New Publication

How to Use Exploratory Scenario Planning Teaches Would-Be Practitioners How to Apply This Emergent Approach to Local, Regional, and Organizational Plans for the Future
By Allison Ehrich Bernstein, Septiembre 15, 2020


In this era of great uncertainty—whether due to climate change, COVID-19, or changes to urban development, technology, and the global economy—urban planners and government officials face new challenges. The new Lincoln Institute guidebook How to Use Exploratory Scenario Planning (XSP): Navigating an Uncertain Future, by Jeremy Stapleton, provides a roadmap for making decisions or plans in the face of critical unknowns and unclear futures.

A process for exploring the driving forces and implications of different futures, XSP guides participants in assessing how best to prepare for any and all of them. Rather than working toward a single vision, practitioners develop distinct potential futures (“scenarios”) and consider how to measure and prepare for each. Through this process, communities can identify the actors, strategies, contingency plans, and partnerships that will help them achieve their goals under varying future conditions—and adapt to changing factors in real time.

For example, the City and County of Denver used XSP in the 2017 Denveright project, an update of the successful 2002 integrated transportation and land use plan, to identify common themes like the regional desire for equity and access. The process also helped dissolve departmental silos, resulting in a plan adopted in April 2019. The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center also employed XSP to inform the development of a management plan for the Upper Gila Watershed in 2014. The project effectively conveyed the wide-ranging possibilities for water supply and demand, development patterns, and other driving forces in the coming decades, and it engaged with a broad cross-section of water users, resulting in ongoing and productive dialogues.

“Exploratory Scenario Planning shows how cities and regions don’t have to simply react to major events and emerging forces like the pandemic, but we can envision and prepare for unexpected consequences in advance,” said Ted Knowlton, deputy director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, which oversees regional planning in the Salt Lake City area.

Because it encompasses possibilities rather than assumptions, XSP enables more robust plans than those produced with traditional methods. The practice can support early stages of a strategic planning process by helping participants clarify the issues, strategies, and contingency plans that need to be more fully developed, and it can also help planners test existing strategies against a range of futures to assess the possible outcomes.

How to Use Exploratory Scenario Planning instructs the reader in how to employ XSP at the organizational, local, or regional level. Though the details can vary, the XSP process is usually constructed around a series of discussion-based workshops and facilitated by a core leadership team that engages a larger group of stakeholders. Intended for urban planners, community leaders, and other active decision makers, the manual features a comprehensive review of the XSP process, including step-by-step templates and six detailed case studies that offer lessons learned from previous applications. 

“As this manual makes clear, exploratory scenario planning is a tool that communities can use now, without special software or training,” said Heather Hannon, manager of the Lincoln Institute’s Consortium for Scenario Planning. “By brainstorming driving forces and exploring multiple futures, communities can lean into uncertainty and develop plans to deal with it, rather than being paralyzed by it.”

The manual walks would-be practitioners through designing and managing their own XSP processes, with in-depth case studies examining its applications in contexts as diverse as water management in Colorado’s Front Range region to transportation trends in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Other cases include the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center’s 2014 exercise to help preserve rural agricultural lifestyles in the Upper Gila Watershed; the 2017 Denveright Project; and the National Center for Smart Growth’s 2018 work to explore how the Baltimore–Washington region can achieve a more sustainable future. Although focused on U.S. applications, the manual also notes the roots of scenario planning in South African, British, and other planning contexts—and its lessons readily apply to any urban or regional planning context. 

As the cases show, XSP’s exploration of the root causes of possible futures, good and bad, allows planners to prevent major problems from escalating: For instance, the inclusion of outside stakeholders can lead to greater buy-in for eventual implementation, which further helps build the community’s adaptive capacity and resilience. Ultimately, whether integrated into a traditional planning process or used as a separate standalone effort, XSP encourages consideration, collaboration, and consensus to help people and organizations prepare most effectively for whatever lies ahead. 

“This practical how-to guide with case studies from some of the nation’s leading practitioners of exploratory scenarios helps us understand how technology, social inequity, climate change, and other forces may affect future development needs, environmental protection, transportation, and other aspects of our daily lives,” said Brett Fusco, manager of long-range planning for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which covers the Greater Philadelphia region.

Stapleton further offers key recommendations gleaned from practical experience to guide future XSP exercises, as well as assorted sample schedules, templates, and other materials with which planners can build their own processes. He concludes that exploratory scenario planning can play an important role in community and regional planning, noting that, “Particularly in a time of climate, economic, and political challenges that disrupt natural and social environments and change the quality of life in many communities, XSP provides planners and community leaders a process to prepare for and adapt to an uncertain future.

The guidebook complements the book Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Managing and Envisioning Uncertain Futures, by Robert Goodspeed, an in-depth exploration of scenario planning, its purpose and its history, with detailed case studies and practical guidance on scenario planning methods, modeling and simulation tools.  

To read How to Use Exploratory Scenario Planning (XSP): Navigating an Uncertain Future by Jeremy Stapleton, visit To read a four-page Policy Brief, which distills key ideas from the manual, visit



Allison Ehrich Bernstein is principal at Allative Communications.

Photograph: Jeremy Stapleton facilitates action planning with a team from the City of Avondale, Arizona, at the Arizona Growing Water Smart Workshop in Phoenix, February 2020. Credit: Diego Lomelli Trejo.




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