Strengthening the links between scenario planning and decision making is the driver behind the latest paper by an international team of researchers, including UNSW Canberra academic, Dr Sondoss Elsawah. 

Dr Elsawah said the research, published this month, is about how we can improve the way we think about the future and integrate future thinking into policy analysis.

“Developing future scenarios is a useful way of guiding the way we think creatively about the future uncertainties, and more importantly, actionable strategies to deal with these uncertainties. Scenario thinking is underpinned by the fundamental idea that we cannot predict the future, but we still could prepare for these uncertainties,” she said.

In a year full of uncertainties, Dr Elsawah’s work is as important as ever.

“We are now challenged with uncertainty about the future. Scenarios are not new to the way humans think, we use scenarios in our everyday life to plan our days and weeks. However, when it comes to long-term planning in decisions, in a context characterised by complexity, uncertainty, and plurality of views, we cannot simply rely on our intuitive scenarios,” Dr Elsawah said.

“We need a systematic process to guide our thinking. Scenario planning is a promising collaborative approach to broaden and deepen our thinking about the future and thereby for improving planning and decision making. 

“Currently, there is a lack of scenario use in decision making and public policy. Through this research our team took an inward look at the state-of-the-art scenario use for socio-environmental systems analysis with the intent of identifying research gaps to strengthen the research and practice of scenario analysis for supporting decision making.”

Socio-environmental systems is a scientific systems paradigm motivated by the fundamental need to understand complex problems arising from the interactions among human (for example, social, economic) and environmental (for example,  biophysical and ecological) systems.

“The primary line of inquiry focuses on the core challenges facing most scenario exercises that relate to both the process of scenario development and use, and the products themselves,” Dr Elsawah said.

Australia’s priority issues such as water scarcity, natural resource degradation, and growing cities are all examples of issues that could be investigated from a socio-environmental perspective.

“We need to form a better understanding on using scenarios to drive organisational and behavioural change, including ways to mobilise social media and online platforms. This is an area where social and behavioural science could significantly contribute,” said Dr El Sawah.

“For example, a social science research agenda is required for investigating research questions around the opportunities and barriers for the institutionalisation of scenario planning in public policy. In this situation we would ask ‘How do institutions see the value of scenarios? What is needed for scenario information to provoke action?’

According to Dr Elsawah, some of the current challenges in this way of thinking are the engagement of divergent views, the methods of knowing, and the scientific methods used to translate knowledge into useful scenarios.

“Scenario planning is thinking about the future, and this is shaped primarily by cultural background. Scenario development is dominated by Western science. There is also clear lack of traditional and Indigenous knowledge sources when building scenarios and this needs to change,” she said.

“Scenario planning is an interdisciplinary research area, but there is still more that needs to happen to explore and build interfaces with other scientific field. For example, what role does cognition and emotion play in scenario development?  How could surprises and creative thinking be incorporated into scenarios so we can develop genuinely novel scenarios that stretch our thinking beyond conventional thoughts?”

Dr Elsawah knows there still a way to go to advance the science and practice of scenario planning. From an educational perspective, we need to build the capacity of our students and future leaders to navigate uncertainty using foresight and scenario planning. This is the long but most fruitful pathway.

Scenario processes for socio-environmental systems analysis of futures: A review of recent efforts and a salient research agenda for supporting decision making was published this month in Science of The Total Environment.