Scenario Planning

The future is always uncertain, but planners and policy makers typically make decisions as though their models and forecasts are accurate. This can lead to major problems and inefficiencies; infrastructure is built and management decisions are made with one future in mind and things can turn out quite differently in practice. The challenges are exacerbated as uncertainty and complexity increase, as is happening under climate change.

Scenario planning offers a powerful alternative to predicting and planning for a single anticipated future by helping decision-makers and other stakeholders to think about and compare their proposals to multiple possible futures. The best options are those that perform satisfactorily under a range of plausible future conditions. Scenarios are constructed by considering the present state of the issue in question and identifying: Key drivers of change in the system, factors expected to remain constant, critical uncertainties that may lead to divergent futures, and the key actors involved. Each scenario represents a different possible future along the intersecting axis of uncertainty. Scenario planning can involve hundreds of scenarios and quantitative analysis, or be more qualitative in nature, using as few as four scenarios to explore options against a small set of very different possible futures that are descriptive in nature.

Scenario planning is not without its challenges. Decision-makers and other stakeholders usually find scenarios – and the act of scenario planning - highly illuminating, but the translation of any new insights into practice difficult. The MIT Science Impact Collaborative is exploring how scenario planning can better integrate into decision-making in practice, yielding tangible improvements in outcomes.

Additional information on scenario planning can be found at the Urban Ecology Research Lab, University of Washington.

For more information on scenario planning, see the following resources:

J. Holway, Gabbe, C. J., Hebbert, F., Lally, J., Matthews, R., and Quay, R., Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Cambridge MA, 2012.

R. Quay, Anticipatory Governance A Tool for Climate Change Adaptation, Journal of the American Planning Association, vol. 76, no. 4, 2010.

P. Schoemaker, Koehler, D., and Harvey, N., Forecasting and Scenario Planning: The Challenges of Uncertainty and Complexity, in Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision Making, Blackwell , 2004.

T. Chermack, Lynham, S., and Ruona, W., Scenario Planning: A Review of the Literature, Futures Research Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 2, 2001.