Scenario Basics

This exercise has been created to focus attention on the speed of change, uncertainties in the world that arise from disruptive technologies, complexity that leads to rapid changes in expectation of higher education, and ambiguity around the evolving habits of students, research advancements and other issues relevant to USC’s future. The exercise will be run by the USC Annenberg Scenario Lab. We hope the scenario writing exercise will expand USC’s collective imaginative repertoire and help frame the retreat conversation regarding USC in the year 2025.  The long-term objective is to begin to generate organizational “foresight” and expand the conversations that will take place during the strategic planning process that follows the release of USC’s new strategic vision.

The method we are using is a shortened version of scenario planning, a widely used technique for guiding discussions about the ways organizations and societies might respond to different imagined (but always plausible) alternative futures. Scenarios, in this sense, are realistic stories written about the future—what it will be like, how societies and organizations become their future selves through the interconnected influences of long-term social, technological, economic, environmental and political drivers that to some degree we can identify today. Scenarios are not forecasting models that attempt to predict the future. So long as scenarios are reasonably plausible, there is no “right” or “wrong,” and many different scenarios should be discussed in a strategic conversation in order for leaders to inform themselves and enhance their decision-making processes. Scenarios are best understood as stories that are intended to encourage new and expanded dialogue about likely possible futures.

This online scenario planning exercise asks you to write a short story about the medium-term (12 years forward) future of USC.  The narratives you write (one to two paragraphs) are not meant to be accurate nor do they need be highly likely to happen. They should be plausible and in keeping with USC’s values and culture, the character of higher education at leading research universities, and your own professional experiences.  A number of readings are available on the website that might be thought-provoking or useful to the exercise.

Below are some examples from a different scenario workshop focused on administrative and institutional issues. These are stripped of references to any actual university.  When you are finished writing your scenario, please post it.  We suggest that you write your scenario on your computer and cut and paste it to prevent data loss should the website experience difficulties.

This story-writing exercise requires no special artistic skill or strenuous creative effort. Generally, people enjoy the imaginative and creative element of the experience and we hope you will as well. If you have any questions, please contact us at Remember to sign your reply with your full name!

Example Scenarios

 A) The Ivy+ Arks [the Elitist scenario]

It is the year 2022 and over the last decade, the relative wealth gap between the “Ivy+” group (the powerful elite set of the 20 or so very wealthiest private universities), and the next tier of premier universities quadrupled in the US. While the Ivy+ group had been enjoying year after year of record-breaking fundraising, outsize investment returns, and ambitious new expansions for the past decade – making them the envy of the universities the world over – the rest of the US university landscape has been undergoing a dramatic general decline. Ivy+ university administrators are confident that this is a sustainable “long boom”, and talk of a so-called “higher education bubble” has almost disappeared for Ivy+ universities. With their unprecedentedly influential political clout, the Ivy+ group have even captured the lion’s share of government funding even while Federal and State public budgets have had their university teaching and research funds steadily cut back. In comparison, public universities have fared the worse, with most being forced to radically reduce the quality of their teaching and scale of their research. Some, notably the University of California system, have mostly or totally collapsed. Elsewhere in the private sector, many less privileged private universities are doing moderately well but only at the cost of giving up many traditional university values and practices, and fully embracing the market-driven needs of industry and commerce. The “Ivy+” group is regarded as the last safe refuge in the US (and given their ever growing network of international outposts, perhaps the world) for the traditional university ideals of research, teaching, and public service – while also being, with the cushion of their immense wealth, the unrivaled center of innovation in the US university landscape.  The “Ivy+” group has become used to styling themselves as the only “true” residential universities, a breed apart from the others. Opposition to the rise of this elite group has proven to be futile.

B) Occupy Academia! [The Anti-Inequality Scenario]

It is the year 2022, and mass protests about unjust inequalities have been a dominant feature of American politics over the last decade. Arguably starting with the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, these protests steadily grew, spread, and intensified. Even most Federal and State politicians on both the left and the right have become used to talking openly of how the “American Spring” demands radical reforms addressing inequality across all sectors of society, include private organizations. One of the most discussed issues has been the role of US higher education and academic research, particularly in the years after the bursting of the so-called “higher education bubble”. Critics have successfully persuaded most of the public that the existing US university system is inherently unjust and so, untenable. The issue is not just access to high quality degree programs but also how the teaching, research, and public service missions of all universities, public and private, must be reformed to better serve the common cause of reducing inequalities and promoting grassroots democracy. With a mandate to prioritize equal access to teaching and research while challenging elitism, US public university systems, most notably the University of California system, have been enjoying a major renaissance – they have received generous new teaching and research funds, from the state government as well as private donors, that rival the elite private universities; new grassroots-driven higher education and research initiatives have also been greatly favored. In contrast, those elite private universities have been consistently receiving public approval ratings as low as Wall St. investment firms and are seen as undemocratic defenders of entrenched inequalities, with their public service and access programs acting as mere fig-leafs. The revolutionaries have run out of patience for the private universities to reform themselves in line with the new ‘will of the people’, and an escalating series of confrontations is expected.

C) The New Atlantis [The Libertarian Scenario]    

It is the year 2022 and over the last decade, America has increasingly turned to libertarian ideals for solutions to its problems.  Since the election of a libertarian President in 2016, anti-government and free-market principles have grown to define the prevailing national mood. Silicon Valley circles have been far more of an influence on this trend than mainstream conservatives, so the libertarianism has been typically combined with a strong pro-technology stance that cherishes entrepreneurialism while also being skeptical of traditional values that limit individual freedoms. Some of the most radical changes have occurred in the university sector, particularly in the years after the bursting of the so-called “higher education bubble”. Influential libertarian thinkers have moved the majority of the public to consider traditional university education experiences and research environments – both in public and private universities – as inefficient, outmoded, and damaging to the potential of individual talents and freedoms, as well as national productivity and innovation. The traditional bachelor’s degree – even at the most prestigious elite universities offering generous financial aid – is now popularly seen as a waste of time and money compared to the possibilities of ‘heroic individualist’ enterprise and innovation. Similarly, graduate school and university research programs are criticized for the ways they are said to support old elitist orders. The many programs and policies that now exist nationwide to encourage and support young people – and even old professors – in abandoning university aspirations in favor of entrepreneurialism or corporate careerism have proven highly popular. The U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and similar government bodies – including in the defense sector – that were deemed to represent unacceptable state interference in education and research been abolished or severely cut back. No university can now expect government funds. At the same time, regulations have been loosened to allow far greater corporate involvement in university education and research. Public universities – including the University of California system – have been mostly or fully privatized with their new forms being tasked with serving free-market, pro-enterprise, pro-technology ideals to a more aggressive extent than their ‘old-fashioned’ private university competitors.

D) Facebook University [The Virtual Reality Scenario]  

It is the year 2022, and over the last decade, Facebook and similar social networking platforms have become the dominant means by which people communicate and experience media, to a degree unimaginable to most Americans in 2012. Zuckerberg’s dream of replacing the typical Internet experience with Facebook has largely become real, although with a much greater presence of Facebook competitors than he would have liked. The far-reaching proliferation, and enhanced prestige as well as practical value, of advanced virtual reality and mobile technologies in combination with social networking platforms have also made much traditional privileging of physical space and interaction obsolete. In the higher education sector, these trends have fuelled the astonishing success of higher education and research organizations (commercial, non-profit, and public) that are ‘born social media’ and are almost entirely virtual and highly networked online in the way they operate. These pioneer upstarts are widely regarded as the most important innovators in the academic space and are providing an powerful alternative to the so-called “higher education bubble” in traditional academia. Ironically, much of the inspiration for their ideas came from experiments by traditional universities such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare and MOOCs. Public university systems pushed by the need for radical reform in the face of severe budget pressures –notably the University of California system – have been amongst the most aggressive of traditional academic institutions in responding to this trend. With remarkable success in reviving their fortunes and academic prowess as well as their international reach, these public universities have sold off the bulk of their physical campuses in favor of VR and social media based teaching while their physical research facilities have been rationalized and redistributed to cheaper areas. In many of their university faculties, most members now telecommute – including technical researchers who are increasingly using VR and robot technologies for their laboratory work. Most private universities, which have sought to preserve the ‘prestigious’ traditional experience of students and professors gathering together daily on impressive physical campuses as much as possible, have been slower to adapt to this change but are increasingly under heavy pressure to do so in order to compete for students.


2 thoughts on “Scenario Basics

  1. I have to say that the four scenarios all seem disturbing in different ways, insofar as they seem to romanticize subtle shifts in popular thinking and turn them into Hollywood blockbuster scenarios. I have a feeling that there will be some of each. The Ivy+ will continue to thrive, the academic non-profit industrial complex will probably continue to favor those institutions already floating in abundance, and state and local community colleges will continue to wrestle for scraps as the economy continues to shrink, unless we can do something to shore up (pardon the pun) off-shore tax havens and restore equity to the economics of this culture. I also suspect that there will be enough push-back from the people, aided and abetted by the increasing popularity and access of social media, including – but not limited to – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. I think the intersection of media and social activist movements will find a home in parts of academia who are interested in popular education in the tradition of Paulo Freire with a post-techological twist. The Libertarian model continues to attract the rosy vision of romantic tea-partiers whose ranks are ever-more present in the formerly progressive halls of academia, but I suspect outside of shifting policy against protection of staff and faculty wages, their influence will be minimal on academia. There is, after all, nothing at all “new” about Atlantis or tea parties. Finally, my own vision for 12 years in the future at USC involves the dissolution of the brick and mortar boundaries, spiked fences, and draconian security measures that challenge USC’s “good neighbor” reputation and fulfill a wayward and, in my opinion, totally wrong-headed vision for USC as an “elite” (read “elitist”) university. I envision an explosion in community partnerships where intercultural experiences of service learning and urban classroom laboratories are truly applying the great learning that happens in the classroom to real world scenarios, but not from the mantle of student or scholar “expertise”; rather, the USC I envision recognizes that you cannot have evidence based practice as a grounding research methodology without having a source of practice-based evidence, that is, community experiential input that supplements what we understand as “knowledge.” This is the role of MOOCs and internet learning platforms. The future of USC as a community partner and global research resource, and not a center of commodified educational luxury, will be the future that I will work hard to construct.

  2. As I look back over the past twelve years I am amazed at the collaborative efforts of my colleagues throughout USC. The number of innovative initiatives that began twelve years ago has expanded beyond my expectations and solidified the new future of this institution. In the health sciences, the inter professional approach to patient care has become mainstream and students from all aspects of the institution are now part of a collaborative effort to solve complex disease states and provide patient centered care. The number of online learners throughout the world has doubled annually to the point that our Trojan family is now more palpable across the globe then ever before and students from across the globe participate in our institutional seminars which seek to improve community health in every part of the world.

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