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Anticipating Implications and (Un)Intended Consequences

Submitted by Jack Byrd, Jr.

This activity offers discussion strategies for groups to use when discussing possible actions and they want to anticipate, assess, evaluate, and prepare for the possibility of unintended consequences.

average rating is 4.8 out of 5, based on 4 votes, rating(s)
Ripples in water

Learning Goals

  • Analyze actions being considered and identify possible consequences in advance of implementing the actions.

  • Develop plans for dealing with the possibility of unintended consequences.


Set Up: Prepare for the Activity

Select a scenario from the collection of What IF…Scenarios or create your own based on a topic that is relevant for your group.

Organize participants into small groups (4-6 ppl).

Begin by introducing the learning goals of this activity.

Step One: Generate Unintended Consequences (10 min)

In small groups, ask participants to read through the selected scenario such as the sample scenario below.

Sample Scenario: City of Greenmont

The City of Greenmont was devastated by a major flood. All of the riverfront was destroyed. The city leaders decided that the need to rebuild the riverfront was an opportunity to upgrade the appearance of the city. Building codes were upgraded. Design standards were created. The Building Commission added aesthetics to one of its decision criteria for approval of new construction or major renovations. A public/private partnership was created to rebuild the city’s riverfront. The project was a huge success and became a showcase for how the city could transform its appearance. This led to further changes in the city. Older buildings were condemned and replaced with structures that met the new codes, building standards, and aesthetics.

Ask each group to create a bulleted list of all the possible outcomes of the actions described in the scenario being implemented. Remind them to not critique or discuss the list. Instruct them to quickly generate a broad list of possible concerns that come to mind.

Step Two: Dive Deeper (10 min)

When the groups slow down, ask them to review their lists and combine any common themes.

Next, ask them to dive deeper by adding specific prompts to expand their thinking:

  • Level of analysis. What are the possible ramifications at the individual level? Local? Regional? National? Global?

  • Time. What are some short term consequences? Long term (50 years)? Multigenerational?

  • Stakeholders. Who or what is directly affected by this policy? Who is a non-obvious or less direct stakeholder? Who is an influencer? Decision-maker?

  • Environment. What are the environmental costs of this policy? What impact might it have on nature?

Step Three: Assess the Likelihood of Unintended Consequences (10 min)

Ask each individual in the small groups to silently assess the likelihood of each possibility. Use the following rating scale:

  • I believe this unanticipated consequence is very likely to occur (5 points)

  • I believe this unanticipated consequence could occur, but it’s not very likely that it will (3 points)

  • I don’t believe this unanticipated consequence will occur (0 point)

Once each possibility is scored, instruct each group to add up their individual totals to determine which consequences they think are most likely to occur.

Step Four: Develop Strategies to Prepare for Possible Consequences (20 min)

Ask each small group to select their top 3 possible consequences and generate a list of possible actions that could be taken to prevent or minimize the impact of the unfavorable consequences among their top 3.

Step Five: Debrief as a Full Group (10 min)

Invite each small group to share the top most probable consequences from their list and the strategies they developed to address the unfavorable ones. Discuss:

  • Where are there commonalities?

  • Which unintended consequences stand out?

  • When can we anticipate unintended consequences? When is it less likely?





Critical Collaboration

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average rating is 5 out of 5

July 28, 2023 at 3:34:28 AM

average rating is 4 out of 5

Sovi Herring

July 24, 2023 at 7:32:57 PM

I really enjoyed watching students collaborate with this activity. In hindsight, I think adding more personal/every day examples for them to engage with would have produced more results (and despite some of the slides they wanted to work as one large group) and it worked out well. If we had more time they were willing to keep discussing potential positive and negative outcomes, especially after recalling the stakeholder activity.

average rating is 5 out of 5


January 13, 2023 at 3:17:13 AM

This activitiy can be modified or used as is in helping STEM students and science & technology professionals in identifying the unintended consequences and uses of any new scientific or technological developments or tools, such as AI models, etc.

average rating is 5 out of 5


November 29, 2022 at 6:21:35 AM

Activity 3.6 in an innovative activity that encourages detailed thinking about and evaluation of proposed solutions by thinking of not just the intended, but also unintended consequences.

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