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Scenario Planning in a Pandemic

How to Embrace and Navigate Uncertainty
By Emma Zehner, June 30, 2020


Local authorities focus on quickly getting services back up and running, returning to previous systems and making them as effective as possible in the new context. After a year of upheaval, staff and the wider public have little appetite for change.

—“Race Back to Normal” scenario, Social Finance


Earlier this year, the U.K.-based nonprofit Social Finance carried out a weeklong scenario planning exercise for local governments. The process asked officials to imagine four potential futures as they looked toward pandemic recovery: Innovation Against the Odds, Civic Renewal, Central Command and Control, and Race Back to Normal (Social Finance 2020).

The four scenarios varied along two axes—responsibility, referring to whether the crisis response is directed by the central government or localities, and transformation, which described whether localities would use the crisis to drive systemic change or, alternatively, quickly return to old ways. A guiding question drove the exercise: faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, how can local authorities change and adapt to meet the emerging needs of communities over the next year?

Originally developed as a tool to refine military and corporate strategies, scenario planning enables communities to create and analyze multiple plausible versions of the future. Unlike traditional planning approaches that tend to assume one likely or desired outcome, scenario planning encourages users to embrace uncertainty and imagine multiple endpoints. Since the onset of the current pandemic, the practice has gained renewed attention and taken on new relevance across many industries, which are all facing uncertainties not accounted for in their routine planning processes. Universities that unexpectedly sent their students packing mid-semester have developed scenarios to determine what the fall semester might look like and how to prepare accordingly for various options. At the onset of the pandemic, hospitals used real-time scenario planning to prepare for different outcomes related to facility supplies, staff capacity, and financial management. Businesses, transit agencies, and nonprofits across the country are using the method to navigate a new baseline of uncertainty.

This pandemic has helped people understand the purpose and value of scenario planning,” said Sarah Philbrick, a socioeconomic analyst at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), the regional planning agency for metropolitan Boston. “Normally people view uncertainties as far-fetched scenarios and think they could never really happen. However, with COVID, people are now able to see how dramatically things can shift in a short amount of time. This is a prime opportunity for practitioners to talk about this method and use it with others.”

Scenario Planning for Local Governments

Scenario planning was first incorporated into urban planning projects in the 1990s and marked the beginning of a gradual shift away from traditional planning, which has largely ignored uncertainty, according to Robert Goodspeed, professor at the University of Michigan and author of the new Lincoln Institute book Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Envisioning and Managing Uncertainties (Goodspeed 2020).

Planning that narrows in on one future can result in plans that are poorly suited for implementation, said Goodspeed, who is also a board member of the Consortium for Scenario Planning, a peer network launched by the Lincoln Institute (see sidebar). For example, inflexible plans have seen homes flooded because they were built in areas that were thought to be safe from storms, public funds wasted on infrastructure to accommodate overestimated growth, and extensive mismatches between affordable housing types and residents’ needs.

Plenty of places are not happy with conventional trends and have sought scenario planning out as a method to envision a more sustainable future,” Goodspeed said. “And now, amidst COVID-19, local leaders who have not previously participated in these types of activities are seeing the value, and urban and land use professionals are realizing how all long-range plans need to be mindful of major uncertainties.”

Scenario planning for urban planners varies in several ways from scenario planning for businesses. As Goodspeed explains in his book, the primary stakeholder for a business is typically the business itself. “Scenario-based urban planning, in contrast, has many stakeholders whose participation is closely linked with research and technical analysis, and it may use evaluation criteria to compare scenarios,” he writes (Goodspeed 2020).

The methodology, which takes two main forms—normative and exploratory—is used most often to help define long-range transportation and land use plans. In a normative scenario plan, the goal is to reach a specific target or “future.” The scenarios come into play in how stakeholders choose to get to the future. Each scenario for reaching the desired outcome will have benefits and drawbacks that planners and community members must weigh.

With exploratory scenario planning, stakeholders identify “driving forces” and combine these elements into several possible futures. Then, the group outlines appropriate responses for each scenario. “Through exploratory scenario planning, it is acknowledged that the future cannot be predicted, but preparation and proactive action can and should take place,” writes Janae Futrell, who previously worked as a consultant at the Lincoln Institute, in a PAS memo for the American Planning Association (Futrell 2019).

In her memo, Futrell cites the example of the Greater Philadelphia Futures Group, a regional coalition formed to identify the various driving forces most likely to shape the region through 2050. For instance, the group has considered how the introduction of autonomous vehicles will affect the metro area. Participants outlined four scenarios that might result from this vehicular shift and developed strategies that would be successful regardless of which reality plays out. This summer, the coalition will issue a futures report informed by the digital revolution, rising inequality, and climate change, incorporating the pandemic and recent racial justice protests into each scenario’s narrative.

Planning departments had already begun to recognize the value of scenario planning for hazard mitigation and climate resilience work, as well as for internal capacity-building exercises. Now its very premise—embracing uncertainty—turns out to be perfectly suited for the times.

Adapting the Tool for a Pandemic

Traditionally, [scenario planning] is used to consider long-term trends and promote big picture thinking,” the report from Social Finance explains. “However, in crisis situations such as COVID-19, scenario planning can be a useful technique to help interpret and respond to rapid change, as it allows organizations to anticipate and manage uncertainty” (Social Finance 2020).

Many of the basic strategies of exploratory scenario planning can be useful for looking at pandemic recovery scenarios, with one notable exception: timeframe. In the middle of a pandemic, timelines and expectations can be different. Whereas typical plans that incorporate scenarios might project 30 to 50 years into the future, the day-by-day variation of COVID-19 makes 12 to 18 months a more digestible timeline.

The pandemic is a tangible thing you are reacting to, so people’s current use of the tool is more reactionary instead of the more standard anticipatory approach,” explained Heather Hannon, director of the Consortium for Scenario Planning.

Transit agencies, for example, are adjusting scenarios every week and working on the fly to create pop-up bike lanes and parklets. “With fewer staff and constrained budgets, transit agencies are preparing for a staggering number of scenarios,” wrote Tiffany Chu, a commissioner at San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, in Forbes (Chu 2020).

In May, WSP, a professional services firm based in Canada, published “Public Transportation and COVID-19: Funding and Finance Resiliency: Considerations When Planning in an Unprecedented Realm of Unknowns.” The report recommends scenario planning as a tool for public transportation staff and includes some of the factors agencies will have to consider, such as higher cleaning and sanitizing costs, higher absenteeism, demands for higher wages, and changing ridership patterns (WSP 2020).

Lisa Nisenson, vice president of the national design and professional services firm WGI and a member of the Consortium for Scenario Planning, is also considering how scenario planning can be useful in responding to COVID’s impact on the mobility industry. Will transit and shared-use companies rebound? Will telecommuting stick over the long run? Will open streets be temporary?

Any time you have different alternative ways that the future could unfold, taking a deliberate look at how it could unfold is never a bad idea,” Nisenson said. “That said, the ability to figure out how things unfold very much depends on your confidence in the variables. In this case, you want to assemble stakeholders and experts who can describe the variables, the directions the variables could take, and benchmarks for monitoring the situation based on your organization’s needs.” In a recent mobility plan, Nisenson said, the company identified ideas for ‘distancing while in motion,’ including bicycling and a popular open-air electric shuttle, that would also address long-term mobility and sustainability goals.

Nisenson added that successful COVID planning can involve a combination of methods that include scenario, anticipatory, and strategic planning, as well as the Delphi method of assembling experts. “This process illuminates one of scenario planning’s benefits: stakeholder engagement,” she said.

Goodspeed emphasized that COVID scenario planning projects will differ from typical scenario planning projects by bridging unconventional communities. For instance, hazard and disaster staff are often siloed from long-range land use and transportation planners, but now will likely become central to any comprehensive recovery plan.

At MAPC, Philbrick has been working with the housing and economic development teams to sketch out a three- to five-year timeline for economic recovery in the Boston metro area. The project focuses on the possible scenarios for housing demand by income levels based on possible employment patterns and the pace of recovery by sector. “Because none of the many questions we have can really be answered, the only real option is scenario planning,” Philbrick said. “Choosing any sort of point estimate when you have very little to base it off of is just irresponsible.”

A Nimble Tool for Resource-Constrained Governments

One of the common misunderstandings about scenario planning is that it always requires expensive software and outside consultants. Now, more than ever, municipalities are resource-limited and largely unable to come up with the extra funds needed for such expenses, and may lack the time and resources to look to the future. But Goodspeed and Hannon—who is leading an internal scenario planning process at the Lincoln Institute—said smaller-scale versions of scenario planning can still be helpful, and exploration and experimentation are the keys to a productive process.

In the current moment, organizations starting from scratch probably still should frame a project to focus on a particular plan or decision, allowing them to dip their toes in the water and explore methods and figure out how to use them effectively,” Goodspeed recommended. “For those who already have more experience, this is probably a good time to broaden or deepen their practice. For example, they could incorporate more exploratory scenarios or involve experts from new fields like public health.”

Hannon noted that the Consortium for Scenario Planning maintains a list of resources on its website, as well as opportunities for peer exchange and other information. The Lincoln Institute is also releasing a comprehensive manual in partnership with the Sonoran Institute that will provide users with tools and guidance for managing a scenario planning process. Social Finance has developed a template for those attempting to do shorter-term scenario planning online. The organization suggests tools as simple as online Word documents, Zoom, and virtual whiteboards.

Planners can do a lightweight version without the burden of consultants or software tools,” Hannon said. “Don’t worry about a data-intensive version, just get people together and start brainstorming.”


To learn about how communities are using scenario planning to confront the impacts of climate change, read “Climate Change: Great Lakes Communities Use Scenario Planning to Prepare for Rising Waters.”



Consortium for Scenario Planning

The Consortium for Scenario Planning is a community of practice launched by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy that helps to foster growth in the practice of scenario planning at all scales. Through research, peer-to-peer learning, networking, training, and technical assistance, the Consortium helps communities develop better plans to guide a range of actions, from climate change adaptation to transportation investment. The Consortium also convenes researchers and software providers to develop more effective tools and reduce barriers to entry. To learn more, visit www.scenarioplanning.io.



Emma Zehner is publications and communications editor at the Lincoln Institute.

Photograph: Scenario planning enables institutions and communities to create and analyze multiple plausible versions of the future, using simple or sophisticated tools. Credit: Times Up Linz via Flickr CC BY 2.0.




Chu, Tiffany. 2020. “In a Pandemic, Transportation Ushers in a New Era of Agile Experimentation.” Forbes, May 12. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tiffanychu/2020/05/11/transportation-agileexperimentation.

CSP (Consortium for Scenario Planning). 2020. http://www.scenarioplanning.io/.

Futrell, Janae. 2019. “How to Design Your Scenario Planning Process.” PAS Memo July/August: 1–20. https://www.planning.org/publications/document/9180327/.

Goodspeed, Robert. 2020. Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Managing and Envisioning Uncertain Futures. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. https://www.lincolninst.edu/publications/books/scenario-planning-cities-regions.

Social Finance UK. 2020. “Local Government Futures: Scenario Planning for Councils.” London: Social Finance. https://www.socialfinance.org.uk/sites/default/files/scenario_planning_local_government_0.pdf.

WSP. 2020. “Public Transportation and COVID-19: Funding and Finance Resiliency: Considerations When Planning in an Unprecedented Realm of Unknowns.” https://www.wsp.com/-/media/Campaign/US/Document/2020/Public-Transportation-and-COVID-19.pdf.