What Is Scenario Planning?

Scenario planning is a practice through which communities plan for an uncertain future by exploring multiple possibilities of what might happen. The practice guides planners, community members, and other stakeholders through considerations of various futures and how to effectively respond to and plan for them.

Some scenario planning processes focus on achieving a desired end state, while others explore the implications of different futures. Many scenario planning processes incorporate diverse stakeholder input and other data to inform decision-making.

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. This approach can offer more practical context for considering hard data, guiding analysis with qualitative as well as quantitative assumptions and forecasts. Scenario planning expands sightlines in a planning process, allowing participants to consider issues beyond the immediate topic at hand—exploring trends in the American labor market while planning for housing, for example.

Scenario planning can engage stakeholders beyond the planning office to generate plans representing a wide range of perspectives. By introducing diverse voices into the process, scenario planning can establish more buy-in, avert dissent and controversy, and ensure that a plan reflects the lived experiences and needs of those it will affect directly. Because scenario planning can encourage more inclusive, data-driven decision-making, it helps forge implementable, sustainable plans that community leaders and stakeholders can endorse.

Thinking About the Unthinkable

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