Ingredients for scenario planning (#ESA2012)

By Joern Fischer

Stephen Carpenter yesterday talked in the session on Earth Stewarship. He summarised nicely some of his (extensive!) experiences with scenario planning. I figured since he gave such a nice step-by-step guide to scenario planning, I’d like to recap some of that here.

Before even starting, Steve argued it was important to distinguish between different kinds of distinct uncertainties: recognized uncertainties vs imaginable uncertainties vs true surprises. Recognised uncertainties are relatively easy to think about; and imaginable uncertainties are where scientists tend to thrive. But it gets really difficult for scientific prediction to think about “unknown unknowns” — true surprises. Steve argued because we are in the Anthropocene, with no analogue in the geological record to how the planet is functioning now, real surprises are likely — and it’s those we need to learn to be prepared for, somehow.

This is then where scenario planning comes in — where we have little control and high uncertainty. Scenarios are stories that aim to evoke an emotional response and discussion. They need to grab people and engage them; and then, once they exist, they can be used to think about and analyse alternative pathways and leverage points for intervening in the system.

Steve sees the following steps in a scenario exercise:

1. recognise there are perspectives out in the world, and sample those (i.e. talk to lots of different groups of people); and then

2. cluster those ideas from the samples and condense them into a few scenarios (use an even number, which apparently works better for decision makers!);

Scenarios work if they have a clear set of ideas, clear time and spatial horizon, if they are consistent with known facts and feel plausible to those involved; if they evoke emotions; they have to be diverse in the trajectories of where the system might go — and those contrasts must be able to trigger new ideas and visions for the future. All of this, of course, needs to happen within the context of available time and resources. And then in the end, scenario planning can (among others, I would argue) be useful to see what might happen to different ecosystem services in the future.

Steve sees a key challenge in more successfully coupling quantitative and qualitative facets of scenarios — probably via nimble models, rather than via mega-models which tend to be very sophisticated but not flexible enough to deal with surprises.

Personally, I suggest the following as resources (Steve listed some others, too):

This book contains a detailed overview of scenario planning (about pages 70-120) — excellent way to start!


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