Introduction to Scenario Planning

Scenario planning is a tool that enables planners to make better decisions by incorporating relevant data and informed stakeholder input more thoughtfully. We can’t predict the future, but we can better prepare for it. Communities use scenario planning to help make important decisions, increasing their capacity to act strategically in a risky and uncertain world in pursuit of resilient, inclusive, and prosperous places.

  • What is scenario planning?
  • Why invest in scenario planning?
  • What does scenario planning accomplish?

What is scenario planning?

Scenario planning combines data-driven decision-making and a more inclusive, participatory approach to guide the development of better plans that are more likely to be implemented. It’s a process that guides planners, community members, and other stakeholders through considerations of various futures—the good, the bad, and the weird. It helps planners and stakeholders consider how various elements of their planning might respond to these different scenarios, eventually building to a strategic plan that reflects diverse input, quantitative realities, and qualitative goals.

Conceptually, scenario planning has a lot in common with anticipatory and adaptive planning techniques, and it can also incorporate elements of contingency planning, strategic planning, exploration of alternative futures, and strategic foresight.

Why invest in scenario planning?

Rather than reinventing existing planning processes, scenario planning enhances them, giving planners—and community participants—new insights, data points, and objectives to work with. This approach offers more practical context for the consideration of hard data, guiding analysis with qualitative as well as quantitative evidence.

It also involves and engages stakeholders beyond the planning office to generate plans that work in the real world. By introducing a diverse set of voices into the process, scenario planning establishes more community buy-in, heads off dissent and controversy, and ensures that the plan in question reflects the lived experiences and needs of those it will affect directly.

What does scenario planning accomplish? 

Simply put, scenario planning invites new participants into the planning process. The resulting plans represent the ideas of many stakeholders—particularly those underrepresented in the planning field and even at community meetings. Because scenario planning fosters more inclusive, data-driven decision-making, it helps create implementable, sustainable, plans that community leaders and stakeholders can endorse.

Thinking About the Unthinkable

Armando Carbonell discusses the origins of scenario planning, provides historic project examples that ultimately prove just how critical scenario planning is, and explains how scenario planning can be particularly useful for climate change planning.