Scenario planning or thinking has an established and successful heritage, with deep roots in the development of decision-making. Carefully managed scenario building process can help organisations improve their decision-making processes, overcome problems of lock-in on business-as-usual thinking and become effective observors of change.

A useful typology of scenarios presents contrasts between the predictive (asking what will happen, short term), the explorative (asking what can happen, what is possible, longer term) and the normative (how can a vision or target be reached?).

It is important to be clear that scenarios are not predictions, nor desired visions. They are simply alternative stories of how the future might unfold: explorations that gather information about divergent trends and potential developments into new narratives about how these parts of the future might work together. Jointly crafting scenarios, as images of the future, allow exploration of both how elements of the future may be the same as today and where they may significantly change in areas of technological, social, economic, environmental and other developments.  It may not be more accurate about guessing the future in detail, but conversations will still help us make better decisions about the future, not least by alerting us in advance of more – and less – desirable directions. Scenarios help us to take account of different perspectives on issues and opportunities. One person or institution alone does not cause changes in society.  Models, Quantitative and Qualitative scenarios and stories create multiple views of the future helps us to understand how different individual and joint decisions, actions, and events can lead to alternative futures. We are not trying to determine what is going to happen; we are trying to understand what might happen in the longer term. Unlike forecasting, scenario planning embraces uncertainty. Where forecasts often assume that the world of tomorrow is a trend-projection of the world of today, scenarios can allow for sudden shifts in the environment.  Scenario planning is based on four assumptions18

The future is unlike the past, and is significantly shaped by human choice and action.  The future cannot be foreseen, but exploring the future can inform present decisions. There are many possible futures; scenarios therefore map within a ‘possibility space’. Scenario development involves both rational analysis and creative thinking.

Scenario approaches have been used internationally in different settings, with different specific aims, but they possess traits that distinguish them from more traditional forecasting approaches. Not only do they look further ahead, they also assess changes across many aspects of society. Users are encouraged to develop their own conclusions about possible futures, employing the scenarios as a starting point and then elaborating and evaluating them in ways that are  in tune with their specific interests, needs, cultural perspectives, etc. Good scenarios help us understand how key drivers, such as governance systems and resource availability, might interact and affect the future weight and momentum of change.  They sit between quantitative analysis that models trends and speculative, anecdotal approaches of telling stories about the imagined future.

Scenario planning differs from contingency planning, sensitivity analysis and computer simulations.

Contingency planning is a "What if" tool, that only takes into account one uncertainty. However, scenario planning considers combinations of uncertainties in each scenario. Planners also try to select especially plausible but uncomfortable combinations of social developments.

Sensitivity analysis analyzes changes in one variable only, which is useful for simple changes, while scenario planning tries to expose policy makers to significant interactions of major variables.

While scenario planning can benefit from computer simulations, scenario planning is less formalized, and can be used to make plans for qualitative patterns that show up in a wide variety of simulated events.


Scenario planning, also called scenario thinking or scenario analysis, is a strategic planning tool that organisations can use to asssit decision making and in developing flexible long-term plans.

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Associated Case Studies

  • Scenarios - Four NZ Futures

    The four scenarios are presented in this work are summarised below.

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  • Other Key Case Studies

    Waikato Scenarios


    Future currents: Electricity scenarios for New Zealand 2005-2050

    Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, New Zealand Government.  Published 2005 by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

    Future currents sketches two scenarios of New Zealand in 2015, 2030 and 2050 depending on today's energy choices. These scenarios are presented through the eyes of two fictional characters.

    Fuelling the future, the first scenario, is strongly shaped by established ways of thinking. Building big power projects is seen as the key to a secure electricity supply.

    The second scenario, Sparking new designs, sees huge potential in getting 'more from less' by re-thinking how we use electricity and other forms of energy. Businesses, communities and individuals are strongly encouraged to be innovative both in energy efficiency and in using more localised energy sources.

    Despite the use of fictional characters and scenarios, Future Currents is underpinned by rigorous research and is accompanied by a 42-page technical report.


    Future Maker or Future Taker: Scenarios for Tourism

    What will the world look like in 2050 and how will it shape the future of tourism in New Zealand? Victoria University has been leading a 3 year research programme, finishing in 2012, to construct long-term scenarios to help better understand possible futures for New Zealand tourism. The research looks at global trends and influences such as market shifts, international demographics and environmental changes.