A scenario is the presentation of a possible future situation in narrative form. It is a story or an analysis of something that has yet to happen. Thinking in scenarios is innate: every day, we anticipate possible futures and prepare for them as best we can. We think up scenarios on personal issues, such as an upcoming job interview, mulling over all sorts of potential questions and answers, and we ponder over scenarios related to all-encompassing challenges, such as global warming or energy scarcity, perhaps wondering uneasily what the future might hold for our children.

Scenarios help us to deal with the uncertainties of an open future and allow us to compare development alternatives which could shape the course of events. Scenarios are distinct from prognoses because they do not try to predict the future. They are also distinct from utopias, which are liberated from path dependencies and concrete linkages with the present. While prognoses are suitable for questions dealing with the near future (where trends can be ‘calculated’ with high probability), utopias deal with the far-off future (which is hardly bound by the current reality’s rules). Scenarios occupy the space in between – the ‘field of tension’ between today’s certainties and tomorrow’s uncertainties:

Ingredients for good scenarios

A good scenario is:

  • Novel: The future is not just an extension of the present, it contains elements of sur­­prise.

  • Multifaceted: The present is neither one-dimensional nor black and white, so why should one impose such limitations on the future? Every scenario developed in one process should be equally complex, likely and ambiguous.

  • Believable: A scenario should be surprising and unexpected, but it has to be consistent in itself and logical, showing relationships of interdependency, cause and effect or self-reinforcing backward loops (for example, vicious or virtuous circles).

  • Comprehensive: It should combine trends and developments on several levels and on various issues, as individuals, communities, business and government can all affect and are all affected by social, political, economic and cultural trends and developments.

  • Never right or wrong: A scenario by definition analyses that which has not yet happened: we are projecting, speculating, guessing. So there is no single correct scenario, only potential alternatives, which should be expressed in a logical and consistent manner.

Evolution of the scenario-building method

The scenario-building method originated in the military sphere, but was adapted by large companies, such as Shell, which were confronted by the challenge of having to make long-term investment decisions in an ever more rapidly changing market environment. The method then entered public conscience through ‘Limits to Growth’, the now famous 1972 report to the Club of Rome analysing possible economic and population trends, poverty projections, resource consumption and environmental pollution on a global scale.

Since then, scenario-building has been increasingly deployed for political deliberations (foreign policy, regional planning, long-term infrastructure projects) and for dealing with complex social challenges and conflicts. The ‘Mont Fleur Scenarios’ of 1991, for example, looked at a post-Apartheid South Africa, involving many actors and generating wide public interest and response. The future-directed and understanding-oriented approach of the scenario-building method also makes it an effective tool for communal, interdisciplinary and intercultural dialogue projects.