Scenario Development: A Typology of Approaches


Download article (.pdf) | By Philip van Notten | Published in Think Scenarios, Rethink Education, 2006


Philip van Notten makes a classification of scenario methods based on contemporary scenario practices. He draws on some 100 studies of scenario applications carried out since the mid-1980s by institutions and private businesses in a wide cross-section of sectors such as in environment, energy, transport, technology. He illustrates the variety of today's scenario development approaches, and seeks to identify common characteristics and prerequisites for successful scenario work.


In general terms, he defines "scenarios" as: "consistent and coherent descriptions of alternative hypothetical futures that reflect different perspectives  on past, present, and future developments, which can serve as a basis for action". - The typology that he proposes to define scenario methods is divided into three broad "macro" categories:

  • The "why" to help define the goals of scenario studies: Exploration or pre-policy research?
  • The "how" to help define the design of scenario process: Intuitive or analytical?
  • The "what" to help define the content of scenarios: Complex or simple?


These broad categories are refined by ten "micro" sets of characteristics proposing opposition poles in possible approaches across goals, process and content such as:  process-oriented/product-oriented, qualitative/qualitative, descriptive/normative, inclusive/exclusive, just to mention some.


Due to the large number of possible combinations, this typology framework makes it feasible to define, compare and distinguish large numbers of characteristics in scenario work both in terms of contexts, approaches, and outputs. Philip van Notten provides numerous examples to explain and illustrate this and how methods can be adapted to fit different tasks.


This framework makes it feasible to define, compare and distinguish large numbers of contexts, approaches, and outputs in scenario work.  Philip van Notten explains each notion used in his typology with explanatory examples to illustrate them in practice and how methods can be adapted to fit different tasks.


He addresses the pitfalls that are linked to this flexibility of scenarios: He notably warns against using them as a “Swiss pocket knife of multiple uses” to make beautiful “cosmetic scenarios” as a way of adding legitimacy to, for instance, policy-making exercises. Such scenarios might look good, but they lack in content, and are often the results of closed scenario practitioners’ communities. He therefore draws attention to the importance of including a wide cross-section of participants and fostering “cultures of curiosity” as prerequisites for creating environments of imaginative thinking and thus meaningful scenario exercises that venture beyond the boundaries of what is already known and assumed.


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