I’ve always been a fan of scenario planning, where organizations or communities proceed through a process that prompts them to think deeply about future opportunities and challenges. Unlike other planning processes, scenario thinking really pushes participants to think over the long term—out several decades as opposed to several years. The process has been around a long time but was popularized in Peter Schwartz’s 1991 book, The Art of the Long View. Schwartz and his collegues went on to found a consulting group and think, the Global Business Network, that still today promotes scenario planning and thinking.
Scenario planning has been used regularly by corporations, most famously by Royal Dutch Shell. I have seen a few communities use this tool, but it’s not a common practice in economic and community development circles. That’s why I was pleased to see a new report from World Class Greater Philadelphia, a new group focused on building a more competitive region around Philadelphia, PA. The study, 2026: Future Histories of Greater Philadelphia, examines four potential scenarios for the US’ and for Philadelphia’s future directions in 2026:
1) Global Village, where the US is no longer the dominant superpower but has adjusted to the new reality and enjoys a stable and prosperous situation.
2) Tight Belts, where power is controlled by a handful of multinational conglomerates, most of them located outside of the US. The situation at home is one of declining local economies and belt-tightening for most Americans.
3) America in the Driver’s Seat, where the US economy has rebounded and maintains global dominance.
4) Partners in Hard Times, where resource scarcity and other challenges force US leaders to cooperate and collaborate, leading to flourishing of effective public-private partnerships.
The report examines how Philadelphia, and other regions, should prepare to respond to each scenario. The study also assesses how well Philadelphia would fare in each case.
Each scenario leads to different outcomes and different strategies, but all of them share a few common themes. In nearly all of the scenarios, Philadelphia’s ability to surivive and prosper depends on its current abilities to develop talent, build strong global connections for local citizens, businesses, and communities, and develop a stronger home grown base for innovation and entrepreneurship.
This exercise has generated lots of local interest, and its organizers, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, have found that this planning process works very well at sparking regional conversations and encouraging community stakeholders to take the long view and think deeply about how what happens today will matter in 2026 and beyond. More regions across the US should consider using these tools.