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): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.31.3.8
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: https://i2insights.org/tag/partner-gaia-journal/
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): http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-08388-210247
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.