Scenario Thinking

Scenario thinking is a structured process for gazing into the future. The goal is to examine possible future developments that could impact on individuals (or professions). The intent is to end up with a set of decisions or directions that would be most beneficial no matter how the future unfolds. Scenario thinking is a way to look at and plan for future developments, rather than be the passive victim of change.

Our goal is to find a strategy that plays out well across several possible scenarios. We will need to construct alternative plausible futures and see which strategy works best regardless of which future unfolds. The purpose is not to predict the future or pinpoint future events, we can't do that anyway. The purpose is to look at the large-scale forces that are impacting on the future.

It is not my intention to be a spokesperson for visually impaired individuals, nor to speak for a profession. This exercise is an example of scenario thinking. I am aware that this approach would be most effective if done by many others working collaboratively, or even if many individuals did their own scenario thinking and shared the results. This is my rendition of scenario thinking, meant to be one drop in an ocean of individual ideas.

There are five levels in scenario thinking:

oneFind a (the) significant issue to be addressed.

twoHighlight the major forces at work that appear to have influencing power on the focal issue.

threeList the forces (events) that appear to be predetermined to happen.

fourList those events which appear to be uncertain. Highlight the four areas that appear to be critical uncertainties.

fiveDecide which decisions (strategies) work best no matter which way the critical uncertainties develop.

The Focal Issue

What is the best positioning (preparation, posturing, plan) to enable us to benefit from (thrive on rather than be damaged by) the revolutions in computer and biotechnology. The "us" in that last sentence refers to individual professionals, professional organizations, visually impaired persons, and consumer organizations; ie the entire collection of people and organizations concerned with blind rehabilitation.

Driving Forces

In the chapter addressing future forces that are impacting on the entire field of blind rehabilitation, I listed seven areas that seemed to be having the greatest impact. These are the changes that are causing the revolution in computer technology:

1. Moore's law predicts the doubling of computer power every 18 months. The doubling now has reached exponentially significant (frightening? awesome?) proportions.

2. Digitalization is becoming common place. Digital still cameras are now on the market and digital video is not far behind. Digital radio, television and telephony have arrived.

3. Miniaturization proceeds as expected. The Dick Tracy watch is already here. Computers are finding their way into clothing and into every imaginable appliance.

4. Costs continue to hold around $2,000 dollars for the latest technology, with even greater (more dramatic) price drops expected in the future (especially as computer appliances appear).

5. Wireless technology grows with each passing year. We are all accustomed now to walking around with phones in our homes and cars that do not trail wires. The remote is a common household item.

6. Convergence continues unabated. The television, the telephone, the play station, the entertainment center are all being consumed by the digital revolution and all are becoming computer systems. Soon the car, the house, and the wardrobe will join the convergence, as spaces become controlled by computers. Expect soon to see "computers" that can see, hear, talk, and "read" human emotion in faces and body language.

7. Finally, the internet has invaded. Global intercommunication is already accepted, but the revolution has just begun. The impact of the worldwide web will be huge and powerful.

These seven forces give us the communications revolution. As I developed and explained throughout the section about the future, these forces will change education, social interactions, and economics. They will alter the power structure of entire cultures. They could, by themselves, wipe out whole professions and careers, or they could, for the vigilant, provide a bounty of riches.

If the computer revolution were all that was happening, it would be enough to throw the world into uncertainty. Unfortunately (or fortunately) there is a great deal more going on.

There is a concurrent (and related) revolution going on in the medical community, in biology and in genetics. We can hope to see, perhaps as early as the beginning of the next century, procedures for regenerating nerve tissue. We can also expect new and wonderful genetically created drugs. These advances, along with genetic surgery, could eventually eliminate disabilities. More likely, for our lifetime, we can expect to see measures that vastly improve the quality of life for disabled persons, but which do not entirely eliminate deficits.

Demographics will continue to be a major force to consider. The earth's population is increasing, people are living longer, blindness in the industrial world is about multiple impairments, while blindness in the developing nations is endemic and about preventable diseases. Disability seems on the decrease in the industrial world and on the increase in the poorer regions of the planet.

The shift of power into the hands of individuals and consumer groups is a strong trend that seems destined to continue. This is a consequence of the fall of industrial age institutions, with the subsequent invention of new and unusual communications age institutions (if institution is any longer a viable term). What these new institutions will be is any bodys guess. Expect top down management to give way to lateral (layered) empowerment.

Globalization is already here, but expect the trend to intensify. Diversity is the key word as cultures become less homogenous. Globalization decreases the power of old centralized authorities. This is related to a decentralization that is drying up centralized federal funding and guidance. Contracting and privitization appear to be increasing trends related to the shifting of power away from centralized systems. The tendancy to see disabilities in a generic way, rather than favoring one group over another is another consequence of globalization, and it portends negatively for blind rehabilitation.

Forces that appear to be predetermined

There appears to be the technology available now for Moore's Law to continue into the future for another five to ten years using existing chip fabrication techniques. More speculative technology is on the charts that could continue the revolution for the next twenty years. These changes will intensify social, economic, and political uncertainties. There will be numerous and rapid power shifts.

Population will continue to grow making for denser cities, more poverty and crime, and more disability. This coupled with longer life spans must be considered a given in any scenario.

Knowledge is doubling on the planet every seven years. with the communications revolution, there will be intensified need to collect, sort, analyze, and distribute specialized packets of knowledge. Knowledge workers will proliferate.


It is not clear whether or not the blind rehabilitation field (or many other professions) will grasp the implications of the communications and biotechnology revolutions. It is also not clear whether or not professionals and their organizations, and blind individuals and their organizations, will make benefical decisions, even if they sense that something needs to be done.

It is not clear which changes in biotechnology and communications will be the critical variables that upset power structures. It is also not clear how fast these changes will appear. Slower change allows for adjustments. Faster change tends to overwhelm slow-to-change industrial age institutions.

It is not clear whether the problems of the third world will outpace and overwhelm the technologies of the modern world, or whether technologies will improve the lot of the poorer nations. The degree to which the split between the techno haves and have nots widens is critical.

It is not clear how intermediate technologies will affect the near future. I call these cyborg technologies. For example, we may not be able to clone eyeballs in the next twenty years, but science may give us vision substitute systems that change the way we teach or eliminate the blind field altogether.

It is not clear how the balances of power will flow. Will centralized power prevail or will privitization and decentralization win out? Will the third world and industrial world balances stay much as they are, or will the pendulum suddenly swing one way or the other? Will we educate and reposition ourselves and our professional groups in response to changes, or will we stick with a status quo?

The critical uncertainties

The intend here is to isolate four critical variables and to set them on a graph so that they represent the four directions of the compass, north, south, east, and west. Here are the four that I interpret to be most critical:

1. Whether or not breakthroughs in biotechnology, or in the area of vision substitution systems, eliminate the need for blind rehabilitation or greatly change the structure of the professions.

2. Whether decentralization dries up all centralized funds eliminating the financial base for rehabilitation professions, and/or forcing privatization. The assuming of blind rehabilitation responsibilities by paraprofessionals or other professions like occupational therapy.

3. Whether population pressures and demographic trends cause increased blindness in the world, or whether technology reverses the increase.

4. Whether the blind rehabilitation field maintains it's position as the authority on blindness (especially in cyperspace), or whether another authority arises from the electronic frontier.

The critical decisions

What can a professional do to keep from being overrun by a distruptive future? What decisions should professional and consumer organizations make to best position themselves not only for suivival, but to thrive into the future? How can blind individuals benefit from the uncertainties rather than be victims? Our fates are all intertwined. The answers fit us all. Here are the critical decisions that I see unfolding:

1. Regardless of how the future unfolds, we had better pay attention to what the changes are in technology. We have to monitor what is going on in biotech and with computers. We have to be in a position to shift our plans, refocus, and retrain. Continuing education is a cornerstone for survival. What are the new technologies, how do they benefit the blind and visually impaired, and how do we teach their use? If an occupational therapist becomes an expert on the nomad mapping system or in the use of global positioning (for example) and we do not, then technological change will favor the therapy profession. The universities will have to assume this new role or else a power shift will occur. Private consultants will assume the training role (small companies forced into business as professionals lose their jobs to privitaization). Distance and cyberspace learning will explode as avenues for continual education. If the universities don't assume the new cyperspace responsibilities, then power will shift to other professionals or professions.

2. We have to go beyond the mere monitoring of technology (and change). We have to become product champions. A product can be a vision substitution system, a new idea, the formation of a new institutional entity (a virtual international mobility center, for example), etc. To stay ahead, we have to lead. If we don't lead and direct, the knowledge base (the power) will shift.

3. We have to fight for recognition on a global platform. We have to broaden our professional identity. My contention is that mobility is a profession specialized in the analysis and correction of travel disabilities. We are navigational specialists. Blindness is only one area that results in travel impairments, there are many others. With a broader population to serve, we strengthen our professional position. Our image now is "cane trainer," or "orientor" for the totally blind. This is a weak image. We are going to get overrun by "therapists" and professions that establish a theoretical, preferably medically oriented image. A navigational specialist works with the intricacies of the brains navigational system (in which vision plays a predominant role), and with motor systems that direct gait. Notice that this redefinition encroaches on the fields of occupational and physical therapy and on the profession of optometry. This is a good thing. All professions are in flux and what results time and change bring is anybodys guess. The roles and the role models are up for grabs in the new age

. 4. This profession (and the awareness of professionals) has to be transported vigorously to a global stage. "Think globally" is not only a catchy phrase, it is a survival skill. We have to be major players on the new cyberspace stage. Multinational networking will be the norm in a few years. Will we be represented? Will we have a reputation as experts? We must establish a presence in cyberspace.

5. The entire profession has to move with energy into cyberspace. We have to create a knowledge base that establishes us as the source for knowledge about impaired human navigation. This is a matter of financial as well as professional survival. We need to create data mines, select and employ relevant intelligent agents, write the electronic books, and establish and nurture communications teams in cyberspace.


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