Scenario thinking as a way of approaching the future is increasingly being used as a tool for strategizing in private and public sector organizations.
The “Mont Fleur” scenario exercise, undertaken in South Africa during 1991–92, was innovative and important because, in the midst of a deep conflict, it brought people together from across organizations to think creatively about the future of their country.
The workshop was led by Adam Kahane (ref. Solving Tough Problems, Generon Consulting, Global Business Network, Reos, Shell Group Planning)
The Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise, an experiment in “future-forging”, brought together 25 South Africans over four intense, informal weekends at the Mont Fleur Conference Centre near Cape Town. They talked through what was happening in South Africa, what might happen, and what, in the light of these possible futures, could be done.
The process at Mont Fleur, which was facilitated by Adam Kahane, brought together a broad mix of South Africa’s political, business and civil society leaders. They came from the left and right, the opposition and the government – among them Dorothy Boesak, Rob Davies, Derek Keys, Pieter le Roux, Johann Liebenberg, Saki Macozoma, Mosebyane Maltsi, Trevor Manuel, Vincent Maphai, Tito Mboweni, Jayendra Naidoo, Brian O’Connell, Viviene Taylor, Sue van der Merwe and Cristo Wiese. Leaders who, in different ways, have shaped how the future of South Africa actually unfolded.
All were committed in their own ways to building a better future for their country. From starkly different perspectives, they built a shared map of South African reality. Their M&G report, published in July 1992, summarised these discussions in the form of four stories. Each scenario imagined how events might unfold over the coming decade from 1992 to 2002.
Ostrich told the story of a non-representative white government, sticking its head in the sand to try (ultimately in vain) to avoid a negotiated settlement with the black majority. Lame Duck anticipated a prolonged transition under a weak government which, because it purports to respond to all, satisfies none.
In Icarus, a constitutionally unconstrained black government comes to power on a wave of popular support and noble intentions and embarks on a huge and unsustainable public spending programme, which crashes the economy. In Flight of the Flamingoes, the transition is successful, with everyone in the society rising slowly and together.
These stories may not be relevant in 2007, but they reflected key choices facing South Africa in 1992, with particular emphasis on the nature of the political settlement and the economic policies that would follow. Of the four scenarios, the path of South Africa since 1992 has been closest – although certainly not identical – to Flight of the Flamingoes. By rehearsing a variety of possible futures, the minds of the participants and the M&G readers, Adam Kahane believed the Mont Fleur process made some contribution to this much-better-than-it-might-otherwise-have-turned-out result.
The more significant lesson, however, is not in the scenario stories themselves. The process itself is typical of one of the most important innovations of South Africa’s transition: the multi- stakeholder dialogue forum. From 1990 onwards, South Africans created – in parallel with the formal negotiating structures – hundreds of such informal forums.
These dealt with a variety of challenges – local development, health, education, security and constitutional reform. Some adopted the scenarios method. More importantly, all created a safe and open space in which the primary political, business and civil society actors could come together to chart a way forward.
The key concept here is “we”, an assumption of shared interest and identity which, at first, was often denied. The forums encouraged South Africans sense of being engaged in a shared national project. The old was not yet dead and the new had not yet been born, and in this interregnum the forums provided a space for the people with a stake in the future to create it together.
The sense of “we” – of incremental trust – was a foundation for the larger political settlement in 1994 and the transformation which followed. “There was a high degree of flux at that time,” Trevor Manuel recalled later. “That was a real strength. There was no paradigm, there was no precedent and there was nothing. We had to carve it and so perhaps we were more willing to listen.”