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Scenario Planning

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Scenario planning enables professionals, and the public, to respond dynamically to an unknown future. It assists them with thinking, in advance, about the many ways the future may unfold and how they can be responsive, resilient, and effective, as the future becomes reality.

Scenario planning is a process to support decision-making that helps urban and rural planners navigate the uncertainty of the future in the short and long term. A scenario planning process begins by scanning the current reality, projected forecasts, and influential internal and external factors to produce a set of plausible potential futures (i.e., scenarios). It then develops a series of initiatives, projects, and policies (i.e., tactics) that may help support a preferred scenario, a component of a scenario, multiple scenarios, or all scenarios. Indicators that a scenario component is likely to occur (i.e., tipping points or triggers) may be established to alert planners that the likelihood of a scenario becoming a reality is higher, prompting them to take action on appropriate tactics such as allocating funding and moving into implementation.

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Scenario Planning as Complementary to Planning Frameworks

Scenario planning is often used in conjunction within larger decision-making and planning frameworks such as strategic planning, project prioritization, and comprehensive plans. Depending on how it is used, scenario planning can be useful to these projects in different ways, such as improving the analysis of key uncertainties, re-framing problems, or incorporating considerations of emerging trends.

Types of Scenario Planning

Terms commonly associated with scenario planning include “normative” scenarios, which describe a preferred, and achievable, end state as well as “exploratory” scenarios, which describe an unknowable, but comprehensible, array of future end states that may occur. While the former often structures tactics to support the preferred scenario, the latter often deploys “contingent” tactics as the future unfolds in real time. In some cases, a scenario planning exercise may include elements of both.

Potential Outcomes of Scenario Planning

Depending on how scenario planning is approached, it can help achieve a number of outcomes. If a systems approach is leveraged, it can guide an awareness of interconnectivity, unintended consequences, and silo reduction. If used to illustrate tradeoffs related to a complex issue, it can help produce public feedback with more realistic expectations.  If a strong public involvement component is included, it can shift a scenario planning exercise from an internal orientation to an external orientation. If quality of life outcomes such as equity and health factors are at the core of scenario development, then it can also help inform appropriate tactics.

Scenario Planning with Software and Data

Once the process is clear, data and software tools can be leveraged to keep track of large amounts of information, incorporate key data, and quantify specific elements. Whereas some scenario planning exercises use little or no software or data, other scenario planning exercises have a strong software and data focus. Generally, software helps quantify relationships between factors such as land, environment, and transportation through the use of algorithms, which can enable a scenario planning exercise to have a more refined situational understanding and become more specific in its tactics. Scenario planning projects can involve various algorithms, computer models, and analysis tools, which are often tailored in order to answer particular questions.

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