A group of planners stands over a map.

Looking Ahead

Five Tips for Successful Scenario Planning
By Robert Goodspeed, March 11, 2020


Editorial note: Scenario planning is a process that enables communities to create and analyze multiple plausible versions of the future in the face of rapid technology advances, climate change, and other twenty-first century challenges. Robert Goodspeed is the author of the forthcoming book Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions, currently available for pre-order, which describes the fundamentals of the tool and the ways it can be useful for a wide array of projects. In this article, adapted from a post that was first published on his blog Goodspeed Update, he offers a few pieces of advice for scenario planning success.

1. Name Your Scenarios

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flipped open a detailed scenario planning report, only to find the scenarios simply labeled A, B, and C. How forgettable! For the findings to be memorable, the gist of each scenario must be clear. I suggest that urban planners adopt the best practice from corporate strategic planning: Use pithy, evocative names that can help your audience remember the key ideas, which improves their ability to digest the analysis and conclusions. Sometimes, public sector urban planners feel uncomfortable giving scenarios names that might trigger unwanted associations; calling one “sprawl,” for example, might suggest the planners are already biased against it. But there are ways to come up with names that are both vivid and accessible to diverse audiences. For example, one case I discuss, the Gwinnett 2030 Unified Plan for a county in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, contained scenarios for regional growth with names that suggested some of the factors they explore: Middle of the Pack, Regional Slowdown, International Gateway, and Radical Restructuring.

2. Limit the Number of Scenarios You Create

There is a common mistake that undermines the power of the scenario approach. It’s very understandable—once you go to the trouble of holding the scenario workshop or adopting a powerful scenario planning tool, why not analyze as many scenarios as possible? The problem is people have trouble keeping track of more than roughly seven distinct ideas in working memory. Your huge matrix of scenarios may be a marvel of analytical rigor, but it is likely to glaze the eyes of decision makers who find it overwhelming. Instead, cognitive theories suggest that four to seven scenarios may be ideal. That’s enough to highlight the range of possible futures, but not too many to be confusing. Many projects create three, but that tends to encourage the audience to understand them as simply different degrees of one dimension, when most scenarios are defined by more than one dimension. For example, Vibrant NEO in the Cleveland, Ohio, region considered both urban form as well as regional growth to create four regional scenarios: Trend, Grow the Same, Do Things Differently, and Grow Differently.

3. Make Your Scenarios Plausible

This is perhaps one of the trickiest issues in scenario planning theory. I believe all scenarios should be plausible, meaning they really could occur, even if the expected likelihood is small. This is a critical distinction from utopian planning, which is much less concerned with real-world plausibility. This does not mean a good set of scenarios should play it safe and remain confined to, say, a range of options currently accepted in local policy debates. To the contrary, effective scenarios are often constructed to specifically illustrate futures that are quite different from today, in order to broaden our understanding of what could happen. But sometimes scenarios make implausible assumptions; for example, modeling all growth for a city or region as occurring within transit oriented development (TOD). The defense of this type of scenario is that it is just a “what if” exercise. But it is implausible that no growth could occur anywhere else, even if there is a strong shift toward TOD.

Although such an extreme scenario might be interesting for the analyst, it will likely be immediately dismissed by stakeholders who hold real power. The effect of implausible scenarios is to give the impression that scenario planning is an irrelevant academic exercise that has no place in decision-making. The best scenarios, therefore, balance potential dramatic change with plausibility.

4. Focus on the Issues, Not the Tools

Plenty of planning organizations have caught the scenario bug, and then immediately asked their technical modelers to create—or write an RFP for—a new tool they “need” to create scenarios. Focusing on the digital tools first puts the cart before the horse, since there is a diverse array of technical approaches to modeling scenarios. Agencies that work on tools without figuring out the substantive focus of their scenarios often end up with tools that don’t answer the right questions. My book’s chapter on digital tools reviews a wide range of models that can be used for scenarios, stressing the importance of fitting them to the project, not the other way around. Equating scenario planning with the tools can shift the focus away from the underlying conceptual approach of scenario planning, which is often quite different than conventional forecast- or vision-led approaches known by the agency’s staff. Effective scenario planning exercises begin with a focus on the issues and scope of the project, then move on to decide on the suite of tools needed to bring it to life.

5. Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate

Although planning professionals generally understand the ethical and practical importance of participation, they can be tempted to avoid the real work it takes to truly collaborate. The truth is, most agencies can “check the box” of participation without allowing much substantive input into their projects. The problem with this approach is that it undercuts the potential power of the scenario method. As I argue in the book, the aim of planning is not simply to generate analytically rigorous and visually arresting plans, but to actually impact decision-making. To do that, the diverse stakeholders who hold power to shape the city must be meaningfully engaged in the project, and be provided with opportunities to shape the scenarios and learn from the results. After all, creating the right number of well-named, plausible, and appropriately modeled scenarios is not enough to make an impact if the key decision makers are not at the table all the way along.



Robert Goodspeed is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He teaches and conducts research in the areas of collaborative planning, urban informatics, and scenario planning theory and methods. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and serves as a board member of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s Consortium for Scenario Planning.

Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Goodspeed.