Scenario Planning: The Telling of Stories

earthquake-damaged house

Damaged House by martinluff

People have told stories for as far back as we know. It’s how we learn. Stories may be told to us by others, or co-created by a group, or made up by one person to make sense of something. Stories help us understand.

Scenario planning uses stories for this reason. Once we’ve identified a couple of forces that define our “axes,” we can imagine what the circumstances and environment is like under those conditions. In our exercise (described in prior posts), we chose to work with two quadrants (story settings):

  1. Basic needs NOT met, communications working
  2. Basic needs NOT met, communications NOT working

Let’s look at these situations and what they tell us about our stories.

Basic Needs Not Met

Nimitz Freeway (collapsed)

Nimitz Freeway by sanbeiji

Basic needs include things like a safety, shelter, food and water. If we are in a situation where our basic needs are not met, it  means we don’t have one or more of the things we need to live safely. Generally when there are big earthquakes, the region experiences building and infrastructure failures. This means your house might not be suitable to live in, or the water to your house has been cut off. The freeways may also be broken, leading to shortages of food and other goods in certain areas.

When supplies get short, so does patience and tempers, leading to violence. There may or may not be medical care, and even if there is care it may not be sufficient for all needs. The characters in our stories will not be living in an entirely safe place.

Communications Working (or Not)

Communications includes the obvious: phones, computers, mail, and sneaker-net (walking). Having communications “working” can mean different things depending on the circumstances. For example, if “basic needs not met” above means that we don’t have electric power, we won’t have our phones or computers working for long. If transportation or highways are messed up or unavailable, we won’t have mail either. This means that in the worst situation, we may have local (walking or biking) distance communications only.

The Official Future

fallen utility pole

Closed and Down by spaceamoeba

Often people with similar backgrounds (like a group of geeks) have an inclination to hold a particular perspective at the expense of alternatives. When we’re sitting in a group talking about “communications working,” we’ll see a cognitive bias. “Of course everyone has a cell phone!” “If communications are working, of course we have electricity.” “Even if our cell phones go out, we still have land lines, right?” When our biases prevent us from fully exploring the depth of a situation, we end up with stories that reflect certain assumptions. “Technology will save us” is one of those story lines that’s hard to get around.

The Interdependency of Characters

Our stories featured a set of characters. No mention was made that they knew of each other, or that they were in any way connected. Another interesting bias developed in one of our groups. The group members are natural networkers with a high-tech bent. They took our disparate characters and–ignoring cultural histories, geographic boundaries and physical impediments likely to describe the communities native to each character–networked them to help each other. The stories that allowed these social shortcuts were fascinating, and a little unbelievable.

The Hard Part

fallen roof

Paso Robles earthquake by Hey Paul

The group tackling the quadrant with challenges to basic needs and communications had a tougher task master. They looked first at the environment: what’s going on? As this exercise was in San Francisco, an assessment of resources included docks along the coast, a few parks (Delores Park, Golden Gate among others) where helicopters might land, and a vibrant bike culture including bicycle messengers. They reasonably assessed that the cell phone network would not be available, and that basic utilities would be out too.

This lead to a situation of chaos, where fight or flight problems would arise, and basic survival would be the main daily problem. Most problems would need to be solved locally, using personal infrastructures and networks. Survival mode, in which the poor have no resources and the affluent have some, is a struggle that leads to fatigue. lack of sleep, cold (given ambient temperatures in San Francisco in May), and a fear for one’s safety.

Some people will be looking for leaders to tell them what to do, to help them move out of a state of complete overwhelm. Some will tend to fend for themselves. Others will reach out and form networks, help those who are in greatest need, and start to develop a sense of community and progress.

Communications were re-defined: bikes and bike messengers became the new network for getting word out that people were safe (or not). Social clusters and personal networking of all types were tried: local news parks, billboard updates, chalk on walls. Maps to local shared resources were important.

Now in these situations, what would happen to our software developer who has no electricity? Our doctor in a wheelchair? Our Chinese grandmother? These are very different stories to be told.

A cautionary note: the best use of scenarios gives you some understanding of what might happen under certain (specified) circumstances, and what your options might include in such a situation. The overviews of our process above are necessarily incomplete. That said, everyone lives in an area that can be affected by a wide range of disasters. It’s helpful to have looked into what you might reasonably expect for your area, and how you might prepare just in case.