IEA Training Manual - Module 6

2. What is a scenario?

Scenarios are descriptions of journeys to possible futures. They reflect different assumptions about how current trends will unfold, how critical uncertainties will play out and what new factors will come into play. (UNEP 2002)

It is now generally accepted that scenarios do not predict. Rather, they paint pictures of possible futures, and explore the differing outcomes that might result if basic assumptions are changed. (UNEP 2002)


The future cannot be predicted because of ignorance, surprise and volition. Our information on the current state of the global system is incomplete, as is our knowledge about many of the drivers of change. Even if precise information were available, we know that complex systems exhibit turbulent behaviour, extreme sensitivity to initial conditions and branching behaviours at critical thresholds, all of which make prediction impossible. Furthermore, the future is unknowable because it is subject to human choices that have not yet been made. In the face of such indeterminacy, scenario analysis offers a means of exploring a variety of long-range alternatives, knowing that the uncertainty about the future increases with distance from the present (see, for example, Raskin and others 2002).

A scenario, as we use the term here, is not a prediction of what the future will be. Rather it is a description about how the future might unfold, subject to underlying assumptions about key social and environmental processes and key choices at the individual and societal scale. Scenarios explore the possible, not just the probable, and challenge their users to think beyond conventional wisdom.

Scenarios are carefully created stories about the future. They include an interpretation of the present, a vision of the future and an internally consistent account of the path from the present to various futures. They can be applied to any geographic or temporal scale, but tend to be more useful vis a vis other methods of considering the future as time horizons increase. They can include both qualitative and quantitative representations, and can be developed by very participatory or more “expert-driven” processes. Scenarios explore not only the implications if particular developments come to pass, but also what paths might lead us to particular outcomes, be they desirable or not. Perhaps most importantly, insights they provide are relevant to decisions being made today.

Scenarios support informed action by providing insights into the scope of the possible. They also can illustrate the role of human activities in shaping the future, and the links among issues. In the process of helping to clarify possible future developments and their effects, scenarios often are a source of inspiration for creative ideas.

Scenarios can be used for multiple purposes, including to:

  • aid in recognition of “weak signals” of change;
  • avoid being caught off guard – “live the future in advance;”
  • challenge “mental maps;”
  • understand the world better, and make better decisions;
  • raise awareness;
  • test strategies for robustness using “what if” questions;
  • provide a common language; and
  • stimulate discussion and creative thinking.

The ultimate aim, in most cases, is to:

  • provide better policy or decision support; and
  • stimulate engagement in the process of change.

See Exercise 6.2

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