Making fruitful scenarios: an uncomfortable conversation

Starting a conversation — Recent years have seen a renewed interest in the scenario method in spatial planning and design in the Netherlands. What can we learn from this enthusiasm for drafting alternative futures?

Constructed scenarios of an urban design office / Photographer unknown / source National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning, het Nieuwe Instituut

Nederland Nu Als Ontwerp, Design Studio Arnhem-Nijmegen, 1989 / Photographer unknown / National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning, Nieuwe Instituut

What is a scenario?

A scenario is an image of the future. And, like any image of the future, a scenario is a looking glass that reflects the present mind. That is its core utility, and it defines the limits of the method’s potential. Scenarios may be called prospectives, but we should call them introspectives. Scenarios cannot show the future. They show our fears and our hopes, our preoccupations, and our limits of understanding the world and us within it.
I will argue that in most cases, scenarios are unnecessary, pointless, or plainly misleading. They are esoteric – in the narrow sense of the word, only for the initiated – and rather useless for communication, and can certainly not predict any future.

But in some cases, scenarios are powerful heuristic devices. As research tools, they are uniquely fit to expose our expectations and assumptions about how the world works, and how the future may unfold. And without those expectations and assumptions, we could not take a single decision in our lives. I think we are hard-wired to forget that we cannot know the future. We constantly construct futures in our mind, every single moment, just to stay sane. That is why humans are natural scenario-makers.

There are different types of images of the future. I distinguish visions that show what we want, options that show what we can decide, forecasts that show how we calculate the future, and utopia, a critical counter-image to the present. The fifth type is the scenario.
Scenarios come in many forms, colours and sizes, but they all share three core features: they are vivid, they are plausible, and they encompass both decisions that we can take and developments that we cannot steer ourselves.

There is sometimes debate about whether an image of the future without an illustration of its development path may be called a scenario. I think there is a simple answer to that. Any image of the future that is vivid and seems plausible is a scenario. Sometimes you intuitively understand how things could develop that way; sometimes you need to illustrate the development path. The necessity of plausibility for a scenario connects the future image to the present.

Three mistakes in making scenarios

I found three mistakes that render many scenario projects useless. The first is making scenarios when you do not need to. The second is to get no good answers because you asked no good questions. The third is to directly communicate with scenarios.
All three mistakes stem from a neglect of the most important question: How can my scenario project improve decision-making? This is what all planning is about: decision-making.

The scenario method should be employed to take better decisions. If it is not connected to that, it is useless. To find out whether you need scenarios, and what methodology you should use, you need to start thinking from the end –and that end is not the future, but a decision taken in the present. Scenario making can be a lot of fun because most humans love to build new worlds, but if your scenarios do not produce new options or new knowledge, your work has been futile.

Scenarios are Ersatz-experience
The first mistake is that in most cases, scenarios are simply unnecessary. To understand why, I would like to quote Herman Kahn, broadly regarded as the inventor of the modern scenario method. He called scenarios “Ersatz experience”. And as long as there is relevant experience, you do not need to construct an artificial one. For most questions, a thorough case study research will deliver far more knowledge and options than any scenario. Why? Because case studies show all the complexity of our lives, the rational and the irrational, the role of chance, the expected and the unexpected. They are tried and tested by reality.
Crucially, case studies also reveal the power of agency of individuals – both decision-makers and users. That human condition, based on chance, change and emotions, is key for understanding our history and practically impossible to integrate in the scenario method. Diving deep into case studies will give you success factors, whole libraries of patterns and tools, and a wealth of feedback experience about how life has unfolded in those spaces.
Making a good and adequately complex “Ersatz-experience” – a scenario – requires a lot of hard work and imagination. Only if there is really no good experience at hand, choose for making scenarios. But even then, do your case study research just as well with examples closest to your case. Maybe the most important thing you can learn is to find out which are the right questions to ask. That helps to set the focus for your scenarios.

An Experimental Concept For the Randstad's Empty Space / constructed by Adriaan Geuze et. al,, West 8 landscape architects / published in Alexanderpolder; New Urban Frontiers (1993)

An Experimental Concept For the Randstad’s Empty Space / constructed by Adriaan Geuze et. al,, West 8 landscape architects / published in Alexanderpolder; New Urban Frontiers (1993)

The right question
The second common mistake is that without a good question, you will not get a good answer. To understand why, it is helpful to distinguish between focus scenarios and global scenarios, and how they relate to decision-making.
An example of a focus scenario is a 1993 study of urban development in the Green Heart by West 8 landscape architects. On the face of it, that scenario seemed outrageous to planners. Yet Adriaan Geuze, the author, set out with a remarkably clear research question about an imaginary policy decision: What would happen if the building ban in the Green Heart was lifted? He avoided stepping into the common trap of oversimplification, which in this case would give the answer that the Green Heart would be entirely built over. That is, of course, an emotional answer that shuns the focus on understanding how we expand our cities and, more importantly, how we want to live. So the scenario started with ‘Who?’ by defining characters who would like to pursue their lifestyle in the Green Heart. It consequently unfolded through early phases, where the most beautiful landscapes best served by traffic would be built over first, to later phases of spillover development, plus adding the odd settler type who would prefer a house in the middle of nowhere.

What could be learned from virtually settling the Green Heart? A lot. First, there was plausible demand for other forms of housing, for other lifestyles. These demands put pressure on building restrictions and needed to be addressed. Second, laisser-faire development would not unfold everywhere, but would follow a path of least resistance and highest desirability. Third, the scenario revealed where the Green Heart faced most pressure for development. That in turn could inform decision-makers to increase awareness and protective measures.

Focus scenarios are very helpful to explore possible consequences of decisions. The famous ‘What if?’ is like a virtual stage rehearsal, which was the original idea of scenarios. The best way to make a scenario fruitful is to focus on possible choices you can take today. The tricky part for question-centred scenarios is to set the right physical scale, and the right selection of researched effects. That is their ‘What if?’ question.

Global scenarios
Grand, country-wide, long-range scenario studies once were the crown jewel of Dutch spatial planning. On that scale, it is practically impossible to narrow down the question. ‘What will the Netherlands look like in thirty or fifty years?’ is a monumental question that cannot be answered. However, such scenarios deliver alternative plausible decision pathways into the future and show desires and restraints that lead to decisions.
These decisions are based on values, or different hierarchies of values and of implicit assumptions about how the world works. Humans take those decisions, and humans decide what to do with new technology based on their values. Consequently, shifts in values will lead to shifts in decision-making, and hence to different developments. Scenarios like the ‘Ruimtelijke Verkenningen 2023’ are excellent tools to explore and illustrate what broad shifts in values could possibly trigger.

Vier scenario’s voor de inrichting van Nederland in 2050 / Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving Ruimtelijke Verkenning 2023

Vier scenario’s voor de inrichting van Nederland in 2050 / Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving Ruimtelijke Verkenning 2023 / part of the exhibition Designing the Netherlands. 100 Years of Past & Present Futures, Nieuw Instituut, Rotterdam (2024).

Such large-scale, long-term, often value-based scenarios are called ‘global’, ‘environmental’ or ‘background’ scenarios. While a focus scenario explores what consequences certain decisions could have, a global scenario shows how the world in which these consequences would play out may change. For example, a focus scenario on protective measures against rising sea levels could be informed by opportunities and constraints in alternating scenarios of a more conservative or a more progressive society.
To illustrate global scenarios, it helps to remain playful and suggestive. For example, the four maps of ‘Nederland Nu Als Ontwerp’ from 1987 were much less precise than today’s GIS-based models, but that is why they probably served their purpose better: at first sight, they showed emerging patterns of different value hierarchies.

Vier Ruimtelijke Scenario's van (Ontspannen, Kritisch, Zorgvuldig, Dynamisch) Nederland in 2050, Nederland Nu Als Ontwerp (1987) / national collection on display at Back to the Future: on the role of scenarios in spatial planning, het Nieuw Instituut, Rotterdam (2024).

Vier Ruimtelijke Scenario’s van (Ontspannen, Kritisch, Dynamisch, Zorgvuldig) Nederland in 2050, Nederland Nu Als Ontwerp (1987) / on display at Designing the Netherlands. 100 Years of Past & Present Futures, Nieuw Instituut, Rotterdam (2024).

The third mistake: do not communicate only with scenarios. Never.

Scenarios are paranoid constructions. They are impossible to control as a communicative tool and are highly likely to evaporate or backfire on you.
The core reason is that by their very nature, scenarios are paranoid constructions. By paranoid, I do not mean the colloquial understanding of the term as believing someone is out to hurt you, but in the psychological sense that you selectively and purposefully choose data that fits your world view and leave out evidence that does not fit. Paranoia, in other words, is poor reasoning.

Paranoid constructions are built from re-arranging largely undisputed facts, mechanisms and observations into fantastic constructions. The paranoia lies in forging these elements into a seemingly coherent total that in pathological cases becomes impenetrable for counter-arguments.
I do not think that paranoia is a failure in scenario making. Quite the contrary: the need to construct alternative and vivid futures forces scenario-makers to adopt a temporary paranoia. That temporary paranoia enables them to split a compound, complex and limited understanding of the world and how it may unfold into clearly distinguishable, plausible and vivid scenarios.
The problem arises when people who were not part of the scenario team see the resulting plausible and vivid image of the future. Just as in pathological cases, the plausibility and vividness of the paranoid construction will in most cases be regarded as a failure of reason by outsiders. That is when the effort of scenario-making simply evaporates. This is what essentially happened to Dirk Frieling’s five-year effort NNAO, which raised a bit of curiosity, but not much more. (An undisputed, but unintended success was that he trained an entire generation in scenario-making.)

A common second kind of failure is that the scenario is understood as a prediction. That is the case when observers focus on the plausibility of the image of the future. It is very difficult for people not accustomed to scenario-making to avoid that trap. That is also why people tend to choose the middle scenario if you make three. The truth must be somewhere in the middle, goes the thinking.
In some cases, however, the scenario results in an image of the future that is so vivid that it connects to fears and desires of observers. That is the third kind of failure and probably the one with the greatest impact. The typical reaction is either a reproach (That is a bad future, why do you propose it?) or an affirmation (That is the future I want!) The most powerful kind of image of the future might be the trend-as-threat scenario that combines misunderstanding a scenario as predictive and fearing the resulting image. This kind of cherry-picked future image turned doom is often used in political debates: “If we do not act now, terrible things will happen…”. Trend-as-threat scenarios are easy to communicate, but they lead to strong emotional reactions and enter a discourse in an uncontrollable manner.

Making fruitful scenarios

So why should you do scenarios if you can’t communicate with them? I still believe scenarios are a wonderful tool for rigorously thinking about causes and effects. You can learn a lot from doing scenarios. And because they are vivid and exploratory, that rigorous thinking along a development path may lead you to unexpected findings. Those findings can be about the cause-effect relations or about impacts and key factors. That is their heuristic function as analytical devices: scenarios can yield new knowledge.

And sometimes, a scenario leads to a possible new image of the future that you had not expected to emerge. That can be a rare, but very exciting moment when a scenario can stretch the boundaries of your imagination. I call that the romantic function. Your imagination determines the limits where your thoughts can go, so new limits to imagination open new ways of thinking. (I learned this from philosopher Richard Rorty.) The beauty of scenario-making lies in that combination of analytic and romantic function.

Exhibition Nederland Nu Als Ontwerp, Beurs van Berlage (1987) / Photographer unknown / source National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning, Het Nieuwe Instituut

Exhibition Nederland Nu Als Ontwerp, Beurs van Berlage (1987) / photographer unknown / National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning, Nieuwe Instituut

What you should communicate is not the scenarios, but the knowledge you gained from making scenarios. You need to very critically evaluate your own scenarios and extract what is helpful for decision-making, but also what new questions should be addressed in follow-up research.
To make scenarios fruitful, it is necessary to think of them as only one part of a larger puzzle needed for better decision-making. To generate new and better options, there are several questions that need to be answered by any person or group. The first is: What is our task? That answer should clarify the values, the issues at hand, and the scale and scope of the exercise. The second is: What do we want? That can be a vision that translates your values into an image of the future. Global scenarios can then help to explore the uncertain future: How could the world around me change? And with focus scenarios, you can follow the question: What could happen if I/we did this?

Without answering the questions about your task and your vision first, you will not be able to evaluate your scenario because you would lack the necessary judgement. But if your scenario exercise has been fruitful, you should be able to show what options you have, and on what assumptions and values those options are based. And those options, finally, answer the question: What can we do? And that is the most important question to answer.

Scenario Diagram / Image made by author based on Scenarios for Option Generation, Pierre Wack in Harvard Business Review (1985)

Scenario Diagram / image by author / based on Pierre Wack’s Scenarios for Option Generation in Harvard Business Review (1985)

Six success factors
To conclude, here are six key success factors for making fruitful scenarios:
First, understand your problem. Ask the right questions. Start from the end: What could be possible decisions?
Second, do your research. Always begin with case studies. Know your history.
Third, be rigorous, but not mechanistic. Stay playful. A scenario has to be both plausible and vivid.
Fourth, critically evaluate your own scenario. What did you learn? What do you still not understand? That is what you can communicate.
Fifth, stay aware of the limits of your method. The scenario is always limited by underlying under-complex models of human behaviour and by its paranoid nature. Scenarios are just a piece of a larger puzzle.
Sixth, communicate your conclusions and be open about uncertainty. Take a position and show what you want, what can be decided, and what you think would result from these decisions.

An uncomfortable conversation

It is uncomfortable to take responsibility for your decisions under uncertainty. But the more transparent you are about your reasoning, the better your decisions can become, and the better they can be challenged and improved. Transparency also helps with taking hard decisions because you can argue why you think they are necessary, and how you are still uncertain. Scenarios can help with that.

When Jimmy Carter announced national energy saving measures following the 1972 oil price crisis, he started his prime-time televised speech with the words: “We have to have an uncomfortable conversation.” Sometimes, there is just no way around it.

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