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A bright future for beef : futuring scenarios in the real world

Richard F Fell and Tom R Stockwell

Tropical Savannas CRC, Northern Territory University, Darwin NT 0909
Chairman, North Australia Beef Research council, Sunday Creek, via Katherine, NT 0825

A futuring scenario was used with the North Australia Beef Research Council (NABRC) to examine the future possibilities of the beef industry in northern Australia through the "eyes" of the pastoral industry, local communities and government. A report to the industry from the workshop to promote on-going debate was through the medium of three newspapers from the year 2020, looking back at the success of the workshop. The examination of the future started in this process is on-going in NABRC and the beef industry.

Introducing the group and the futuring process

"For a forecast to be of any use it must be considered ridiculous by all who hear it"

The North Australia Beef Research Council (NABRC) aims to provide industry, its service providers and funders with a comprehensive, representative strategic view of the beef industry's need for research, development, extension, education and training (RDEET). As part of this process "The bright future for beef" workshop was conducted to creatively develop directions for RDEET in the beef industry in the medium to long term. (Stockwell 2000)

The participants in the workshop were drawn from across northern Australia and from the following organisations and groups:

  • NABRC and 7 Regional Beef Research Committees, RBRCs
  • Beef Research Advisory Committee, BRAC
  • Queensland Beef Industry Institute, QBII
  • Meat and Livestock, Australia, MLA
  • Australia Centre for Industry and Agricultural Research, ACIAR
  • James Cook University
  • Australian Lot Feeders Association R&D Committee
  • North Australia Program industry Committee
  • CSIRO, Beef CRC & Tropical Savannas CRC

The futuring process used with NABRC was based on one developed by Derek Foster, Queensland Department of Primary Industries and used with that organisation and the Tropical Savannas CRC (Foster 1999).

There are three ways to develop future scenarios:

1. A future built from the present and the past - extrapolation of the current trends and predictions to develop the future. This is the basis of forecasting and is the usual mode of economists and rationalists.

2. Analyse the present in the light of the past - deconstruction, take today apart and look at what is underpinning the way we go about doing things and then reinvent a better future in the light of the lessons learnt.

3. Invent a future - develop a vision of what the future might and could be and then come back to the present to decide the action that can be taken to make this future happen. (Fell 1997)

Foster (1999) describes scenario planning as using what information and wisdom we have available to us to construct some possibilities (scenarios) of what the future might look like. The experience, information and wisdom in an informed group forms a powerful base for this kind of planning.

Scenarios challenge the mindset, allow us to step beyond our mental models into new substantive terrain which compels us to grapple with issues that previously were not raised or were only briefly considered and discarded through conditioned mental filtering. This process is not a prediction process but rather a process of creative thinking.

By using scenarios to think about the future we are able to incorporate elements from each of these processes and thus:

  • Maintain a more strategic view
  • Have a good frame of reference for testing current strategic plans
  • More effectively identify critical issues
  • Have a robust method of developing strategies for achieving desired outcomes
  • Improve our risk management response time
  • Provide a more powerful process for creating shared visions within an organisation

Scenarios are not predictions or forecasts, but are a means for assisting us to think from the future and deal with uncertainty about the external environment. The analytical task for decision-makers is to walk the business plans and strategies of their organisations through the various scenarios to see how they would stand up if these possible futures were to come to reality (Foster 1999).

So, for the NABRC, a number of scenarios were developed in this futuring workshop and these scenarios were used to identify critical areas of research. This then contributed to the development of a strategic approach to the research program for NABRC over the next 10-15 years.

Program for the future scenario workshop

The program that was used for the workshop covered the following topics and was set out in a workbook that also helped guide the participants through the process.

  • Welcome and overall process outline — why we are using this process?
  • Introduction of participants and ground rules
  • What is scenario setting for the future?
  • What are the key local drivers of change — the factors that are the key to the future?
  • Small group thinking exercise — Three Festivals in the Outback
  • Global drivers and the future of the beef industry
  • Global drivers — human population growth (how this relates to the beef industry through the eyes of the 3 groups, the groups start to develop their scenarios)
  • Global drivers — food security at a national level, globalised trade and product prices (how this relates to the beef industry through the eyes of the 3 groups, the groups continue developing their scenarios)
  • Global drivers — energy futures, greenhouse gas emissions, climate and atmospheric change (how this relates to the beef industry through the eyes of the 3 groups, the groups continue developing their scenarios)
  • Global drivers — institutional capacity for change, urban/country relations and cultural homogenisation (how this relates to the beef industry through the eyes of the 3 groups, the groups continue developing their scenarios)
  • Local drivers of significance (how this relates to the beef industry through the eyes of the 3 groups, the groups continue developing their scenarios)
  • Writing the story and deciding the research issues for examination.

The strategic question that was used to guide the development of the scenarios during the workshop was: 'What will the Northern Beef Industry look like in the year 2020?'

The social groupings that were set up to consider the drivers and to develop the scenarios were:

1. North Australia Business Forum (NABF) with values associated with business development.

2. Caring regional communities (CRC) with values associated with the community like intergenerational equity, cultural diversity and sustainable management.

3. North Australia government (NAG) with values associated with effective government management in the north of Australia.

Participants was asked to self-select into groups that were least like their natural preference and to ensure that there was a mix of expertise within each group.

Developing the scenarios

There were a number of steps that were used to develop the scenarios; these are set out below.

Step 1. Each group was asked to encapsulate their fundamental purpose as a group in a motto and a brief statement of their core values.

Step 2. Three outback towns were celebrating festivals in 2020 - the Festival of Mimosa, the Festival of the Donkey and the Festival of Parthenuim. The three groups were asked to think about why this had come about and report back on one of the festivals to the other groups.

Step 3. As Barney Foran, CSIRO introduced each Global Driver (Foran and Howden 1999) the groups were asked to then consider what the Key Attributes are for their scenario, which was stimulated by these Global Drivers. They were also asked to fill in some of the detail that the Key Attribute relies upon — some Indicators of what it might be or look like. For example:

  • Key Attribute— water resources will be used for the best economic return
  • Description — underground and surface water resources in the north will be used to increase the area and investment in irrigated agriculture.

Step 4. Each person was also asked to note the key research questions and/or areas as each Global Driver was introduced and discussed by their group. Pages were set aside for these activities in the workbook.

Step 5. Finally each group was asked to "tell their story" by writing down the Key Attributes and Descriptions that they have agreed upon, as well as a section on the Research Needs that are inherent in their scenario. These "stories" were shared at the end of the day. They were also asked to allocate a $10 million research budget to the areas that they had identified as needing funding.

All the material produced was then reported to the whole of NABRC and other interested parties in a report - "The bright future for beef" Stockwell (2000) that used the device of newspapers reporting on progress from the workshop to the three groups in the year 2020. These 'newspaper reports' will be used to illustrate the results of the workshop.

Reporting the scenarios from the workshop

Local drivers that were identified

There were 10 local drivers that were identified by the group:

  • communicating coherent information
  • aggressive capital/banking
  • nutritional trends
  • education
  • community expectations
  • water and water rights
  • diversification
  • perceptions about the beef industry
  • infrastructure and
  • technology change.

The group also accepted the 10 global drivers that were presented as the guiding framework for the workshop as listed in the program above.

Developing the scenarios — motto and key values for the three groups

This report appeared in the Northern News in June 2020:

North Australia Government takes credit for prosperous, vibrant community in north Australia, Selmah Bagdad

"A North Australian government (NAG) spokeswoman today claimed that by being true to their election promises, acting as government for the times and supporting innovation, productivity and sustainability, that the northern Australian rural community was now more prosperous and vibrant than it had been in the last quarter of a century.

"All the trends are positive," the spokeswoman said, " and without doubt one of the major factors had been the development of the SEA-U-AFTA (South-east Asia-United-Australia Free Trade Area).

"The government reforms of land tenure and use legislation has allowed positive changes in land use across the north," she continued.

A similar report was found in the Caring Regional Community Clarion in a report headed "Charity begins at home":

"The northern Australia community started the second millennium as a warm, fuzzy and very friendly group. They subsequently adopted the motto -Charity begins at home - if we can't help ourselves, how can we help others?

This attitude coloured the contributions of community representatives to planning for the future of their communities. In this issue we flash back to some of the community contributions to regional planning made at the change of the millennium.

While the community group didn't necessarily contribute in the structured manner prescribed by the workshop convenors at the time, it is clear that the attitudes of the community representatives have had a major influence on the subsequent policies and outcomes from the planning.

Naturally, the government is claiming credit for all of the positive outcomes."

The North Australia Business Bulletin celebrated the success of the North Australia Business Forum (NABF) in 2020:

"The North Australia Business Forum congratulated its members on achieving 'A sustainable profitable industry' at the end of two decades of sustained growth in the northern beef industry. Key to the achievement of this vision were the values of the forum's membership:

  • profit
  • responsiveness to consumers needs
  • ability to change
  • staff as shareholders with education
  • good relationships with consumers and customers
  • responsible for our own R&D on consumer trends
  • informed of, and actively influencing community perceptions and government decisions.

The forum's spokesperson said '"Today's prosperity came on the back of a long term commitment to research and planning that commenced in 2000." "

Developing the scenarios — effect of the global drivers on the future

The three groups then considered each of the global drivers and local drivers. They were also reported in the newspapers above. Each global driver will be considered and examples of points made by the groups will be listed.

Human population growth — NAG

  • ensure that vested interests eg large companies do not lock up intellectual property.
  • increased urban population - subsidies for land steward-ship, production based in the north.
  • Australia may have less population in 2020 because we won't have large migration. Older people will work to say 75.

Institutional change — NAG

  • one government for north Australia.
  • ensure distribution of wealth across the north.
  • good leadership and good representation.
  • set clear goals to benefit the north.

Climate and atmospheric change - NAG

  • government aims to be energy neutral through biomass harvesting producing ethanol and methanol.
  • harvesting wind, tide and solar energy.
  • sponsoring research in areas of energy source from livestock by-products and reducing methane emissions.
  • balanced carbon credits through SEA-U-AFTA.

Food security at national level - CRC

  • as a community this group takes the best points of government and business and gets them into the community to work together.
  • S-E Asia and emerging countries pride themselves in being self-sufficient - we cannot assume that bigger populations will mean bigger markets for us. We need to help ourselves in this area.

Energy futures — CRC

  • alternative energy - take note on wide diversity in our area - wind, solar, timber, nuclear, universal as a renewable energy.
  • alternative energies will also bring in tourism - the new age alternative earning.

Urban - rangelands relations — CRC

  • promote favourable policies in regional areas. Keep services in communities eg bush doctors.
  • prostitute the bush - sell ourselves as a community, show the city what we can do.
  • differentiate the product - do things differently, produce beef with a regional twist eg organic beef or blue gum beef.

Globalisation and pric e—- NABF

  • competition, protein choice and product differentiation.
  • are we talking about marketing regional businesses to create consumer demand?
  • trade barriers.

Greenhouse gas emissions — NABF

  • investigate the benefit/costs in trading timber futures to gain carbon credits.
  • develop plants and crops to get carbon credits.
  • develop innovative by-products eg parkinsonia sun screen.

Cultural homogenisation — NABF

  • if a high value product probably worth differentiating it with an Australiana logo.
  • different strategies for different markets.
  • possible market for kangaroo burgers in bluegum paper on a wattleseed bun.

Introduced organisms — NABF, CRC and NAG

  • well resourced and understood to prevent problems emerging down the track.
  • as a community, make R&D providers more accountable for future introduced organisms.
  • increased quarantine surveillance through increased taxation.

Research needs that emerged from the scenarios

There were a number of research needs that emerged from the scenarios and upon which the three groups had decided to spend $10 million. These are also reported in the newspapers. However, Stockwell (2000) amalgamated the three into one table presented below.

Research area

Some examples

Energy efficient production (35% of the budget)

Reduced gas emissions
Increased net feed efficiency
Improving on-farm efficiency
Effects of increasing energy costs

Securing and retaining markets (21% of budget)

Consumer preferences and trends
New products to meet needs

Environmental and social sustainability (20% of budget)

Reducing greenhouse emissions from livestock
Obtain hard data to validate clean green image

Water use efficiency and harvesting (14% of budget)

Tree futures for carbon credits
Species and systems to optimise water use efficiency

Communication (7% of budget)


Education and technology transfer (3% of budget)


The workshop findings will be incorporated into on-going strategic planning by NABRC and Regional Beef Research Committees (Stockwell 2000).

In conclusion, the results from the futuring exercise have been reported in an innovative way to the beef industry. An extract from a letter from Eric Carer to the Caring Regional Community Clarion in March 2000 summed up the needs that the group as a whole felt were needing work for the future:

"We expect to see policy constraints on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Research issues for industry should include the following - methane reduction, improved nutrition, fodder trees and on-farm benefits of carbon credits. We would also like to see research effort in the areas of product differentiation and the environmental impacts of introduced organisms. Thank you for the opportunity to participate and I hope that the communities views are equitably recorded in the report."

Reflections on the process

The group was very involved in the process of developing the scenarios and provided a great deal of good information to the NABRC. They were more creative overall in the warm-up exercise about the Festivals in the Outback and could not maintain that level of creativity throughout the day. However, each group did use their experience to 'think outside the square' as a member of a group that was beyond their normal role.

The futuring process provides a series of pictures of a future that can be used to help look at the present and see what needs to be done now to make the future as envisaged happen - and this was so with this exercise. These pictures are now being used by NABRC in an on-going way for their strategic planning at Council level and at the more grassroots level of the RBRCs.

In setting up the process I would in future stress the need to be creative and not to self-censor any thoughts that are stimulated during the various steps in the process. This may lead to more creativity.

Reporting back through the avenue of the 2020 newspaper lent credence to the material produced during the workshop. The full report is available through the NABRC.


  1. Stockwell, T.R (2000) The bright future for beef. Report of a workshop facilitated by the North Australia Beef Research Council. Brisbane, March 2000.
  2. Foster, D. (1999) Report Futuring Workshop. Tropical Savannas CRC, September 1999, Darwin.
  3. Fell, R.F. (1997) Futuring - a process for planning. Proceedings of the Australia Pacific Extension Conference, Albury.

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