Scenario Planning

Scenario planning is a process that can help planners, public officials, and private citizens prepare for what lies ahead. It provides a framework for developing a shared vision for the future by analyzing various forces (e.g., health, transportation, livability, economic, environmental, land use, etc.) that affect a community’s future. The technique was originally used by private industry to anticipate future business conditions and better manage risk.

The hallmark of scenario planning is identifying community characteristics as variables that will affect the community’s future. Variables that might be considered demographic, economic, land use, political, and environmental trends. Considering and analyzing alternative possibilities for each variable helps stakeholders understand how a state, community, region, or study area might look and function in the future.
Scenario planning creates guiding principles for future potential conditions. These principles become a basis for creating scenarios. Stakeholders, including the public, compare scenarios using either qualitative or quantitative methods. The ultimate outcome is a shared future vision that provides a framework for transportation priorities, goals, recommendations, and investments. Through comparing scenarios and discussing their possible outcomes, the technique helps participants identify and challenge assumptions about the future, discuss trade-offs, and make better decisions.

Scenario planning is a flexible approach that can be used in areas of fast, slow, or declining growth to address questions related to quality of life, urban form, transportation infrastructure, and financial resource management. The technique has been used at a range of geographic scales (including at the nationwide, statewide, regional, community, and corridor-specific levels. Public involvement is a critical component in using the technique.

Scenario planning may involve aspects of systems thinking, specifically the recognition that many factors may combine in complex ways to create sometime surprising futures (due to non-linear feedback loops). The method also allows the inclusion of factors that are difficult to formalize, such as novel insights about the future, deep shifts in values, unprecedented regulations or inventions. Systems thinking used in conjunction with scenario planning leads to plausible scenario story lines because the causal relationship between factors can be demonstrated. In these cases when scenario planning is integrated with a systems thinking approach to scenario development, it is sometimes referred to as structural dynamics.

More recently in geospatial domain, scenario planning has been applied in the areas of strategic land use and transportation planning, often involving evaluating the impact of some policy choices on future scenarios (alternative futures). Scenarios are often created by combining a subset of factors such as known trends and variations of outcome of uncertain factors (due to the adoption of different policies), and the causal relations over time among these factors. The scenarios can then be evaluated against a set of criteria, revealing positive or negative impact of these policies, as well as the extent of their impact. One may go one step further to choose a desired future from the set of alternative futures. In this sense, scenario planning can be used to help more robust strategic choices (Steinitz et al. 2003, Zegras et al. 2004, FHWA 2010). Note that this use of scenario planning departs from the original purpose of the scenario planning (as developed by Rand), where highly probable scenarios were generated so that managers could design their flexible strategic plan to cover all these future scenarios.

Scenario planning is not a replacement for traditional planning process, instead it can be used in combination with traditional planning process. Often it becomes a preliminary step to produce a shared vision or guiding principles that later become a framework for the plan produced by the traditional planning process. It can also be used in advance of long-range planning to develop an understanding of the need for change or highlight the importance of specific issues in traditional planning process (FHWA 2010).


scenario-based planning; scenario thinking; scenario analysis

Source Of Description (External Link) (No Longer Available)

Schoemaker 1995

Steinitz et al. 2003

Zegras et al. 2004

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Impact Assessment

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Regional Planning

Transportation Planning

Urban Planning

Process Phases

Step 1 - Identify Scope And Engage Stakeholders

Step 2 - Identify Assumptions And Drivers For Change

Step 3 - Identify Key Uncertainty Factors And Correlations

Step 4 - Construct Scenarios

Step 5 - Perform Impact Analysis On The Scenarios

Parent Categories

Planning And Spatial Decision Process Workflows



Scenario planning is a strategic planning method that some organizations use to make flexible long-term plans. It is in large part an adaptation and generalization of classic methods used by military intelligence.

The original method was that a group of analysts would generate simulation games for policy makers. The games combine known facts about the future, such as demographics, geography, military, political, industrial information, and mineral reserves, with plausible alternative social, technical, economic, environmental, educational, political and aesthetic trends which are key driving forces.

In business applications, the emphasis on gaming the behavior of opponents was reduced (shifting more toward a game against nature). Scenario planning was viewed as changing mindsets about the exogenous part of the world, prior to formulating specific strategies.

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