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25th Anniversary series: 1999 – Scenarios for Scotland

March 4, 2015

We’ve just lived through the Scottish Independence referendum, with the parties’ different visions of the future. Back in 1999, when the first Scottish Parliament was elected, SAMI were working on alternative Scenarios for Scotland in 2015 – so what better time to review that work?

Beginning in 1997, SAMI gathered together ten commercial sponsors to fund a project to map out alternative scenarios of the future. The project was “fronted” by St Andrews University to clarify the project’s “not for profit” status and ensure acceptance in the Scottish communities.

The first phase of the project was a series of around 100 interviews of people whose knowledge and opinion of main elements of the “base model” were considered to be both credible and influential. The output of the interviews was sorted into a ‘natural agenda’ of issues and synthesised to produce top level ‘messages’.

A knowledge bank was created and the key issues that emerged subjected to further investigation through three focussed expert workshops with invited specialists.

SAMI also ran a series of facilitated workshops, using Decision Explorer software (based on the cognitive mapping technique championed by Professor Colin Eden) to capture views anonymously, thereby allowing more unorthodox and sensitive views to be considered. Links between elements were explored and their uncertainty and importance analysed. Subgroups examined specific issues which were then amalgamated into a joint elaboration of the emerging scenario ‘stories’. 600 people took part in these workshops.

The project also included a comprehensive study of extant literature (eg journal articles, books, reports) on the main aspects of the base model. Supporting and contradictory evidence for events was analysed and categorised and the data fed into event maps using ‘Decision Explorer’. The resulting maps formed the basis for a series of evolving story lines into the future. Many hundreds of references were logged from existing data sources.

Perhaps uniquely, the output of the interviews, workshops and literature search were combined using Decision Explorer. Three or four key stories emerged from this process and these were subject to further scrutiny for completeness, internal consistency and credibility by experts and the sponsor organisations until the final version was accepted.


A working party looked at the totality of the available material and produced a synthesis to be used as a basis for building scenarios. The sponsors and the working party then held a workshop to develop a set of scenarios which emerged from that evidence and would have general credibility. Two scenarios were chosen for writing in detail, one which came directly from the core of the evidence (and was ‘surprise free’) and another which captured the aspirations and the ‘upside’ in the data. For obvious reasons they were entitled the “Low Road” and the “High Road” respectively.

TABLE 5.1.
High Road Low Road
Scotland enjoys cultural and material wealth Slow GDP growth, rising unemployment
Quality of life is a magnet for investment Winning inward investment gets harder
Electronic commerce helps keep the skills in the home country Media has “bad news” mentality
Pride in Scotland’s distinctive culture Education is under-funded
Self-awareness promotes healthy living Growing pollution
Transport investments makes Scotland a “hub” for transatlantic trade Transport investment is limited
Political issues tackled positively Fruitless clashes with Westminster
Thriving services industry Low skill, low wage economy

The workshop also considered a negative scenario, which would have been well-founded in the evidence, but decided that this would be open to misinterpretation and political abuse. So in order to include this data it was agreed to develop scenario paths out of the Low Road, showing how it could diverge both upwards and down, depending on a number of potential ‘triggers’ on the way.

‘Scenarios for Scotland – a journey to 2015’ was launched on St Andrew’s Day, 30th November 1999, at a major event hosted by St Andrews University. The event used video clips of characters talking about their life in each scenario, which proved to be a powerful medium. The event – and the scenarios – were well received by guests from all parts of Scotland and elsewhere, and had positive Media support. A brochure was produced and circulated throughout Scotland. Since that date the scenarios have found their way into many parts of Scottish society, from the Scottish Executive and Scottish Enterprise to local groups and businesses.

So now we have reached 2015, how do these scenarios stand up? I’d say that the two main scenarios probably do represent upper and lower bounds on what actually happened. Certainly a positive Scottish attitude has prevailed, despite the challenges of the 2008 crash, but it’s less clear that healthy living has been an outcome!

An interesting aspect not captured in the scenarios was the continuing push towards independence rather than just devolution. That the future is itself not static is a message that should be taken on board in all scenario exercises, as it can be easy to assume that all the trends have played themselves out during the timeframe under consideration.

More information on the project can be found in “Scenario Planning: Managing for the Future” by Gill Ringland.

Written by Huw Williams

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Philippa Stone permalink
    March 30, 2015 7:01 pm

    I would like to see St Andrews University develop a spin-off business hub, possibly located at Leuchars Junction, similar to Cambridge University. Students in the future could combine their studies with a relevant practical part time job – a sort of ‘reverse day release’.


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