Participatory scenario planning

1. Maike Hamann (biography)
2. Tanja Hichert (biography)
3. Nadia Sitas (biography)

By Maike Hamann, Tanja Hichert and Nadia Sitas

Within the many different ways of developing scenarios, what are useful general procedures for participatory processes? What resources are required? What are the strengths and weaknesses of involving stakeholders?

Scenarios are vignettes or narratives of possible futures, and when used in a set, usually depict purposefully divergent visions of what the future may hold. The point of scenario planning is not to predict the future, but to explore its uncertainties. Scenario development has a long history in corporate and military strategic planning, and is also commonly used in global environmental assessments to link current decision-making to future impacts. Participatory scenario planning extends scenario development into the realm of stakeholder-engaged research.

In general, the process for participatory scenario planning broadly follows three phases.

1. Identifying stakeholders and setting the scene

Stakeholder analysis can be used to identify a relevant and diverse set of participants. Selecting the participants, and creating a safe and inclusive space for participatory scenario planning requires an awareness of and mitigation against power imbalances, as well as an acknowledgment and celebration of differences in perspectives.

To create a shared understanding of the system, historical timelines and other methods for scoping relevant social-ecological systems can be used. It is important to prepare stakeholders to think creatively and collaboratively about the future, which may be assisted by arts-based practices and tools designed to challenge deeply-held assumptions.

2. Creating scenarios

Typically, scenarios are prepared as sets that articulate meaningful alternatives to one another.

A common method is the 2×2 double uncertainty matrix, in which participants identify two high-uncertainty drivers of change and their extremes (eg., weak versus strong economy and weak versus strong governance). These drivers are then juxtaposed in a matrix, creating four combinations of driver extremes from which divergent scenarios are deduced.

Other exercises, such as the creation of newspaper headings, fictional statistics, and artistic expressions can help participants develop future worlds that feel more tangible and real.

3. Connecting the future to the present

Once scenarios have been created, tools like the Three Horizons Framework help participants understand how to get from the present to those future worlds (Sharpe et al. 2016). The Three Horizons Framework encourages deep dives into scenarios to help answer questions such as: What needs to happen to achieve preferred futures? What are key intervention points? Where do conflicts and opportunities lie? The scenarios can then be used to identify concrete actions that need to be taken in the present to achieve desired futures, and who is responsible for implementing those changes.

It is also at this stage that participants can reflect on how they feel about the scenarios created, what stood out to them, and what they learned.

Skills and resources needed

Participants do not usually require specific skills, beyond a willingness to be open to new experiences and think creatively about the future. However, organisers should be aware of potential barriers to participation. These can include language barriers in multicultural settings, as well as accessibility barriers, such as adequate access to technology in online settings.

The facilitator’s role is to navigate power dynamics and create a generative environment, where all participants feel heard and free to think “outside the box”. The facilitator should therefore be experienced in group work, and have at least a basic understanding of the local context and focal system being addressed.

To encourage creativity and cooperation, it is beneficial to hold participatory scenario planning processes in stimulating and comfortable environments (eg., venues with access to natural spaces).

Strengths and weaknesses

  • Participatory scenario planning provides a platform for multiple perspectives and values to be voiced and heard. This may lead to more equitable decision-making, and improve the legitimacy and support of policy or management recommendations that result from such processes.
  • The more diverse the voices and types of knowledge that feed into the participatory scenario planning, the more linkages across scales, disciplines, and sectors are revealed within the focal system. This can improve dialogue and collaboration among stakeholders, and result in rich and boundary-pushing narratives of the future that are more robust in the face of uncertainty.
  • Participatory scenario planning tends to increase participants’ understanding of the complexity of the challenges under consideration, and typically represents a significant learning process for those involved. Participants gain futures literacy, and often remark on the profound impact that thinking about the future in systematic and creative ways has had on their own outlook.
  • Well-run participatory scenario planning processes take a lot of time and resources to plan and execute. If the process does not sufficiently take into account and mitigate against power asymmetries, it can entrench existing power hierarchies and narratives about the future.
  • It is notoriously challenging to connect participatory scenario planning to concrete impacts or actions “on the ground,” in terms of improved outcomes for the challenges explored. In part, this is due to the difficulty of formally evaluating often intangible outcomes over long time periods. Usually, the scenarios themselves are not the most important outcome of participatory scenario planning – more often, the collaborative process is the key objective.

Invitation to comment

What has your experience with participatory scenario planning been? What tools have you found to be useful? Are there other lessons that organisers and facilitators should be aware of?

To find out more:

Adapted from Hamann, M., Hichert, T. and Sitas, N. (2022). Participatory scenario planning. Participatory research methods for sustainability – toolkit #3, GAIA, 31/3: 175 – 177. (Online – open access):
This article contains references to tools, general references and an example. Much of the wording in this i2Insights contribution is taken verbatim from the original article.

To see all contributions from the partnership with the journal GAIA:


Sharpe, B., Hodgson, B., Leicester, G., Lyon, A. and Fazey, I. (2016). Three horizons: A pathways practice for transformation. Ecology and Society, 21, 2: 47. (Online – open access) (DOI):

Biography: Maike Hamann PhD is a researcher at the Centre for Sustainability Transitions, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa. Her main areas of interest are urban sustainability, ecosystem services, inequality, futures, social-ecological systems, and resilience.

Biography: Tanja Hichert MBA, MPhil runs Hichert & Associates Pty Ltd. and is co-Chair of the UNESCO Chair for Complex Systems and Transformative African Futures at Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa. Her main areas of interest are futures and foresight tools, methods and approaches, plus the intersection of those with uncertainty and complexity.

Biography: Nadia Sitas PhD is a senior researcher at the Centre for Sustainability Transitions, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa. Her main areas of interest are systems thinking, ecosystem services, science-policy processes, resilience, development, gender, equity and social inclusion.

6 thoughts on “Participatory scenario planning”

  1. Subsequent to this article being published my friend and colleague Prof Cynthia Selin of School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University alerted me to a journal article she co-authored last year on Stakeholder inclusion in scenario planning – A review of European projects . It was my oversight not to cite this work in the original Gaia article from which the above blog post stems.
    Cynthia’s superb paper drills down into how stakeholders were integrated into scenario planning processes with which sorts of effects and trade-offs. It’s highlights are:
    * Review of types of and selection criteria for stakeholder inclusion.
    * Review of methods for and functions of stakeholder inclusion in scenario planning.
    * Stakeholders have specific and detailed functions in a scenario process.
    * Effective and authentic engagement relies on attention to research ethics.
    * Managing power asymmetries and diversity among stakeholders.
    If you are interested in this topic and/or are working in this space I highly recommend this pivotal work.

  2. Great article – thank you very much. I can only confirm how important it is to set the environment for fruitful working. With the iMODELER we arguably provide the best tool for collaborative modeling in real time (change of perspectives, world cafe settings, etc.) or remote (discussion tool, document manager, chat tool, video conferencing, change log) and yet the setting and preparation for the endeavour remain crucial.

    Usually, we prepare a descriptive model of the underlying system. In the explorative participatory stakeholder modeling the participants then define factors that describe scenarios and reveal levers for intervention. The use of cause and effect relations serves as a kind of lingua franca which means that we have not experienced difficulties from different backgrounds and cultures of the participants (we have manifold experiences with stakeholder modeling across hierarchies, fields, generations and cultures).

    But as I said – in the end the setting is crucial, starting with the common understanding of the purpose, continued with the available time, and afterwards with the right strategy to communicate the results.

    • Thank you Kai! The setting really can be an immense help to get people to think creatively and generatively. And thanks for sharing the tools you’ve used successfully – especially those that can be used in remote as well as in-person settings! I also appreciate your point about the importance of having a sound strategy for post-workshop communication and sharing… it’s often something that falls through the cracks. If you’ve got any reflections on post-workshop strategies that have worked well for you, I’d love to hear more.

      • It took while for us to realise that first we have to dedicate a feasible amount of time for the presentation. We now say that it should take one third of the time to collect the arguments, one third to qualitatively weight the arguments (a feature of the software) and analyse the logical consequences from its analyses, and then another third of the time to present the results.

        In general the results should be presented not as just some new development but as some integrated development meaning that first we ask whether everyone agrees on the challenge and the aim (sometime we ask if anyone already knows the right steps without the results from the workshop – just to later compare), then we show a few examples of how we connected arguments from the workshop and again ask if everyone could agree, and only thereafter we show some results stating that these are valid until we find out that crucial arguments are missing or wrong.

        What we won’t accept is a rejection of the whole conclusion out of a gut feeling or sovereignty of interpretation – the way public discourses on policies unfortunately work. We won’t say that the model is final, either. We just invite to correct or add arguments to see if the whole set of arguments leads to different results.

        Ideally, people are eager to know more details from the workshop. Well, and sometimes the claim to have known it before or in a worst case they still do not believe in the results because they find too many mere assumptions. In that worst case we are on the defensive though we can still argue that for most challenges we have to make assumptions anyway since for future challenges we shouldn’t expect to find empirical evidence in the past and from other circumstances. When we plan for scenarios there is no existing recipe – we need to explore the individual more or less unique situation. But again, if people want to test their completely different assumptions a model allows to simply test and discuss that.

  3. Yes, I particularly like the last point. That its the relationship building that’s one of the key outcomes of the scenario building process. The fact that different people can engage with the scenario building and learn about the perspectives of others opens the possibility of ongoing conversations as other issues come up in the future. I’ve had some great success implementing this approach. I’ve linked this with a collaborative discussion about history of a place (to identify current drivers) which flows onto conversations about the future. I’ve never seem people more engaged and animated – the different elements of scenario planning are very well summarised here in this post as a great starting point.

    Editor: See also Bonnie McBain’s i2Insights contribution:
    Designing scenarios to guide robust decisions by Bonnie McBain

    • Thanks for your comment, Bonnie! Great that you brought up the value of discussing the past as part of these futuring processes – we’ve also had success using tools such as historical timelines together with scenario planning. Like you say, it really engages people and opens up perspectives. For anyone interested in more details, there are a few chapters in the recent open-access handbook on social-ecological systems research ( that could be useful, such as Chapter 5 on Systems Scoping (including historical inventories), Chapter 10 on Futures Analysis, and Chapter 11 on Scenario Development.


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