Samira Rhoods: Putting future signals into context with scenario planning

“It’s 2037, the fourth industrial revolution has come and gone. The research landscape is highly automated and cloud based. Researchers are required to combine scientific qualifications with advanced programming and policy/communications expertise. Patients and the public drive the research agenda, and the very nature of disease is disrupted by technology. Scientific societies are highly connected with each other, forming ‘super societies’ with shared infrastructure and data, whilst competing on brand and value-add analytics and services.”

In 2017, BMJ conducted a scenario planning initiative entitled the Future of global research. We imagined four plausible, but challenging alternative futures enabling us to explore the wider, global environment in which we operate. We gained a deep understanding of the critical factors driving rapid change in the scholarly communication landscape and wider research ecosystem. The plot described above pools events from each of our narratives.

As a values driven organisation, BMJ’s vision is to help create a healthier world. In this spirit we have shared our scenarios to encourage conversation across our community. You can view our new introductory video here: BMJ scenario planning video

Through scenario planning we learned how global technology, socio-economic, and geopolitical factors have combined to create a new world that both challenges existing business models and provides abundant new opportunities. Future uncertainties we identified included: the extent and nature of human intervention as roles and processes become data‐driven and automated; the impact of protectionism and globalisation on international collaboration and openness; the effects of trends such as distrust in experts and democratisation of the brand on societal structures and norms; and the role of NGOs, national governments and regulation in securing future sustainability.

We also pinpointed trends more specific to the research industry, such as increasing collaboration between medical industry, tech organisations and research institutes, and growing interdisciplinarity; the important new role of philanthropists as key research actors; the impact of big data and personalised and predictive medicine on disease influencers; and the propagation of new methods for research evaluation.

Our scenarios prompted us to ask ourselves a number of questions, including:

  • Given that funding levels are stable at best in the UK, how can we foster innovation and remain world leaders in scientific research?
  • Will increasing collaboration help to address big global health problems such as antimicrobial resistance?
  • Might greater involvement from industry evolve the higher social purpose of research into a system commanded by those with the most money?
  • Could the public and patients contribute more to research and determine the research agenda more directly, or even become researchers of the future?

Since we completed our scenarios we have seen UK Research and Innovation bring together nine research councils. Microsoft and Google have invested $58m in precision medicine startup DNAnexus supporting the company’s expansion into the clinical trials market. Pfizer has stripped out some of its in-house R&D and is setting up a new partnering network to foster collaboration with top universities. The UK government is pledging millions in funding to develop AI using algorithms built from NHS patient data to transform outcomes through early diagnosis of cancer. China continues to increase its influence, improving the quality as well as quantity of its research output. Microsoft has announced a plan to collect royalty payments for authors, software developers, and other creators using blockchain technology, cutting out a series of middlemen which critics say shortchanges creators. BMJ continues to monitor these “weak signals” of change as our landscape continues to evolve.

Our scenarios have changed the nature of our strategic conversation and continue to bear influence on our business. They are also shaping BMJ’s acquisition, partnership, and new ventures strategy as we actively look for potential companies operating in our sector with a similar desire to create a healthier world. We are particularly interested in connecting with new research, clinical training, and decision support and global health partners and technologies, and are open to all innovative ideas that fit our vision.

Samira Rhoods, Market and competitive intelligence manager, Strategy Team, BMJ

Competing interests: Samira leads BMJ’s Scenario Planning initiative and is part of the BMJ New Ventures team