Crystal ball gazing

Elspeth Finch | 30 Jan 2015 | Comments

Scenario planning can bring better solutions

Wind the clock back 15 years. The UK was almost brought to a standstill by protests at oil refineries and fuel shortages. Why? Because oil had increased from $10 to $30 per barrel and there were concerns that the price of petrol was going to break the £1 per litre mark, putting thousands of companies out of business and causing hardship for millions.

Fast forward to 2015. Doomsday never arrived and discussion is now all about when we will break the £1 per litre barrier the other way having been above this level for almost a decade. This isn’t the only time when a crystal ball would have been useful. London’s population wasn’t supposed to reach 8.6M until 2026. This figure will be reached a decade early.

In 2000 we didn’t even know London would host the Olympics, let alone that it would be one of the most successful ever. And the Tour de France having a Yorkshire stage off the back of a UK cycling revolution? Nobody saw that coming.

These are interesting facts, but what is the relevance for engineers? It is simply that engineers are asked to design and build infrastructure that in most cases has a life well over 50 years. So how can we possibly ensure what we do today is relevant and resilient in the years ahead?

At Atkins we have been using scenario planning as one of the tools to think in a structured way about the future. Rather than trying to predict a single outcome, it enables us to test different future worlds and find a solution which covers the most eventualities. Engineers have the skills to ask the “what if” questions and then take a systematic approach to reviewing risks and uncertain­ties. We can then use our creativity and storytelling to bring these worlds to life.

The water industry accounts for about 3% of the UK’s energy usage so two years ago we asked ourselves about the impact energy price swings could have on the sector. With an abundance of cheap energy we identified risks, particularly for sustainability.

Cheap fossil fuels could slow down investment in renewable energy, plus cheap energy could help keep water prices low, which in turn could lead to customers using resources less conservatively. We also saw opportunities. For example cheap energy could support an increase in UK manufacturing which in turn leads to increased industrial water usage. Like us, we know water companies are using this approach to maximise opportunities and manage their risks better.

In these uncertain times, there is value in us working together as an industry to think though the changes we may face, and how we maxi­mise the resources we have available to us.

So let’s ask the questions and consider different scenarios.

For example, what will be the impact of driverless vehicles on our cities and how will digital engineering change how we design buildings and structures?

We may not always agree what the future may look like, but perhaps when we get to 2030 we will have made better decisions along the way.