), a French corporate executive, who adapted scenario technology to the private sector and emphasized the role of imagination in conjuring future uncertainties (pp. 32-33).  

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on how the participants used a given narrative (“veridiction”) created by private consulting agencies that NEMA had hired as a starting point in playing out (or “exercising”) the scenario (“jurisdiction” and “subjectivation”). The scenario narratives detailed stories that were “neither a future prediction nor a past-based possibility” (p. 47) and were designed as “plausible scenarios” that could be handled using the Israeli state’s current capabilities. Chapter 3 illustrates the uncertainty by design concept through citing examples how, during the exercise, the NEMA-affiliated participants added random, but credible details through their interaction with the scenario narrative and fed these back to the system, requiring other government agencies to respond adequately to the new information. 

In the second case study, Chapter 4, the participants in the World Energy Council contributed to creating three distinct scenarios (“Unfinished Symphony,” “Modern Jazz” and “Hard Rock”), but not in playing them out. The objective was to create a distant future scenario (for the year 2060) and think about how present decisions can impact and possibly lead to the achievement of one of the envisioned possibilities (“veridiction” and “subjectivation”). 

The last case study covers simulation, which is a different technology from scenario planning. Unlike in the previous two examples of scenario planning, the participants did not co-create uncertainties in the narrative-building, as in the World Energy Council case, or in its implementation, like in the NEMA example. Chapter 5 reviews, instead, the WHO annual simulation exercises that stress test the organization’s standard operating procedures at the regional and international levels. The participants at the WHO use existing processes and past knowledge to deal with the possible future presented in the simulation and act within its boundaries. 

Chapter 6 and the Conclusion recap that the scenario-planning processes in the case studies aptly demonstrate that “uncertainty is thus designed, circulated, and created in different ways through the various formats of scenarios technologies” (p. 129). Scenario (and simulation) technologies are not predictions; instead, the development of new, uncertain, but plausible scenarios, should be done as the present unfolds, rather than using models from the past that limit the possibilities of outcomes.

Author Limor Samimian-Darash reminds us that understanding the future has been a long struggle for humankind (p. 1). Given the uncertainties surrounding the ongoing geopolitical tensions and after-effects of a global pandemic, the timing of this book is highly opportune as it can help governments and corporations use scenario technology to better prepare for future crises. The book has both theoretical and practical applications in the domains of future and risk management. Although written by an anthropologist, the book is accessible to social science scholars broadly, and specifically researchers examining businesses, management techniques, organizational behavior, public policy, and urban planning – as well as practitioners interested in the governance of the future, including entrepreneurs, managers, business executives, urban planners, and politicians. 


Author Biography:

Stefan Ivanovski is a Ph.D. student at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University studying the democratization of ownership and management of companies that are shaping the future of work, especially those that rely on remote work and cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence. He is also a lead contributor for the Lifestyle Democracy blog, where he writes on the topics of technology, democracy, and society. 

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