How participatory scenario thinking (PST) can shape the future

The key driver for organisations and urban spaces is to be vital. This is becoming increasingly important in today's complex and uncertain world. Unfortunately, teaching is a very ineffective way to communicate information. Sometimes changing rules can accelerate learning. A very effective learning approach is developing scenario's.

An inspiring approach is Participatory Scenario Thinking (PST). The approach can be summarised as 'the world is complex, the future is uncertain, yet we must act'. We cannot predict the future, we can imagine what it might hold, we can shape the future. PST attempts to reconcile this paradox by providing a set of possible futures which can be used to test ideas and make future decions. Scenarios are explicitly not predictions - they are stories of possible outcomes. The 'real' future will likely contain elements of all the scenarios developed, but it is also possible that one of the scenarios will more closely picture the 'real' future than the other scenarios.

Developing scenarios is both an art and a science. There is an approach that can be used to structure the process, but good scenario thinking also requires dialogue, creativity and imagination. It needs the willingness of the 'shapers' to think about the future in diverse ways. The objective is not to come up with a final image of what the future will look like, the objective is come up with a set of stories of how the future might look. These will support in choosing better courses of action and spurring collective action. The Participatory Scenario Thinking (PST) is a powerful approach which can be used in the development of organisations and urban places. However, developing scenario's is an intensive process. It requires a mix of analyses (reading, thinking, research) and creativity (imagination, storytelling and dialogue). A sharp focus on the desired outcomes is needed during the approach.

PST is rooted in complexity theory and based on the following principles:

  • offer an effective learning journey (online change platform) that is sketching 'what-if' scenarios
  • organise a form of gameplay in which different perspectives are key to a structured dialogue
  • challenge peoples' mental models to allow them to reflect on looming changes in their changing environment
  • legitimise a dialogue, challenge conventional wisdom and initiate widespread discussion
  • visualise large-scale driving forces that will be recognised if they happen in the future
  • design innovative business-models and courses-of-action to take better decisions
  • create the conditions for real transformation,

by Rik Berbé
Rik is co-founder of GloComNet and a practitioner in the field of organisational and urban development.