This blog post has been adapted from the Introduction to the TRIGGER scenarios, released in Deliverable 5.2 in January 2021. That document, with the entirety of the TRIGGER scenarios, is available for download and perusal here.

Photo by Maximilian Weisbecker on Unsplash

Looking to Far Horizons

The four worlds of 2050 presented the TRIGGER scenarios may, at times, seem unlikely, fantastic, or ridiculous. This is an intentional scenario creation device, drawing inspiration from Jim Dater’s second Law of the Future: Any useful idea about the future may at first appear ridiculous[1]. This law is based on the observation that in many instances, our contemporary perspective is unable to accommodate ideas and concepts that appear abnormal – a bias called the tyranny of the present.[2] Furthermore, this law reinforces the need for foresight and futures practitioners to be ready to receive that ridicule both humbly and with the insistence that possible futures may lie quite outside of our individual imaginations. Scenarios are developed to give some credence to seemingly ridiculous ideas by wrapping them in realistic systemic transformations, and demonstrating the motivations and technologies that might make them a reality. They may challenge our sense of identity and community, our understanding of the world and our place within it, and the plans and efforts that seem so clear in the present. These are some of the hallmarks of long-term scenarios, precisely because our futures may likely feel like ‘a foreign country’[3] – strange and beautiful, sometimes confusing and frightening, often thought provoking, and hopefully inspirational.

Imagine that you are the captain of a ship at sea. You are navigating the winds, currents, and changing topology of the present, while plotting a course to some distant place you will arrive at in the future. You may have some knowledge of the destinations you might choose, but you also know the difference between knowledge and lived experience. Suddenly, a tempest gathers along your course, and there is no avoiding it. In the throes of the storm, immediate survival takes precedence. As captain, you have many layers of responsibilities to which your decisions are sensitive, and in this situation, every moment counts. However, as the storm subsides, and the seas become once again navigable, will your destination have changed? The TRIGGER scenarios have been created to help groups and organisations engage with long-term futures and build up an internal capacity for futures literacy that can be useful in navigating uncertain futures. They are like field notes in the captain’s hand – painting a picture of what might lie ahead, and informing decisions in the present whose outcomes will direct the ship’s final destination.

As these scenarios were being finalised, the world was in the throes of the COVID-19 global pandemic – the first of its kind in nearly a century, and this time more impactful given the globalised systems on which many societies now depend. This pandemic has resulted in an extraordinary loss of human lives – a loss that no econometric value can account for – and it has presented human societies with hardships, both physical and psychological, that we are unprepared to confront as individuals, families, communities, and organisations. It has asked us to look hard at how we value one another, and how that value is expressed in our societal constructs.

The pandemic has left the global economic engine mired in uncertainty, with effects including shuttered businesses, stalled production, hobbled commerce, reduced employment, increased unequal wealth distribution, and rearranged logistics and value chains. It has shifted the balances of economic power and prompted new approaches to national and supranational fiscal and monetary policy around the planet whose effects will be felt for years, perhaps decades. It has already cost the global economy trillions of dollars, with full economic recovery estimated by some to take a decade or longer, and it has amplified the precarious conditions for millions, if not billions, of people.

It has asked cities and metropolitan areas to reassess their role in governing and highlighted their capacity to shepherd millions of lives through the difficulties of crisis. Some cities have responded with stark, but effective, guidance, while others have seized the opportunity to redefine urban life and institutional infrastructure, if only temporarily, to foster both more resilient and more ecologically responsible communities. Other urban areas, overwhelmed by the pressures of the pandemic, will face a long and hard reckoning with the social, economic, and political fallout of the virus and governmental responses.

In some contexts, technologies for digital communication have enabled work to continue with relatively little disruption, but they have also made digital divides in our societies all the more apparent. Other technological fields, for example genomics-based virology and vaccine research and data science for contact tracing, have seen regulations relaxed and research funding committed in unprecedented ways. The pandemic has affected research and innovation across the board, but in very unequal ways and with little long-term stability guaranteed. All this, and there is no end in sight.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new light to the plight of our planet’s ecological systems, and the role we, as a species, will play in addressing this aspect in the future. While the pandemic has temporarily shut down whole nations, forcing humans to remain locked in their homes; flora and fauna of the natural environment have been revitalised in a short amount of time in cities and waterways across the globe. At the same time, we have witnessed the dramatic sacrifices that have accompanied such change, and we know that without more intensive behavioural change, the larger crises of climate change will cause even greater disruption.

While the COVID-19 pandemic’s story is still being written across the globe, the TRIGGER scenario are compelled to look beyond the immediate concerns that the crisis has brought to the fore. We look beyond, not to dismiss these critical issues or shy away from our responsibilities, but to ensure that the futures we are creating with our actions in the present are those futures we want to inhabit. Dator’s second law is, of course, preceded by the first: “The future” cannot be predicted because “the future” does not exist. This law’s corollaries go on to explain that despite this fact, that are many, often competing ‚images of the future‘ that exist and should be explored and utilized. The TRIGGER scenarios are meant to add to that pool of possible futures, but there are of course many, many already existing scenarios that might also be useful to you or your organisation. However, none of them will be useful because of their ‚accuracy‘ in describing the future. Instead, images of the future that arrive from another source, including these TRIGGER scenarios, provide utility in being used to initiate the difficult, but necessary, discussions that emerge when creating an image of the future that does represent a full picture of a preferred future. The process of creating a preferred future is difficult, and will unveil much about the assumptions and positions that you and your organization already hold with respect to the futures that are possible. However, you may also find that there are disagreements about what makes up a preferred future, or contradictions between activities in the present and preferred future outcomes.

In the middle of a crisis, survival becomes the driving motivation. Like a ship in a hurricane, navigation and all operations becomes focused on keeping the ship afloat. To date, the EU and its member states have succeeded in this, giving us hope for a future ‚after the storm‘. In the wake of this pandemic, individuals and organizations at all scales will go about the critical next two phases: first, orienting and securing our ship in the present, and second, deciding on the destination to which we will navigate from here. To be certain, there are specialists and experts the world over whose work will be useful in addressing the first phase – orienting the EU within the post-pandemic, global governance landscape. The TRIGGER scenarios stand as our efforts to help in the second phase. Discovering and dealing with contending priorities, strategies, and cosmologies are the first necessary steps in righting the ship, orienting the crew, and finally setting out for a destination that is both possible and preferred. Moreover, these actions are timely and necessary, for as we look out to the horizon, it appears more storms may yet be in view.


Figure 1 – A ‘resilience’ perspective on why we explore long-range futures
Image Source: Graeme MacKay,(original posted on The Hamilton Spectator, March 11, 2020, updated December 12, 2020).


Creating Scenarios in the time of COVID-19

The inception of the TRIGGER scenarios occurred at a two-day workshop in early November 2019. At this time, the COVID-19 virus was already affecting China, and in particular the city of Wuhan, and was being closely monitored by the World Health Organization. However, given past successes in containing the global spread of outbreaks (H1N1, SARS, and Ebola), there was little reason to believe that COVID-19 would escape its containment and go on to have so great an impact on the world. Even though global health issues and the potential for pandemics was included in our initial Trends in Global Governance report (D5.1) – the foundational document for the scenario workshop – it was not, at the time, viewed by experts to be a factor of critical priority in shaping the futures of global governance.

While the COVID-19 crisis has had significant impacts on global governance institutions (e.g. UNs, WHO) and geopolitical relationships, this pandemic should be viewed not as an actor, but as a catalyst or an amplifier of the current socio-political situation. The virus itself is not determining how we govern; but rather its consequences reveal more clearly the way we govern and the fundamental rationale behind different political systems and traditions. The variety of responses to the crisis, have made the governance continuum more visible and explicit, exposing how human-made systems sometimes incentivize behaviours that run counter to good governance, and require adjustment or replacement. Nor is the virus actively pursuing an agenda that forces communities to alter their view of mutual trust, ‘essential work’, or collective care. No, COVID-19 is obviously not conscious at all. It is a simple organism; a virus whose streamlined genetic code is reliant on host systems to propagate and continue existing, mutating, and surviving. Yet, this virus has presented our contemporary systems of national, supranational, and global governance with a novel challenge and asks those systems to respond accordingly. Nothing about the COVID-19 pandemic was or is inevitable. Everything that has happened, and that will happen, to our human societies during this crisis is contingent on the choices of human actors within complex systems.

So too will our futures be.

This statement is what drove the scenario process to maintain the 30-year time horizon, despite the weight of the present situation. While our process changed due to the pandemic, our world building remained focused on constructing plausible images of the future in 2050. The pandemic has exposed both strengths and weaknesses in global governing activities, asked us to re-evaluate our collective preparedness for future crises, and forced us to reconsider our responses to a fundamental question: where do we go from here?


Where do we go from here?

This is the root question driving the development of scenarios. In the case of exposing and examining the possibility space for a concept as malleable as ‘global governance’, this question quickly brings to light the complexity involved both in understanding the evolution of global governance and in plotting the developmental directions it may yet take. In order to approach this complexity in a manageable way, our foresight process made several fundamental decisions during the course of the scenario development process.

At the onset of the TRIGGER project, we set a time horizon of 30 years, meaning that each scenario would tell the story of global governance in the world of 2050. Given the dramatic change that the world has seen over the past 30 years, this time horizon gives changes in ideas, technologies, policies, and societies the breathing space to emerge in surprising ways. To better understand the change that 30 years can bring, take a moment to recall a bit about the year 1990:

  • Recall the Internet of 1990. A network of mostly public research institutions with only the simplest forms of web-search, online communities and e-commerce. Almost no advertisement, file-sharing of mainly scientific data, code, and the occasional photograph. Google, Facebook, and other contemporary Internet behemoths are still more than a decade away from inception.
  • Recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. The dissolution of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War. The unbridled globalisation that followed.
  • Recall that the year 1990 was composed of places and events like: Beijing (emerging from Tiananmen Square), South Africa (release of Mandela, unwinding of Apartheid), Dubai (‘the sleepy desert backwater’).


There are, of course, many ways to envisage the differences, and similarities, between the world of 1990 and the world of today, and this remains the central truth of any scenario development process – scenarios are developed to extenuate the radical shifts that are possible. A properly executed scenario is not a prediction, a plan of action, or a closed system, but is instead a sketch of a possible world – a world that may come to pass but is neither predestined nor guaranteed. This world should be logically coherent and structurally cohesive, but never closed to query or considered as complete. A scenario is able to host the narratives that drive organisations in the present, and challenge those narratives to adapt going forward. Scenarios can harbour both aspirations and anxieties, and offer a framework that enables reflection on how these motivations might play out. While situational scenarios have their own utility- evidenced by their deployment in design processes, or ‘red team/blue team’ exercises – the world building scenarios we decided to create for TRIGGER are created to be accessible by, and engaging for, a broad spectrum of individual and organizational actors in diverse contexts.

A final decision was made to avoid the type of normative scenarios sets that are often produced, in which one scenario becomes the clear ‘vision,’ and the others serve a supporting role by ‘failing’ to meet the highest aspirations. Rather, we developed messy and complex worlds not easily cast into overly simplified binaries like utopian or dystopian. The TRIGGER scenarios contain some elements (systems, actors, events, policy) that may elicit strong appeal, and other elements that help articulate equally strong refusal. The systems and governance models that operate within each scenario will incentivise novel behaviours, and create both opportunities for some actor groups and challenges for others. However, each scenario should appear to be equally likely from our perspective in the present. While individual factor trends may appear locked into their current trajectories, the interaction between factors, and the emergence of novel events as articulated in scenarios, creates many opportunities for the futures to still surprise. To provide this semblance of coherence between the trend projections from today, and the clouds of possibility that surround their interactions, scenario processes typically make some very basic assumptions based on fundamental uncertainties that are central to the scope of the project.


Defining the Scenario Space and key Factors

The TRIGGER foresight process holds two fields of uncertainty to be central to the development of each scenario. One spectrum of uncertainty contains the future possible developments of global governance systems, initially divided into three general spaces: a more fragmented global governance terrain, a continuation system that reflects incremental change to the status quo, and a transformed mode of global governance. The second field of uncertainty at the heart of TRIGGER is the role that the EU will play in global governance going forward; will it have a strong influence, or a weak influence with respect to global governance institutions, decisions, and actions? Against this backdrop, during the initial foresight workshop (reported on in Deliverable 5.1), experts were asked to identify core factor trajectories that could feasibly lead to the development of six total scenarios.

Perhaps the first major change to this scenario development approach due to COVID-19 was the eventual elimination of two of the continuation scenarios. As the earliest stages of this ongoing pandemic unfolded, the scenario development team made the executive decision to merge appropriate elements from each of the continuation scenarios into one of the other four scenarios. This decision has yet to be fully justified, though the spate of ‘post-normal’ or ‘new normal’[4] scenarios that has emerged during the COVID-19 crisis signal that this decision was not completely without merit. A follow-up blog entry (forthcoming in 2021) will examine the emergent[5] discourse of ‘resilience’ that has come to dominate many policy and programming conversations, and how this might actually be a reification or doubling down on the return to ‘normal’ narrative. Regardless, in preparation for the second expert workshop the foresight team internally developed the four remaining scenarios – examining stronger and weaker EU influence in both fragmented and transformed global governance futures.

Figure 2 – The four TRIGGER scenarios arranged in the Global Governance (Y) and EU Influence (X) matrix.


The second expert workshop was designed to test the internal logic and cohesion (robustness) of each scenario and extend the details for factor interactions and actor groups that drive them. This process was an effort to maximise the long-term utility the TRIGGER scenarios can provide to policy-makers, and other ‘users’ going forward. Given the precautionary restrictions on travel and in-person meetings placed on our expert pool, the procedural agenda of the workshop was re-designed so that the workshops could be conducted remotely using a medley of appropriate digital platforms. These workshops were conducted throughout June and July of 2020 across four separate sessions: an introductory seminar, two scenario robustness-testing workshops, and a hybrid back-casting and strategic role-playing exercise in the final meeting.

During the introductory digital seminar, each of the four scenarios were presented to the participants by reading the executive summaries and outlining major factor developments in the six STEEP+ categories:  Social, Technological, Ecological, Economic, Political, and Additional (+)[6]. Each scenario paints a picture of how global governance might be understood as having further fragmented or transformed over the course of the next 30 years, taking into account how STEEP+ factors develop and interact to change the conditions in which governance takes place. However, each of these scenarios is intentionally ambiguous in terms of the precise timelines for technological innovations, emergent social dynamics, ecological and economic shifts, and political (and policy) changes that allow each world to exist. This ambiguity enables topic specialists and experts to provide the critical imagination that can animate each world. For each factor that has been taken up and addressed within these scenarios, topic specialists will find the capacity to exercise their knowledge and wisdom through the production of useful imaginaries – ideas, theories, and speculations that can both challenge and support the factor developments that drive each scenario.

The final three workshops were composed of a series of activities designed to provoke precisely such responses from the workshop participants. Workshops II and III were aimed at fomenting discussion about the scenario factors, and further develop each scenario to land within an acceptable range of plausibility. These workshops focused on answering the following questions about each scenario:

  • Are there any relevant STEEP+ factors missing from the scenario? If so, which ones, and how might they support or challenge the current scenario narrative?
  • How has COVID-19 changed the STEEP+ factors within the scenario? What additional effects might those changes have?
  • How can the role of the EU and its member states within each scenario be described? What additional, crosscutting, factors are important for EU actorness to advance?


The inputs provided by the workshop participants helped to refine the scenarios – adding or editing particular aspects of each world so as to better reflect possible futures. The revised scenarios were then tested for their robustness in the final digital workshop through two primary activities. In four separate scenario groups, participants were first asked to identify signals and indicators that we might be moving in the direction of the scenario, and how those signals might develop if the world continued in the direction of such a scenario. In the second phase of the final workshop, participants collectively voted on the top three SDGs that need to be addressed, and then took these SDGs as ‘goals for 2030’ into each of the scenario spaces for a role-playing activity. Then, within each scenario, participants would take on the role of a policy-maker (EU or national), a CSO/NGO, a private sector business, or a representative from an external actor group (like a foreign government or global company). Throughout the Digital Workshop Series, experts offered important insights into the ways in which the scenarios could be useful to various groups of experts, interested parties within the European institutions, civil society organisations, and other stakeholder and actor groups in the EU.

So what?

In some contexts, a 30-year time horizon may not seem useful, with some asking: “So what? Why should I let possibilities that are decades away shape my decisions in the present? What merit are these images of the future to the immediate demands of this crisis? Saving lives, saving livelihoods, and ways of life – these are the needs of the present!”

There are a number of responses to this very important line of questioning. First, the work that is being done to save lives in the present is the work of real heroes. Make sure we never forget that.

Second, both the rock and the hard place hurt like hell when you hit them, but sometimes decisions have to be made NOW…and to those of you forced into these uncomfortable positions (policy makers, executives, governors, etc.) we must also remember that you too are only humans, doing your best given what’s available. May history be as forgiving as the present is being demanding.

Third, however, we must also recall that our actions do have consequences. While some manifest immediately – a life saved! – others take time to make their impact felt. We do not know how the children of the pandemic will remember these times, or how it will affect their decisions later in life. We do not know if policies aimed to strengthen EU unity will be effective, but we must acknowledge that despite this uncertainty, and the imperfect knowledge available in our present, our decisions today will have those long lasting impacts, and we must continue to do our best to work towards desirable futures.

In policy circles, for instance, the argument could be made that actions, policies, or the impacts that they have, may very well still be influencing the world in complex, unpredictable ways, 30 years in the future. These scenarios were created to help you take some of those possible consequences into account; not in a predictive way, but as plausible outcomes we, and future generations, may be dealing with.

Furthermore, we are presented with a compelling reason to engage with imaginative scenarios from far off futures when we acknowledge that a) our convictions concerning the future are shaped by both our pasts and our capacity to imagine alternative futures[7], and that b) those convictions are what form the basis of our present day decisions. For those that have been elected to govern, we argue that exercising the imagination enables the capacity to view the present through a lens of opportunity and challenge – a hallmark of both responsible policy, and stalwart leadership.

Truly, the question of “so what?” is a rich line of discourse, and one that the scenarios (insert link to Deliverable 5.2) attempts to address in greater detail with guides on how to utilize these (or any) scenarios in a meaningful way. The TRIGGER scenarios, however, are designed to answer “so what?” through the exploration of answering “what if…?” – For example:

What if the EU commits itself to creating a more equal spectrum of social and civil services across all its Member States and for all its collective citizens?

What if the relationship between the United States and China continues to be approached as a competition in a zero sum game, with the EU market a major site for these rivals clashing?

What if EU policies regarding the governance of Artificial Intelligence, Distributed Ledger Technologies, or Open Source Software are adopted by an increasing number of nations, and come to define a standard for laws around the world?

What if the world’s citizens decide to exert their collective power to address climate change? What if they do not?

It is through the exploration of speculative answers to these questions that the TRIGGER scenarios can be of value to actors in the present. Not because the speculations approach ‘the future’, but because they enable discussions that are critical to defining and setting course for our future.

[1] This “Law“ is accompanied by an important corollary: not all ridiculous ideas about the future are useful. Dator, Jim. “What futures studies is, and is not.” Jim Dator: A Noticer in Time. Springer, Cham, 2019. 3-5.
[2] Iain White, Graham Haughton,Risky times: Hazard management and the tyranny of the present, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction,Volume 22,2017,Pages 412-419,ISSN 2212-4209,
[3] Tenner, Edward. “The Future Is a Foreign Country.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), vol. 30, no. 1, 2006, pp. 62–66. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.
[4] Just a few „New Normal“ scenario sources: Allianz, McKinsey, T.A.Cook, KPMG
[5]  This might also be framed as resurrgent, as resilience was often a popular term during the global financial crisis. This will also be explored in the follow up blog entry.
[6] The STEEP+ framework is described in greater detail in Section 1.3.2 of this publication.
[7] Beckert, J., & Bronk, R. (Eds.). (2018). Uncertain futures: Imaginaries, narratives, and calculation in the economy. Oxford University Press.