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Evaluating the future



Background: This paper was written as part of my preparations for a podcast of the above title, following a request from the EU’s Evaluation Support Service. The overall theme of the podcast series was ‘How can evaluation practice be adapted in the face of the global pandemic?‘ In the recorded podcast which you can find here (, I began by making these points in summary: 1. My recommendations are orientated not specifically to the pandemic, but to the wider issue of how we respond to uncertain and unpredictable events. The pandemic and its various manifestations, as seen in and by different countries, is an exemplar of these kinds of events. 2. My recommendations are of two kinds. The first is that we need a lot more practice in thinking about multiple alternative futures, rather than one desirable future. The second is that we will also need to think a lot more about how to evaluate those alternative futures. This is a kind of ‘evaluative thinking ‘which up to now does not seem to have received much attention. The rest of this paper is about these two recommendations, but particularly about how we evaluate alternative futures.
Evaluating the future
Rick Davies, 2020 06 16
“The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed
William Gibson, The Economist, December 4, 2003
Background: This paper was written as part of my preparations for a podcast of the above title,
following a request from the EU’s Evaluation Support Service. The overall theme of the podcast
series was ‘How can evaluation practice be adapted in the face of the global pandemic?
In the recorded podcast which you can find here, I began by making these points in summary:
1. My recommendations are orientated not specifically to the pandemic, but to the wider issue
of how we respond to uncertain and unpredictable events. The pandemic and its various
manifestations, as seen in and by different countries, is an exemplar of these kinds of
2. My recommendations are of two kinds. The first is that we need a lot more practice in
thinking about multiple alternative futures, rather than one desirable future. The second is
that we will also need to think a lot more about how to evaluate those alternative futures.
This is a kind of ‘evaluative thinking ‘which up to now does not seem to have received much
The rest of this paper is about these two recommendations, but particularly about how we evaluate
alternative futures.
Today I am going to talk about evaluating the future.
To begin with I am going to introduce the topic of metacognition. Metacognition is thinking about
thinking. Your immediate reaction might that be this sounds very unworldly, …”So how is this going
to be of any use to me?”. But you might be surprised to know that metacognition is quite a lively
topic, with real-world applications in the field of primary and secondary school teaching. This is
because metacognition is not only about being aware of how we think about things but also about
being able to regulate how we think about things. A practical example of meta-cognition is when a
student thinks about planning an essay, then assess their progress in writing the essay. And how a
teacher helps a student reflect on how they do this. Another example of this which you might be
familiar with is mindfulness meditation, where people attend to the presence of arising thoughts,
but consciously decide not to engage with them
In this podcast I going to talk about another area of metacognition, not usually addressed within
school settings. This is about how we think about the future. Not only the content of those
thoughts, i.e. what we think will happen, but also how we assess those possibilities. To me this is an
important but neglected facet of what is called these days evaluative thinking. Evaluative thinking
is an aspect of evaluation practice which we would like to see everyone engage with and get better
Most evaluations are backwards-looking, looking at what was intended, what was delivered and
what the outcomes were. However, there are some elements of looking into the future. There
might be an ex-ante-evaluation of the project design. There might be an evaluability assessment.
And the recommendations of an evaluation will be future orientated. But I think it would be fair to
say that, in most evaluations, the scope of this thinking about the future is fairly bounded.
Another area where evaluators and program designers must pay some attention to the future is in
project design itself, particularly the articulation of Theories of Change. This is something I have
written about quite a lot over the years. Most recently in a paper commissioned by CEDIL, called
Representing theories of change: technical challenges with evaluation consequences. In that paper I
describe a range of methods ranging from simple chain models of how activities lead to outcomes,
to more complex static network models, and on to dynamic models where the effects of an
intervention can be simulated. One of the merits of dynamic models is the quick discovery of
unintended consequences of interventions that can arise because of the many interconnections
between events in the model. Another salutary lesson is how sensitive the status of the dynamically
generated outcomes can be to the settings built into the model. As the widely repeated quote (of
disputed origins) says making predictions can be difficult, especially about the future
The difficulty of prediction has been brought home to us with force this year, as we have watched
the global spread of the coronavirus and the devastation it has caused to people’s lives and their
economies. Intersecting with this are other sudden changes including the eruption of
demonstrations against the state in the United States, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Associated with
these changes has been a lot of public reflection about the causes and what could have been done in
One way some organisations have tried to cope with an unpredictable world is through the use of
scenario planning. This is a body of practice that has been around since the 1960s. Scenario
planning is not about developing accurate predictions of the future. Rather it is about identifying a
range of major possibilities that might eventuate. Having identified such scenarios an organisations
challenge is then to identify how it might best respond to each of these possibilities, should they
happen. In their earliest forms, scenario planning exercises were very much expert led. But in the
last decade or so participatory forms of scenario planning have become much more common,
particularly in the field of natural resource management and the preservation of biodiversity.
There is a wide variety of approaches to scenario planning. But some characteristics of the process
are more common than others. One very common sequence found in many scenario planning
exercises involves: (a) the identification of various possible drivers of change which might be present
or absent to varying degrees in the future, then (b) the examination of combinations of those
drivers of change, some of which were more will be more plausible and likely than others. One
common product of this type of exercise is a 2 x 2 matrix showing all the possible combinations of
the two most important drivers of change. Each of these possibilities is then developed into an
elaborated narrative description. This is what I call adrivers-first- narratives-second” approach
The problem with this approach is that viewing the future in terms of just four possibilities sounds
like quite an impoverished approach when we give more than a minutes thought to just how
unpredictable events can be. Couched in more the theoretical terms, this approach fails on a
criterion called ‘’requisite variety. This is the notion developed by Ashby in the 1950s, an expert in
the study of control systems (otherwise known as cybernetics). In its simplest form, the idea is that
a model of the world must have enough variety of possible states to mirror the states of the world
we want to influence. This suggests a very basic evaluation criterion. When we are looking at the
future, we should be looking at multiple alternative futures, not just one or two.
In early 2019 I contracted the development of a web application designed to enable participatory
scenario planning online. This is called ParEvo. A core feature of the ParEvo scenario planning
process is the development of multiple alternative storylines. These develop as a branching
structure, starting from one seed but then developing in different directions, some of which again
branch into alternative directions, and some of which do not. Another characteristic of this process
is that these storylines are not developed all at once, but rather through a series of iterations.
Existing storylines provide the constraints and opportunities for their extension, and those new
extensions then provide further constraints and opportunities for further extensions. Developing
narratives about the future, as seen during a ParEvo exercise, is an incremental, adaptive, and
exploratory process. Not a once off event. (You can learn more about ParEvo works by viewing this
YouTube video).
Built into the ParEvo process is the opportunity for participants to provide their own summary
evaluations of the storylines that are generated. Participants are asked to identify which storyline
they think is most probable, least probable, most desirable, and least desirable. These are the
current default evaluation criteria and are like those used in other scenario planning exercises. But
the capacity exists for facilitators of a ParEvo exercise to edit these and use other criteria of their
own choosing. When participants evaluation judgements are downloaded, they can be then
displayed in a two-dimensional scatterplot. In the same downloaded dataset we can see three
broad types of responses. Some storylines, usually only one or two, will have consistent desirability
and/or probability ratings. Other storylines will have desirability and probability ratings which are
contradictory i.e. some participants will have rated the storyline as most desirable, while others will
have rated as least desirable. Or, some participants will have rated the storyline as most likely, while
others will have rated as least likely. The third type of response are storylines which have not been
identified as fitting any of the four criteria. They were not seen as most or least likely or desirable.
Storylines in this group might be of two subtypes. Some of them might simply be relatively neutral
in their characteristics, neither probable or improbable, nor very desirable or undesirable. Other
storylines might simply be too difficult to assess on either of these criteria.
This brings me to what could be called meta-criteria. How do we assess the value of different
criteria used to evaluate different scenarios? Such as desirability and probability, referred to above.
The one criterion that I am giving the most attention to it the moment is usefulness, a topic of
continuing and wide concern by evaluators. So, going back to the evaluation feature in ParEvo, how
useful are these evaluation criteria? If they are not very useful maybe other criteria need to be
My current and very provisional thinking is that these two criteria are potentially useful. The reason
why I think this is that there is some correspondence between these criteria and the distinction
which economists have made between risk and uncertainty. There are various interpretations of
this distinction so, this is my provisional understanding of the difference. Risks are possibilities we
are aware of and on which we can put a probability estimate. Uncertainties are possibilities that we
are aware of but cannot make any probability estimate, and possibilities that were not even aware
of, which by definition we can’t make any probability estimates for. The distinction between risk
and uncertainty is probably not black-and-white, our confidence in probability estimates probably
exists on a continuum.
A connection can be seen here with the ParEvo evaluation criteria. Storylines with unambiguous
most or least probable/desirable ratings fall within the category of risks. Storylines with contested
most or least probable/desirable ratings could be seen as uncertainties. So perhaps to a lesser
extent might be some of the storylines that did not get a most or least rating at all.
The main implication of this distinction between risk and uncertainty is that there will be some
future possibilities that can be planned for and others which can’t be. And somewhat paradoxically,
we need to be prepared for both. From my reading so far, there are two ways of responding to
these possibilities. For identifiable risks i.e. those with some clear and significant probabilities,
specific strategies can be developed in readiness. Pandemic preparedness is an example, even
though their recent implementation may leave a lot to be desired. For uncertainties surplus
resources need to be available on tap, to enable new and additional responses to new and
unexpected possibilities. James March, a famous organisation theorist, described these additional
available resources as “organisational slack”. This strategy is similar to an evolutionary strategy
identified by ecologists, which is called bet-hedging. Bet-hedging is a kind of response that is
neither optimal nor a failure across all environments (Simons, 2011). A frequently cited example is
the behaviour of annual plants which ensure that only a fraction of their seeds germinate in any
given year. Slack is a potential source of innovation, but also of inefficiency. A decision not to use
this strategy, in order to maximise efficient use of resources in the immediate present, can be a
source of fragility when the unexpected happens. As was seen in the 2008 financial crisis, when
many heavily leveraged businesses went bankrupt.
As already mentioned, the facilitator of the ParEvo exercise has the option of changing the default
evaluation criteria. Various other criteria have been proposed as means of assessing the quality of
scenarios. One of them is traceability - a process is traceable, means one can follow, what has been
done and how a process came to its results (Kosow, 2015). Within a ParEvo exercise traceability
exists in the sense that the specific contributor for each component of a storyline can be identified,
unlike the texts generated by many other scenario planning processes (participatory and otherwise).
But the thinking behind the content of a particular contribution is not immediately available it
could only be accessed by follow-up interviews with the contributor. At that point two aspects could
be distinguished. One is the reasoning behind the choice of which existing storyline to add to with a
new contribution. The other is the reasoning behind the content of that new contribution. These
have not yet been investigated in a ParEvo exercises that have been completed to date but will be
when the next opportunity arises.
A second and widely used criterion is consistency, defined by the absence of internal contradictions
in the content of a scenario. Consistency has been described as a necessary but insufficient
condition for a scenario to be plausible. Plausibility is a bottom-line requirement for contributions
that are made within a ParEvo exercise. One writer has argued that consistency is understood as a
safeguard against arbitrariness of scenarios. It is a substitute for empirical validation, which is not
possible and not appropriate with respect to scenarios (Kosow, 2015). The downside risk of the
consistency requirement is the elimination of surprises from scenarios whereas in reality surprises
are very much part of life.
A third criterion for evaluating scenarios is polarity (Missler-Behr,2002). Polarity means a scenario
stands in significant contrast to another. The justification for valuing polar scenarios is that the
combinatorial space that contains all possible scenarios is immense, so any sample of possible
scenarios should contain as much diversity as possible. But the downside risk of using this criterion
is that the more polar scenarios will appear like cartoon versions of reality i.e. over-simplified. In the
ParEvo process three dimensions of diversity (derived from ecology) can be measured.
A fourth possible criterion for evaluating scenarios is ownership. In a ParEvo exercise it is possible to
identify for each storyline who contributed to that storyline and to what extent. Storylines can vary
in the extent to which they collectively developed by contributions from all participants, versus only
developed by single participant, or a small clique of participants. In some circumstances it might be
important that scenarios are developed which do have widespread ownership across the
participants. But experience so far suggests that there are no grounds for assuming across all
contexts that collectively constructed scenarios are going to be better in terms of probability, or
desirability, for example. The relationship between ownership of storylines and other attributes of
those storylines is not straightforward and needs further exploration.
A fifth potential criterion is observability. In the ParEvo exercises competed so far, storylines have
varied in the extent to which the events could be reliably and easily identified, if they were actually
happening. To some extent this varies according to how abstract the description is, but not wholly
so. This criterion is similar to the data availability aspect of evaluability (Davies, 2013). It is an
important one because it must influence how easily an organisation could recognise, and then
respond in time, to events described as important possibilities in a ParEvo or other form of scenario
planning exercise.
Any of the above alternative evaluation criteria can be built into a ParEvo exercise by its Facilitator.
These options enable a significant degree of customisation, according to need. But they are unlikely
to be exhaustive, even when just considered within the scope of the published literature on scenario
planning. A second source of evaluation criteria is also available the participants themselves.
Their criteria can be identified using a particular type of open-ended question format, known as pile
sorting or card sorting by ethnographers and website designers respectively. Participants in some of
the completed ParEvo exercises have been asked to look at the completed storylines and to sort
them into two piles, of any size, such that each pile has something in common which makes it
different from the other pile. Participants responses are then documented, including both
qualitative description of what is unique about each pile, and a list of which storylines belong to
each pile.
This option has only been used for a small number of ParEvo exercises so far. Some of the
participants identified relatively straightforward content differences between storylines. Others
identified what could be called genre differences between the storylines. In the most recent
exercise (about the Coronavirus pandemic) these were some of the differences seen between the
surviving and storylines:
Stories which featured ‘liberals as bogeymen’ versus ‘liberals as saints’
Stories which were about ‘everyone for themselves ‘versus ‘shared support ‘
Stories were conflict was a prominent feature versus stories were conflict with less discussed
or even absent
Stories which prominently featured digital technology as a possible solution versus those
that did not give it as much attention
These participant-identified differences have two potential types of implications. One is the way in
which the participating organisation decides how to respond in future. For example, to scenarios
involving conflict versus those which do not. The other is the way in which the participating
organisation think about alternative futures i.e. metacognition. For example, the split between
storylines featuring levels as bogeyman versus saints might suggest the need for less stereotyped
thinking about the future.
There is further potential in the elaboration and refinement of the pile sorting method. For
example, when participants are asked to sort storylines into two groups according to a significant
difference, the kind of difference could be specified. Two particular types of difference seem
relevant. One is significant differences in the causes of the events described, and the other is
significant differences in the consequences of the events taking place. The first of these two could
lead to the identification of what in other scenario planning exercises are already described as
‘drivers of change ‘. But in the ParEvo context these would be identified inductively, after reflection
on a variety of storylines. This would be a narrative-first-drivers-second approach. This very
flexible approach to the analysis of storylines stands in contrast to the narrowness and comparative
rigidity of approaches which prioritise the identification of drivers of change as the first step. Other
variations could also be explored, such as asking participants to pile sort the storylines according to
significant differences in the actors involved.
So far, I have identified two types of sources of criteria for differentiating and evaluating futures.
The first is largely expert and/or facilitator driven, though its implementation can involve
participants making judgements on these criteria. The second is more open-ended and participant
driven although enabled by an exercise facilitator. A third option exists, which would involve third
parties as observers, those who were neither managing nor participating in an exercise. They could
have an especially important role as identifiers of what was missing, at two levels. There may be
whole types of storylines missing, and within the completed storylines there might be some actors,
events or issues which were conspicuously absent. ParEvo now includes an option of allowing
“observers”, alongside active participants.
Making use of this third source of evaluation judgements might help the participants identify, what
are for them, some of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous ‘unknown unknowns‘ and convert them into
“known unknowns”. These are the kinds of events that not only could we not assign probabilities to,
but we did not even know about their existence. Once they are identified we can at least bring them
into view to the point where we can think about how to respond to them, at least as a type of
possible event.
Other information sources
ParEvo website:
The Participatory Evolution Of Alternative Futures, Rick Davies, 2020 05 11 Paper submitted to a
peer reviewed journal. 18 pages
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.