Discussion Question 03: What are scenarios?

What are scenarios and how do they help integrate uncertainty in planning and decision making?


  1. Scenario planning is a method of strategic foresight that embraces uncertainty to an extent that other methods of foresight do not. Through scenario planning, we can expand our thought processes by examining how different forces of change may interact and lead us to a variety of alternative futures. Scenario planning can have major impacts on planning and decision-making by encouraging us to consider what is plausible, not just what is probable. In the article Strategic Planning: A Tool for Conservation in an Uncertain World, authors Peterson et al. describe how a strategic planning group from Shell Oil worked with civic, business, and governmental leaders in South Africa to brainstorm four dramatically different futures that could result from a transition away from apartheid. These futures included the following: transition failure (ostrich scenario), slow and complicated transition (lame duck scenario), a successful transition that leads to unsustainable politics and an economic crisis (Icarus scenario), and a successful and gradual transition (flight of the flamingos scenario). This process made officials more aware of possible challenges during the transition phase, and increased community preparedness for a variety of futures.

    Without scenario planning, we tend to plan for one or two different futures (typically the most optimal). This does not adequately prepare us in times of uncertainty. For example, Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan prepares us well for population growth, but does not examine the plausible situation where tech companies crash or leave the city, and population plummets. Planning and other decision-making bodies would greatly benefit from using the more imaginative approach of scenario planning.

  2. Emma posted an excellent synopsis of how scenario planning expands the confines of traditional planning practices. Strategic planning relies on the selections of goals and objectives and methods of projection to properly prepare us for the future. As Marina describes in Chapter 9 of "Cities That Think Like Planets," increasing complexities are rendering projections built on historical projections less applicable. The interplay between climate change and unprecedented urban development are beginning to challenge what we know about how the world operates and decreasing our ability to rely on traditional methods of planning.

    The term "alternative futures" was discussed in class and I found it helpful in understanding the importance of scenarios. We can no longer plan for a single, desirable future, but must incorporate the potential of a "range of plausible ones" (Alberti, 196). This allows planners, scientists and politicians to develop more informed decisions that "may not be optimal under all plausible futures, but will perform well across the range of plausible scenarios that might emerge" (Alberti, 197). As increased uncertainty develops in an increasingly unrecognizable world, scenarios allow for increase preparedness and strengthened decision making.

  3. Scenarios are structured, narrative descriptions about plausible potential futures of a system (Peterson et al. 2003, Oteros-Rozas et al. 2015). Rather than representing predictions, scenarios rely upon empirical data, expert knowledge and participant experience to inform assessments of alternative strategies across a range of hypothetical alternative futures (Alberti 2016).

    As a specific type of approach to strategic foresight, scenarios help to integrate uncertainty in planning and decision making by assessing a variety of potential trajectories rather than focusing on a single "optimal" outcome. One of the greatest values of the scenario planning process is its ability to stimulate decision makers to creatively -- and critically -- reevaluate their assumptions about the system or issue at hand (Peterson et al. 2003). By illustrating examples of how different events might play out in the future given different strategic directions, and by incorporating uncontrollable elements, scenarios extend the time scale considered in the decision making process and facilitate the comparison of risks and opportunities.

  4. Peterson et al. (2003) describes scenarios as “structured accounts of a possible futures”. We can use scenarios in planning to explore divergent futures as outcomes of varying and cross-scale conditions, decisions, and shifts. Scenario planning is a systemic method for thinking creatively about possible complex and uncertain futures (Peterson et al., 2003). Scenarios account for uncertainty by investigating not only the most probable or desired outcomes, but by investigating all the possible outcomes for which we can imagine. It is not the goal of scenario planning to eliminate uncertainty entirely - since that would never be feasible - but with scenario planning, we can increase our understanding about important uncertainties, increase preparedness and resilience for the unpredictable and uncontrollable future, and incorporate diverse and creative perspectives.

  5. Scenario planning examines all plausible futures including what is probable and desirable. Looking at plausible futures allows us to incorporate uncertainty, complexity, and simulation into planning models. Scenarios allow us to look at a range of alternative futures from normal to extremes in all directions. Visioning and modeling tools typically steer planning decisions in one direction and could limit future actions. For example, levees built along the Mississippi River has limited future actions because cities have been built near and around the river. As we have seen from recent disasters, communities have experience severe damages. If we use scenario planning we can look at a range of plausible futures and make decisions that do not limit future actions especially when regimes shift. For example, maybe we can develop modular solutions that are localized and flexible to uncertain changes.

  6. Scenarios are alternative visions for how the future might respond to different types of change over time. Scenarios incorporate feedback loops, drivers of change, and alternative states of those drivers to build narratives that rely on both quantitative and qualitative data (Oteros-Rozas et al. 2015). Most importantly, scenarios are a tool to guide decision-making in a systemic way (Peterson, Cumming, and Carpenter 2003). Scenarios are not predictions or forecasts beholden to a judgment of value, but their scope may include what is possible, probable, or desirable.

    Peterson et al. also discuss how uncertainty is key in scenario planning because the construction of alternative scenarios is a framework for reconciling great uncertainty with our expectations for the future. By envisioning diverse futures that change in response to certain key drivers and relevant uncertainties, scenario planning is a mode of thinking that interrogates assumptions that might otherwise go unchallenged. The construction of scenarios gives decision-makers more information for the sake of refined strategy and greater resilience in the face of uncontrollable change.

  7. For millennia, humans have labored to divine and control the future. Our sapience is a blessing and a curse: the better we grasp the basics of causality and prediction, the more dangerous our failures to harness that power become.
    Scenario planning is one attempt to systematize and focus predictive effort. Traditional prediction might try to settle on one most likely future outcome, but the error rate is high. Scenario planning breaks the problem down into several plausible scenarios. These may be based on the range of uncertainty in certain environmental drivers, or they may highlight the policy choices that could cause different future outcomes (Oteros-Rozas 2015). Scenario planning is ideal for drawing out the causal relationships of different drivers and highlighting how interaction effects between individual drivers may cause or exacerbate regime shifts in the system (whether an ecosystem or a human political organization). It is less qualitative than some other forms of modeling, but it has utility in helping organizations develop visions, discuss policies, and involve communities in finding solutions to various problems (Oteros-Rozas 2015).

  8. A scenario is a plausible description of a potential future trajectory of a system, based on empirical data, expert knowledge, and participants experience of how relevant forces interact (Oteros-Rozas et al., 2015; Alberti, 2016). Scenario planning is a technique for making decisions by encouraging participants to think creatively about hypothetical futures, and to articulate multiple alternative futures that span across critical uncertainties (Peterson et al., 2003).

    To integrate uncertainty, building scenarios will first require ranking and identifying what are the most important uncertainties and driving forces of change. Then alternatives scenarios are constructed by identified uncertain and uncontrollable driving forces. Third, the outcomes are not presented as relative probabilities as traditional approaches, if possible, but are realized in elaborated narratives. Finally, scenario planning aims to stimulate policy implications and management plans at the end. Both scenarios and solutions will be checked through validation process, often in the form of colleting comments or reaching consensus among stakeholders (Oteros-Rozas et al., 2015). It is overall a more suitable approach to depict issues under complex systems.


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