Scenarios: the tricky dynamics of the matrix

Making scenarios is easy. Standard recipe: do your PESTEL analysis; identify the key drivers that will shape tomorrow’s world; look for the two drivers that are at the same time the most uncertain and the most important ones; create your x- and y-axes on the basis of these; cook up four fancy titles for the four quadrants in the matrix that is defined by the two axes – done![1]

Or isn’t it? OK, using the deductive approach described above, resulting in a scenario-matrix, has some strong advantages. First it forces you to radically choose and create clarity when you look at a sometimes dazzling amount of drivers that seem to be important. And when you have picked the two most uncertain and most important drivers the matrix can help you to get into a nice antagonistic mind-set, pushing the opposites on both axes to their extremes, extremes that may lie beyond what you would have imagined without the help of these axes. And sometimes combining the axes to create the four different quadrants can unexpectedly surface worlds you had not really thought about but that are still plausible and provocative. Next to that, though some may mutter the matrix can also be a cheap and mechanical off-the shelf method, and while others may complain that the future is not fourfold by definition: using a matrix is a well tested and in a sense fail-safe method: you will at least always get something as a result of your inputs!

So far so good. But being such a clever and important fellow, sometimes your matrix wants to be bigger than is good for your scenarios, and is beginning to stand in their way. What you get then is a scenario set where the matrix logic leads to stuff where you think – hm, yes my matrix tells me this world should be there, but does that actually make sense? Or will I in practice only work with a few of the produced scenarios?

Let’s look at things in practice, at three scenario sets, produced over the last couple of years. They are all packed with data, analysis and creativity and they are all a good read. And all three lead to interesting questions around the dynamics of using a matrix approach to scenario-building.

Take for instance the Strategic Monitors (2012-2015) by the Dutch Clingendael Institute[2]. The Strategic Monitors build on a set of scenarios that was developed in a 2010 report looking into different futures for the Dutch defence forces, using 2030 as horizon. The Monitors look ahead 5-10 years and analyse trends in international global (power and security) dynamics, using a classic matrix (figure 1).


The four scenarios follow from the axes of cooperation versus non-cooperation (X-axis) and states (as key players) versus multiple actors (Y-axis). This is high-class work packed with data and analysis.

The scenarios form a nice mix. We see two scenarios that can be seen as part of a narrative of continuity and closeness, with the Multilateral (globalisation in cooperation) and Multipolar (rivalry between great powers) scenarios. Next to that there is an element of imagining the new, the complex and the unfamiliar with the Network scenario, which depicts a non-polar, relatively stable but unpredictable world where states are less prominent. And finally the scenario set is open to the scary possibility of a world gone astray (Fragmentation, where stagnation, conflict and competition rule). In the Monitor, as the name already indicates, the scenario set is used also as a dashboard, as a way to categorise and interpret the current state of affairs.[3]

But this is not just about looking at the world of today. The Monitor looks ahead 5 to 10 years, and in that context, right from the start (the 2012 Monitor, the first in the series) a clear direction is coming to the fore, a direction that says that the world is moving from the Multilateral to the Multipolar quadrant. Despite a disclaimer[4] we move into the discourse of forecasting here, where we see terms and expressions like expectations; prediction; most likely.[5] A single arrow, that sign of knowing what is about to happen, appears in the top half of the matrix diagrams[6]. And even an element of extrapolation and linear thinking almost seems to creep in: ‘In other words, the small shifts that have taken place over the past year are a step in the direction of the developments outlined for the next five to ten years.’ [7]. The risk of fragmentation, the rise of the non-state actor, elements of a network society: it is all mentioned, but in practice all the action, in monitoring as well as in forward looking mode, is taking place in the top two quadrants. The bottom two quadrants, in the meantime, are sitting there like orphans. When we are actually expecting stuff to happen are we still doing scenarios?

Of course, there is a difference in timeframe between the original scenarios (looking 20 years ahead, towards 2030)) and the horizon of the Monitor (that by now reaches until 2025). In 20 years time an awful lot, nay, ‘everything’ is possible. However, in terms of coming to grips with the world in the foreseeable future (let’s say, the Monitor’s 10 years timeframe), where change is slow, and on the basis of the analysis of the Monitor, it might perhaps make sense to get rid of the bottom two quadrants for the time being and see if it is possible to construct multiple arrows between the top two quadrants. In other words: given the analysis of the Monitors since 2012, a scenario mind-set would start looking for the variations, the key uncertainties inside the transition from Multilateral to Multipolar.[8] What is down there in the bottom two quadrants of the matrix may in that sense be the elements, dimensions, trends, drivers that need to be used when constructing these future worlds, and should perhaps not be seen as worlds in themselves.

Does that mean the bottom two quadrants should just be seen as ‘dead’ quadrants? No, because, as sci-fi writer William Gibson stated: ‘The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed’. That is, the language, the shorthand of these quadrants does make sense to understand what is happening in particular parts of the world, or in particular sectors. And the mere presence of these quadrants will also influence the interpretation of what is happening above the x-axis (with elements of the Network quadrant, with a stronger role for non-state actors etc.) and will work as an antidote against an analysis that is too much based on ‘what is there’ at the moment.

A second example: The Law Scenarios to 2030.[9] This is a set of scenarios that describes possible futures for global legal regimes (fig. 2).

Law Scenarios

The Law Scenarios matrix builds on two key uncertainties: ‘Will we witness continued internationalisation of rules and institutions or will this trend stagnate or even reverse? [Y-axis] Will private governance mechanisms and private legal regimes further expand and become predominant, or will state-connected institutions and legal regimes retain their position?’ [10] [X-axis] Four scenarios flow from the two axes of the matrix – but the text already betrays what is happening to the Legal Tribes quadrant that is being produced using the matrix logic: ‘There is also a theoretical possibility that …’. [11] . While we ought to be looking for plausible worlds, what we end up with is a world that is theoretically possible and which is ‘hard to imagine’ but where ‘following the logic of the two main forces at the heart of this scenario, we cannot exclude the possibility of development in this direction’.[12] It is clear who has won the battle between matrix logic and plausibility here.

Both the Clingendael Strategic Monitor as well as the Law Scenarios have this ‘chaos’ or ‘entropy’ quadrant and indeed it makes sense in today’s world to build in a factor of ‘growth of entropy’. But perhaps that should not be a quadrant and a full blown scenario but it should be something that ‘pulls’ on the other scenarios – it is perhaps more like a force to reckon with, a trend, a risk: a driver.

And a final example, of a slightly different character. A set of scenarios produced to look forward to ‘Amsterdam 750’ – the city celebrating its 750 year anniversary in 2025.[13] Unfortunately these scenarios are produced in Dutch only but we don’t need to speak Dutch to understand what is happening. We have a matrix here too (Figure 3[14]). AMsterdam 750

Next to that the proven tool of presenting narratives describing ‘a day in the life’ has been used to craft some pretty original and imaginative stories for the four quadrants. This is fun and sometimes provocative reading – imagine German (German!) being the hip and sexy language in the Netherlands 10 years from now! Looking at the matrix logic the Big (companies) vs. Small (local niche oriented initiatives) x-axis seems like a fruitful one when thinking about how society and economy could be shaped in the city of the future. And on the y axis, looking from a geo-economical perspective, we see ‘Western Europe follows’ on one side. OK, that seems to makes sense. And that generates ‘Western Europe Leading’ on the other side. Of course. But wait a minute. Western Europe leading? Is that really a plausible direction that should shape two out of four worlds in the scenario set?[15] One would wonder if e.g. tensions inside the city or the emerging dynamics between global cities and national states would make better ingredients than this tricky global perspective? In this case the creativity of the scenario narratives might have more potential than the logic as set up in the matrix.

Does all this mean these are ‘bad’ scenarios? No – to the contrary. They are excellent tools to order information, distinguish and weigh different dimensions and (the Amsterdam scenarios) to trigger the imagination. But they do show the dynamics that a matrix can bring about.

Does this mean one should not use a matrix when building scenarios? Of course not. As said, using a matrix has strong advantages and benefits from a clear methodology. Just make sure you are in charge and you are not swept away by a matrix logic that in the end leads to results that are perhaps not-so-plausible.

So what can you do? Well, for instance you could start using a matrix approach, but if in the end you look at the result and one of the four scenarios actually does not make a lot of sense, kill that darned matrix, throw it away and simply present three scenarios. Nobody needs to know that once there was a matrix! The matrix is there only to be the humble servant of your scenarios, not their king.

Alternatively and more radically, you can go for an incremental approach or an inductive approach (see the Scenario Development Primer on the Facing Your Futures page on this site) where you can also use different visual representations like e.g. a Delta Chart. This is where you can see scenarios branching off and unfolding over time (figure 4.)Delta Chart 4

In this context, when we look at the ‘Global Tribes’ and ‘Fragmentation’ scenarios mentioned above it is indeed probably quite functional to have a very dystopic narrative in the scenario set, in order to shake up people’s simple extrapolation of stable contexts (this is obviously especially the case in Western settings). But moving to a state of severe fragmentation takes time. Mad Max is not around the corner – though the world of Mad Max could be the longer term result of some narratives. Introducing the element of time in the visual representation makes sense in cases like this as it makes it possible to sequence the different narratives and also to clearly show the causal links between the present and a possible dystopic future.

And then of course… if your matrix produces a set of scenarios where some of the stories do not seem to be so plausible or are not so usable in practice after all, you may also want to start anew and wonder whether you have actually picked the right uncertainties! Well, err… nobody ever said that making scenarios is a linear process. Nor did anyone ever say making scenarios is easy!


[1] Of course there is a little bit more to it. Have a look at the Scenario Development Primer  on the Facing Your Futures page (Services) on this site.

[2] For the 2015 edition see; the matrix can be found on p. 14.

[3] This character of the scenarios as conceptual, logical tools of categorisation, perhaps more than as re-perceiving, future oriented tools is also present in the explanatory section of the 2013 Monitor: ‘These scenarios are not arbitrary to the extent that they have a theoretical and conceptual embedding in the literature on international relations.’ (p. 215). This seems to go in the direction that these scenarios are ‘always there’,  as conceptual categories and are not time bound and specific.

[4] 2013 Monitor p. 214: ‘This emphasises the fact that the Clingendael Strategic Monitor makes no predictions and that no specific statement can be derived from the Monitor about precisely how the future international system will develop. This holds especially true for the scenario framework. In the Monitor, we identify trends and developments (…)’.

[5] See, respectively, Monitor 2015 p. 11; Monitor 2013 p. 24; Monitor 2015 p. 18.

[6] See e.g. the 2014 Monitor on page 63.

[7] 2013 Monitor p. 214.

[8] This type of questions actually is identified in the Monitor in multiple places (e.g. the 2013 Monitor p. 25: ‘What this [the move from multilateral to multipolar] development means for the pattern of conflict and cooperation between the great powers is still open to interpretation.’) it is just not (yet) translated into a new set of scenarios. See also the 2012 Monitor p. 207, where a search for new core-uncertainties is already mentioned.


[10] Idem, p. 12

[11] Describing the ‘Legal Tribes’ scenario, p. 13, emphasis added.

[12] p. 42


[14] The ‘Oost Best, Thuis West’ quadrant depicts a world where Europe is the ‘Luxembourg of the world’, marginal but comfortable.

[15] Not in any case if we look at the Clingendael analysis on the position of Europe.