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Scenario Building

This page is a collection of quotes and references that inspire our development of scenarios in Future Fabulators. If you are interested in how to build scenarios yourself, read through our evolving collection of scenario methods.

Thinking through [scenario] stories, and talking in depth about their implications, brings each person’s unspoken assumptions about the future to the surface. Scenarios are thus the most powerful vehicles I know for challenging our “mental models” about the world and lifting the “blinders” that limit our creativity and resourcefulness.

– Peter Schwartz, The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World

… Scenario writing […] is fundamentally an act of evidence-based imagination.

– Geoffrey Coyle

In my experience, scenario planning is an interpretive practice – it’s really closer to magic than technique. […] Look long enough, hard enough, and the pieces will fall into place. Magic is a very difficult thing – most people spend their whole life cutting magic out.

– Napier Collyns

A good scenario grabs us by the collar and says, “Take a good look at this future. This could be your future. Are you going to be ready?”

– Peter Bishop, Andy Hines and Terry Collins, The current state of scenario development

Scenarios as disruptions

A basic tenet of futures studies is that images of the future inform the decisions people make and how they act. The notion that human purpose can affect the course of events to create futures that are significant transformations of the present underlies all of futures research.

[…] These depictions are not predictions: while based on probabilistic forecasts, their primary purpose is to guide exploration of possible future states. Their goal is to “disturb the present,” in Gaston Berger's words (1967). The best scenarios do so by describing alternative future outcomes that diverge significantly from the present.

– Wendy Schulz et al., Roads Less Travelled

Future Histories

[Scenarios] cannot be anything more than expressions of alternative interpretations of aspects of the current reality. Essentially we put ourselves at an imaginative future vantage point and describe what is going on right now as if we were looking at what is happening today from the perspective of a future historian.

– Kees van der Heijden, Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation

Scenario planning & scenario thinking

Scenarios are not predictions. Rather, they are provocative and plausible accounts of how relevant external forces — such as the future political environment, scientific and technological developments, social dynamics, and economic conditions — might interact and evolve, providing our organizations with different challenges and opportunities.

Why Scenarios?

Scenario Planning is Not Forecasting

Scenario planning is not, or rather should not be, about forecasting the future. Instead, it is a tool for collective learning; what matters is what the scenario team learns in creating it. As an exercise, it is useful; as a strategic map for outsiders, it is relatively useless. Therefore, instead of using it as a map for your organization, ignore its conclusion, ignore the scenarios themselves, and think about the trends, forces and events that the NIC identifies, and then add your own, based on your intuition and expertise.

In short:

  • Don’t fall for the forecasting trap: think about the future, but don’t try to predict it.
  • Treat others’ forecasts as a learning exercise: get your strategy team to engage in a strategic conversation about the future using the report as a starting point.
  • Pay particular attention to what is not said or not written, and why: the NIC’s effort ignore crucial factors.
  • Most importantly, impress upon your strategy team both the unpredictability of the long-term future and the fact that action is frequently the best way to forecast. As Gandhi said in a different context: “Be the change you would find in the world”.

Ultimately, strategy is about a desired future and how to get there. So don’t ask what the future will be, but rather what future you desire, and how you will bring it about.

– Milo Jones and Philippe Silberzahn, Global Trends Anyone? Why the Forecasters So Often Get It Wrong

What is the purpose of scenarios?

Herman Kahn defined scenarios as narrative descriptions of the future that focus attention on causal processes and decision points. (Kahn 1967) No scenario is ever probable; the probability of any scenario ever being realized is minute. Scenarios should be judged by their ability to help decisionmakers make policy now, rather than whether they turn out to be right or wrong. “Good” scenarios are those that are: 1) Plausible (a rational route from here to there that make causal processes and decisions explicit); 2) Internally consistent (alternative scenarios should address similar issues so that they can be compared; and 3) Sufficiently interesting and exciting to make the future “real” enough to affect decision making.


The purpose of scenarios is to systematically explore, create, and test both possible and desirable future conditions. Scenarios can help generate long-term policies, strategies, and plans, which help bring desired and likely future circumstances in closer alignment. They can also expose ignorance; show that we do not know how to get to a specific future or that it is impossible.

Exploratory or descriptive scenarios describe events and trends as they could evolve based on alternative assumptions on how these events and trends may influence the future. Normative scenarios describe how a desirable future can emerge from the present.


In general, the term scenario has been used in two different ways: first, to describe a snapshot in time or the conditions of important variables at some particular time in the future; second, to describe a future history—that is, the evolution from present conditions to one of several futures.


The latter approach is generally preferred because it can lay out the causal chain of decisions and circumstances that lead from the present. The most useful scenarios are those that display the conditions of important variables over time.


The goal of generating scenarios is to understand the mix of strategic decisions that are of maximum benefit in the face of various uncertainties and challenges posed by the external environment. Scenario building, in conjunction with a careful analysis of the driving forces, fosters systematic study of potential future possibilities—both good and bad.

Futures Research Methodology

Scenarios and decisions

Scenario planning derives from the observation that, given the impossibility of knowing precisely how the future will play out, a good decision or strategy to adopt is one that plays out well across several possible futures. To find that “robust” strategy, scenarios are created in plural, such that each scenario diverges markedly from the others. These sets of scenarios are, essentially, specially constructed stories about the future, each one modeling a distinct, plausible world in which we might someday have to live and work.

Yet, the purpose of scenario planning is not to pinpoint future events but to highlight large-scale forces that push the future in different directions. It's about making these forces visible, so that if they do happen, the planner will at least recognize them. It's about helping make better decisions today.

– Lawrence Wilkinson, How to Build Scenarios

Open source scenarios

Imagine a database of thousands of items all related to understanding how the future could turn out. This database would include narrow concerns and large-scale driving forces alike, would have links to relevant external materials, and would have space for the discussion of and elaboration on the entries. The items in the database would link to scenario documents showing how various forces and changes could combine to produce different possible outcomes. Best of all, the entire construction would be open access, free for the use.

As a result, people around the world could start playing with these scenario elements, re-mixing them in new ways, looking for heretofore unseen connections and surprising combinatorial results. Sharp eyes could seek out and correct underlying problems of logic or fact. Organizations with limited resources and few connections to big thinkers would be able to craft scenario narratives of their own with a planet's worth of ideas at their fingertips.

Open Source Scenario Planning and

Open foresight

What is Open Foresight? We recently introduced the concept of ‘Open Foresight’ as a process we’re developing to analyze complex issues in an open and collaborative way, and to raise the bar on public discourse and forward-focused critical thinking […] In simple terms, open foresight is a process for building visions of the future together.

What is Open Foresight??Open Foresight: A New Model for Public Futurism

Scenarios & dialogue

The ideal approach to the future combines free speculation and data-driven deduction. Scenarios are an ideal tool for strategic dialogue.

– Karl Schroeder

What next for scenario planning?

Recently I have been interviewing a variety of high profile futurists and up-and-coming strategists on how online approaches are transforming scenario planning and futures work.

Scenarios and permaculture presents an integrated approach to understanding the potential interaction between Climate Change and Peak Oil using a scenario planning model. In the process I introduce permaculture as a design system specifically evolved over the last 30 years to creatively respond to futures that involve progressively less and less available energy.

– David Holmgren's website, Future Scenarios, where he mixes scenario planning and permaculture design methods

Characteristics of Scenarios

  • They're provocative – they push the readers to think about possibilities they'd often rather not face. While this often means confronting unpleasant outcomes, it can also mean admitting the possibility of success, what it would take to get there, and what one would do if it happened.
  • They're plausible – they make use of real-world facts and models to construct a set of futures that could actually come about. This is important, especially for organizations trying to make the world face up to the challenges in front of it.
  • They're broad – while they usually have a specific issue as a focal question, they can't simply look at the actions of the organization or group at the issue's heart. Good scenarios look at the context of an issue, and examine changes across a wide spectrum of concerns.
  • They're diverse – they acknowledge that the future is ultimately unknowable, so the best way to plan for what will really happen is to think about broadly different possibilities. This was, for me, the singular failing of the Pentagon abrupt climate change scenario – it only told one story.
  • Finally, they're open – even readers not directly involved with the issue at hand can start thinking about their own choices and plans as shaped by the scenario narratives.

Strengths and weaknesses of scenarios

A strength of scenario is to help develop plans that are viable over the wide range of possible futures—with both plans and a process that manage uncertainty. Scenario-based planning meets this strategic challenge. […] Instead of each possibility being a potential threat to a rigid plan, they tend to be evaluated as sign posts, indicating paths along the way to alternative and anticipated futures.

A weakness of scenarios is that they can be given to non-participants, who can then see the scenarios as the “official set of possible futures” and hence, control or limit their thinking to some degree. They have great ability to influence the reader in subtle ways due to the writer’s assumptions about cause and effect. The writer’s mental model of how the world works is transferred to the reader, and possibly unconsciously accepted.

Futures Research Methodology: Scenarios

References and further reading

future_fabulators/scenario_building.txt · Last modified: 2014/07/25 14:04 by alkan