Alternative histories

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Alternative histories can be seen as a variant of turning point analysis and future backwards. You find a turning point in a string of events, and then develop the event to create a different universe / different space to openly explore possibilities for fictional learning, novel solutions, and conflict resolution.

Name and history

An early example of the method worked to create an alternative history of the USA in which the South won the Civil War. The turning point in this instance was Lincoln not making the Emancipation Proclamation in the New Jersey Declaration. Participants extrapolated forwards from this turning point and created a fictional universe that was used for real-time decision support. They found somewhere in the fictional universe that matched a current policy situation so they were working on step removed from the real-world problem.

Prior knowledge

Preparation and requirements to use this method

  • Split people into two or three groups all working in parallel.
  • Choose whether you want to look at a real-world wicked problem their facing, or you can use Future Backwards to elicit a more hypothetical scenario.
  • Ask the groups to brainstorm the most significant turning points - places in the scenario which are most susceptible to change and are most likely to produce a radically different outcome.
  • Run some silent listening between the groups to get feedback, then each group will choose one turning point to explore.
  • Similarly to Future Backwards get each group to extrapolate forwards from their turning point and create an alternative history of events.
  • You could do another round of silent listening between groups or, move from the complex to complicated domain, by seeking expert analysis on the alternative histories.

Do's and Don'ts

  • Standard complex facilitation advice in not getting overly involved in the process.
  • If you are asked for an example, make sure you give them a completely unrelated example to the space they're working in.
  • Seek documentation from experts before deployment.
  • Conterfactual history and its value for human learning
  • New paper on Constructor Theory (Dave, John and Nigel) where you identify the counterfactual nature of the environment in which you're operating and then seek constructors within that to get replicability. Once you've mapped the counterfactual universe, you can start to examine what aspects of it might actually be factual.