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Scenarios and visioning

Prospective, forward-looking studies include a vast range of concepts and approaches, which aim at exploring plausible and/or preferable futures to improve decision-making processes. Examples of methods used in futures studies include scenario building, visioning, forecasting, cross impact analysis, simulation and modelling). Since the foundations of modern-day techniques by the Rand Corporation in the 1950s, these methods have been applied both in private organisations and in public policy domains as a basis for strategic planning.


Scenarios are alternative images of how the future might unfold. They represent coherent and plausible stories about the co-evolutionary pathways of human and ecological systems. In other words, scenarios are internally consistent descriptions of plausible future states of the world. Many authors maintain that scenarios are not forecasts or predictions. For ecological economics, one main virtue of scenarios is that they force the integration of findings from different disciplines.

Scenarios have been increasingly used to support planning, assessment and implementation of decisions regarding environmental and sustainability issues, serving a variety of purposes:

• Policy analysis, providing a picture of future alternative states of human and ecological systems in the absence of additional policies (‘baseline scenarios’) and comparing these with the future effects of environmental policies (‘policy scenarios’);

• Raising awareness about emergent problems and about possible future interrelationships between different issues;

• Broadening perspectives on certain themes, accounting for larger time and spatial scales of analysis, and highlighting consequences of strategic choices in society;

• Synthesising information about possible futures, including both ‘qualitative’ (e.g. in the form of narratives/storylines, diagrams or other visual symbols) and ‘quantitative’ scenarios (e.g. providing information in the form of tables and graphs, usually based on the results from computer models);

• Dealing with uncertainty and complexity, by confronting decision-makers with the present lack of knowledge about system conditions and underlying dynamics, thus rendering more transparent and precautionary decision-making processes;

• Promoting public participation, allowing for the integration of normative dimensions of sustainability, widening the knowledge base, developing common language and enhancing mutual learning.

An important distinction is usually made between ‘exploratory’ and ‘anticipatory’ scenarios. The former, also known as ‘descriptive’, begin in the present and explore trends into the future, giving way to a possible sequence of emerging events. In some studies, this approach to scenario building is referred to as ‘forecasting’, where the goal is to provide the most likely or probable projection of future conditions. On the other hand, anticipatory scenarios start with a prescribed vision of the future and then work backwards in time to figure out how this future could emerge. The term ‘back casting’ is frequently used to describe a particular anticipatory approach wherein normative scenarios are developed backwards from a particular ‘desired end-point’ or set of goals.

Unlike forecasts, back casts are not intended to reveal what the future will likely be, but to explore the feasibility and implications of different futures according to criteria of social or environmental desirability. Finally, it should be underscored that, for environmental and sustainability problems, a combination of anticipatory and exploratory approaches may be appropriate. To this extent, it is possible to identify an array of desired end-states and then test these against forward-looking analyses departing from initial conditions and drivers of change.

A typical scenario in environmental studies includes the following structural building blocks: (i) the driving forces, which influence the changes in the relevant system of analysis, (ii) the time horizon and time steps and (iii) narratives or storylines describing the main features of the scenarios. However, depending on the selected approach, there are many procedures for developing scenarios. For example, in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which explored possible future changes in the provision of ecosystem services, the procedure for selecting the scenario building blocks started with the identification of two broad uncertainties – the connectivity of social and political organisations (global connection versus regional disaggregation) and the nature of the policies and practices implemented by these organisations (reactive versus proactive). By clustering the scenarios around these contrasting branches, four main scenario storylines were developed – ‘Global Orchestration’, ‘Technogarden’, ‘Adapting Mosaic’ and ‘Order from Strength’.

There are many other well-known examples of scenarios developed in environmental and sustainability studies. The EEA ( organises such studies according to their focus on regions (e.g. UNEP’s Global Environmental Outlooks, Global Scenario Group’s Great Transition scenario), themes (e.g. the WBCSD’s water scenarios, IPPC’s emissions scenarios, EEA’s land-use scenarios for Europe – PRELUDE), and specific sectors (e.g. FAO’s world agriculture scenarios).

Scenarios are developed at different scales. One of the challenges in constructing local-scale scenarios resides in the need to integrate structural influences at the global and national levels, with local factors and social actors’ choices. Ozkaynak and Rodriguez-Labajos (2010) develop a formal approach to link scenario exercises between scales, choosing the appropriate interaction strategy (accommodation or reaction), according to the local agency capability.


A ‘vision’ for an organisation, group or community is an image of what they desire to be, and which they have the power to bring to life. The process of developing a vision – ‘visioning’ or ‘envisioning’ – is concerned with eliciting desirable futures for the purposes of assisting in strategy development and providing decision-making guidance. O’Brien and Meadows (2001) highlight the following generic stages in visioning methodologies:

1) Analysis of the current situation and assessment of external factors. This stage may be performed before or after the development of the vision. While some authors defend that a prior assessment grounds the vision in realism, others argue that it constrains the ability to think of ‘ideal states’ by focusing on current conditions and capabilities.

2) Developing the vision, i.e. identifying the desired future states. Visions may consist of vibrant descriptions of audacious goals, as well as reflective or instinctive statements addressing the aspired futures.

3) Connecting the future to the present. As indicated earlier, the concept of ‘visions’ is closely linked to a back casting approach to the development of scenarios, although the linkages between the vision and the current state may also be supported by forward planning methods.

4) Testing the vision, checking for internal feasibility and robustness given the potential external conditions.

In order to define the contexts in which visions are claimed, used or developed, van der Helm (2009) identified seven types of visions and their basic distinguishing characteristics: (1) humanistic, addressing universal betterment; (2) religious, addressing worldly life in relation to the hereafter; (3) political, related to ideologies and providing a sense of leadership and support; (4) business/organisational, commonly expressing an organisation’s ambition and leadership-driven management; (5) community, consensual integration of actors and collective action; (6) policy support, increasingly found in the domain of public policy-making and (7) personal, developed within personal development projects.

Forstater (2004) elaborates on yet another type of vision which is regarded as central to ecological economics – the pre-analytical vision of seeing the economy in terms of metabolic flows, as a subsystem of a wider biophysical system. As argued by Meadows (1996) and Costanza (1997), a coherent and relatively detailed, shared vision of both the way the world works and of the society we wish to achieve is vital to moving towards sustainability goals. Building such a responsible vision is a supra-rational task of imagination that comes from values, not logic.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of methods combining visioning with multi-stakeholder deliberative decision-making processes, which include ‘Scenario Workshops’, ‘Future Search Studies’ and ‘Community Visioning’. Kallis et al. (2009) reviewed these methods comparing their standout features, describing a visioning exercise in the context of sustainable water management in a Greek island.


Costanza, R. (1997) Introduction: building transdiciplinary bridges at the frontiers of ecology and economics, in Frontiers in Ecological Economics, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Forstater, M. (2004) Visions and scenarios: Heilbroner’s worldly philosophy, Lowe’s political economics, and the methodology of ecological economics, Ecological Economics, 51: 17 – 30.

Van der Helm, R. (2009) The vision phenomenon: towards a theoretical underpinning of visions of the future and the process of envisioning, Futures, 41: 96 – 104

Kallis, G., Hatzilacou, D., Mexa, A., Coccossis, H., Svoronou , E. (2009) Beyond the manual: practicing deliberative visioning in a Greek island, Ecological Economics, 68: 979 – 989.

O’Brien, F., Meadows, M. (2001) How to develop visions: a literature review, and a revised CHOICES approach for an uncertain world, Journal of Systemic Practice and Action Research, 14 (4): 495 – 515.

Ozkaynak, B., Rodriguez-Labajos, B. (2010) Multi-scale interaction in local scenario-building: A methodological framework. Futures, 42: 995–1006.

Meadows, D. (1996) Envisioning a sustainable world , in R. Costanza, O. Segura and J. Martinez-Alier (eds) Getting Down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics, Washington, DC : Island Press.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Nuno Videira

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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