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Exploring rail futures using scenarios: experience and potential

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External Speaker (Department of Design and Innovation, Technology Faculty, Open University)

In 1995 Robin Roy and I were invited by British Rail’s Director of Technical Strategy to take part in a ‘futures’ exercise in the run-up to British Rail’s privatisation. This involved preparing a briefing paper for the conference, The Railways: Challenges to Science and Technology, held at the Royal Society later that year. The briefing paper and conference contributions sought to identify priorities for rail science and technology developments under the new privatised regime. In the face of increasing uncertainty in markets, technology and political/social trends, scenarios have come to be a used to explore how an organisation can prepare for a range of possible futures. It is a much more robust approach to developing design approaches than technology forecasting. Given the uncertainties associated with rail privatisation, a scenario approach was adopted for the 1995 conference briefing paper. This provided four alternative scenarios for the future of UK rail transport up to 2010: cost-driven, quality-driven, technology-driven and environmentally-driven. These market-based scenarios helped to specify areas of strategic design that were needed to improve rail’s competitiveness. It is now a decade since this pre-privatisation scenario exercise took place. This presentation revisits the 1995 scenarios and compares them to what actual market strategies emerged within the railway industry. It explores whether the four scenarios did succeed in capturing the range of market responses and consequential design implications that emerged from rail privatisation and what lessons this contains for the use of scenarios in design research. With further transport policy situations emerging that are characterised by great uncertainty (e.g. road pricing futures), methods such as scenario planning rather than forecasting may well become increasingly appropriate.

This talk is part of the Engineering Design Centre series.

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