Scenarios – creating alternate futures when we just don’t know

16 May
photo care of Zoomar on Flickr

In a previous post on less doom and gloom in sustainability, a small innocuous table from Tilbury and Cooke compared traditional and critical approaches to environmental education. One particular row in the table talks about the transition from seeing sustainability as a process of problem solving to one of creating alternative futures. The Learning and Teaching Academic Standards that define the critical learning from Environment & Sustainability degrees in Australia, also requires all graduates to have the skills to play their part in creating alternate futures. But how do we do that if the future is unpredictable and growing more so every day?

In the environmental field decision-making often stalls because of the growing uncertainty associated with the future. However, in an increasingly complex world there is growing acknowledgement that we will never have full certainty. Scenario planning is one powerful tool that can be used to address imperfect knowledge.

Scenario analysis is something we use unconsciously every day, from the mundane to the complex. What should we have for lunch? How should we spend our weekly budget? How should we design our career path? In all of these decisions, we often imagine how successful a particular the outcome would be under a range of different, possible future scenarios. It’s no great stretch to see that scenario planning might also be very helpful for environmental decision-making. But how?

Since predicting the future is not possible, it’s important to know that scenarios are not predictions. Rather than knowing what the future will look like, scenarios set the direction for the journey. They ask what critical preparations must be made to deal with major plausible threats and opportunities in the future in order to obtain a desired future. In fact, one key purpose of scenarios are to stimulate thinking and conversations. The reliability of scenarios is determined from the consistencies (or inconsistencies) that arise when the scenarios are examined.

While scenarios will not resolve uncertainties, they can help stakeholders make better decisions in the face of uncertainty. For instance, if a key uncertainty is whether the economy will remain strong or not, decision-makers may choose a policy approach that is likely to be successful whether the economy is strong or weak’. Rather than ignoring or avoiding issues relating to or associated with high uncertainty, uncertainty is explored and becomes a pivotal aspect/focus of the exercise.

Scenario can be developed to fulfill and number of goals and purposes (Lebel et al., 2005; Gallopín et al., 1997; Raskin et al., 2002; Alcamo et al., 2005):

  • they can inform and educate
  • allow us to determine what our goals are
  • they can help us investigate our assumptions
  • highlight important processes and decision points
  • engage different stakeholders
  • provide insight into what is possible
  • provide visions of the future which motivate actions toward a desirable goal or away from and undesirable one
  • they show where differences between stakeholder priorities or worldviews lie, and can therefore be used to analyse potential areas of conflict between them
  • they are useful for communicating complex information to non-scientific audiences
  • they make infinite potential options for the future more manageable