A range of processes have been used in producing the large number of scenarios described in the literature. Van Notten and others present a typology that examines nine separate characteristics of scenarios and scenario exercises. At a higher level, these are aggregated into three overarching themes: project goal, process design and scenario content. In very simple terms, these can be stated as the why, how and what of scenarios and scenario development. As might be expected, there are generally strong connections among these themes. The project goal influences the process design, which, in turn, influences scenario content.
The first theme addresses the objectives of a scenario analysis as well as subsequent demands on design of the scenario development process. On one end of the spectrum is the goal of exploration. This might include awareness raising, stimulation of creative thinking and gaining insight into the way societal processes influence one another. In such an exercise, the process is often as important as the product (i.e., the scenario or set of scenarios), which may even be discarded at the end of the process. At the other end of the spectrum is the goal of direct decision support. In this case, scenarios might propose concrete strategic options. Decision-support scenario exercises often contain value-laden combinations of scenarios that are described as desirable, middle-of-the-road and undesirable. The two types of project goals often are combined: exploratory scenarios are developed first, after which new scenarios are developed by zooming in on aspects relevant to strategy development.
Box 4: Forward-looking compared to backcasting in scenario exercises
One major distinction among various scenarios and scenario exercises is between forward-looking and backcasting. In the former, the story is developed with the present day as a starting point, and is not constrained by a predetermined end vision. A backcasting approach on the other hand, identifies the end vision and then a story is developed to describe the path from the present to that end point. In forward-looking processes, the key questions in the scenario development begin with What if....?; in backcasting processes they begin with How could …? Because the specified end state often has a value attached to it (i.e., it is either viewed as “good” or “bad”), back casts are frequently called “normative” scenarios. We have chosen not to use that terminology here because forward-looking scenarios also can have normative elements.
Many, if not most, scenario exercises combine both processes, but one approach generally takes precedence. There is, however, no reason why a single scenario exercise cannot include both approaches. Robinson presents an interesting exploration of the iterative nature of some scenario exercises and, in the process, introduces the concept of second-generation backcasting. This concept assumes that the initial end vision is less than perfectly formed, and emerges in a more coherent form in and from the process of scenario development.
Process design, the second overarching theme, focuses on how scenarios are produced. It addresses aspects such as the degree of quantitative and qualitative data used, or the choice among stakeholder workshops, expert interviews and desk research. On one end of the spectrum, there is the intuitive approach, which considers scenario development as an art form, and leans heavily on qualitative knowledge and insights. Creative techniques, such as development of stories or storylines or collages of pictures, are typical intuitive approaches to scenario analysis. Interactive group sessions with a diversity of participants are often central to storyline development. At the other end of the spectrum is the technical approach. Contrary to the intuitive approach, the technical school regards scenario development primarily as a rational and analytical exercise. This technical school tends to work from quantified knowledge, and often relies on computer models in developing scenarios. Both approaches have their strengths and a number of recent studies have worked to combine the two approaches (see e.g., UNEP, IPCC and Rijsberman ).
Box 5: The value of participatory processes
Most scenario development exercises are participatory in nature. Some reasons for wanting to make scenario exercises more participatory:
- to make use of local and specialized knowledge: many people, particularly those working in key sectors or living in key regions, will have specific expertise on the issues being addressed in development of the scenario;
- to create buy-in: people are more willing to accept results and insights of any analysis in which they have had a hand in production;
- to create ambassadors: those involved in the development will often be able and willing to reach audiences that are less available to the researchers; and
- to reach those whose minds you most want to change, especially when the point of the exercise is to influence decision-makers, it is more effective to have them be part of the process rather than passive recipients of information.
Box 6: The advantages and disadvantages of qualitative and quantitative scenarios
At a basic level, the advantages and disadvantages of qualitative and quantitative approaches are as follows.
Advantages: Understandable, interesting, and represent views and complexity of many different interests.
Disadvantages: Arbitrary, tough to identify or test underlying assumptions. Do not provide numerical information.
Advantages: Model-based, with numerical information; can identify underlying assumptions.
Disadvantages: Models have limited view of the world, and are often are not transparent; exactness gives illusion of certainty; difficult to reflect changes in fundamental scenario features such as values, lifestyles, institutions, and structural shifts in the social and environmental system under study.
The third theme, scenario content, focuses on the composition of the scenarios. It examines on the nature of variables and dynamics in a scenario, and how they interconnect. With regard to scenario content, we distinguish between complex and simple scenarios. A multitude of interpretations of the term complex exists. Here, a complex scenario is one that is composed of an intricate web of causally related, interwoven, and elaborately arranged variables and dynamics. Complex scenarios manifest alternative patterns of development consisting of a series of action-reaction mechanisms. They often draw on a broad range of actors, factors and sectors, and use multiple temporal or spatial scales. In contrast, simple scenarios are more limited in scope. A simple scenario might focus on a single topic, considering only the immediate or first-order effects of changes in the external environment. Simple scenarios may also limit themselves to extrapolation of trends. The term “simple” is not meant to indicate poor quality. An exercise with a narrow focus or a short-term perspective may not require the relatively lengthy and demanding investment of developing complex scenarios, which can be a benefit in many other circumstances. Furthermore, a simple scenario can be more effective in communicating its message than a complex scenario.
See Exercise 6.5