3.2. Scenario building

3.2. Scenario building
3.2. Scenario building logo

The scenario method is likely one of the principle concepts and most widely used methods in Foresight. The term scenario was introduced by Herman Kahn in the 1950s in connection with military and strategic studies conducted by the Rand Corporation. Kahn used the term for issues related to US public policy, international development and defence. Shell was a pioneering company in the area of scenario building in 1970s and became the benchmark for corporate scenario planning. Shell’s scenario planning enabled it to anticipate the rise and subsequent fall of oil process in 1973.

Scenario building is an exploratory activity for widening the perspective of the involved parties to identify, interpret and anticipate upcoming issues. It can assist them in preparing for potentially surprising developments, stimulating dialogue and forging a common vision. Scenario building fosters future-orientation and creativity.

Based on RIS3 mapping exercise (Task 1.2.) scenario building is a common method for RIS3 development (31% of studied 30 regions have utilized it). Scenario building in RIS3 supports the partners in identifying opportunities and risks related to the different scenarios, and in planning preparatory actions to realize the opportunities and minimize the risks.

Description of the method

A scenario is a “story” illustrating visions of a possible future or aspects of a possible future. Scenarios are not predictions of the future but rather similar to simulations of some possible futures. They are used both as an exploratory method or as a tool for decision-making, mainly to highlight the discontinuities from the present. They can also reveal the choices available and their potential consequences.

Scenario building starts with determining the scope for work. Which specific question is addressed? What is the time horizon? Who are key stakeholders in the exercise? A relevant question for RIS3 strategy development building is “How the region/nation will develop during the next 20-30 years.” It is important to project far enough into the future. Although it is challenging to project that far into the future, the long perspective also gives freedom for thought in scenario building, as basically anything can happen in that long time frame. Typically, the stakeholders in RIS3 development consist of regional quadruple helix partners, possibly also a few key experts outside the region.

The scenario work is typically organized as a one-day workshop. It is also possible to organize it through an online tool. The work starts with the identification of key trends and uncertainties in the environment. It is also wise to collect this data prior to the workshop, either through desk research or expert surveys as suggested in step 3.1. Delphi-Foresight. This is to ensure that different sources of trends and uncertainty are sufficiently covered, and also to enable the workshop to focus on forming views on scenario implications, which is an important part of scenario building in the context of RIS3.

In order to focus the workshop on determining scenario implications, it is wise to form the scenarios prior to the workshop as suggested in step 3.1. Delpi-Foresight.

Once the scenarios have been selected, they must be described and developed, which is also useful to do prior to workshop. There are five useful criteria that can help in describing the scenarios:

  • Plausibility: The selected scenarios must be plausible, this means that they must fall within the limits of what might conceivably happen.
  • Differentiation: They should be structurally different, meaning that they should not be so close to one another as to simply become variations of a base case.
  • Consistency: They must be internally consistent. The combination of logics in a scenario must not have any built-in inconsistency that would undermine the credibility of the scenario.
  • Decision making utility: Each scenario, and all scenarios as a set, should contribute specific insights into the future that will allow for the decision focus that was selected.
  • Challenge: The scenarios should challenge conventional wisdom about the future.

There are many ways to develop scenarios. Typically, the elaboration consists of the development of the following features:

  1. A highly descriptive title: short enough to be memorable, descriptive enough to be transmitting the essence of what is happening in the scenario.
  2. Compelling ‘story-lines’: scenarios are narratives of how events might unfold between now and the selected time-horizon. In simple terms the scenario should tell a story that is remarkable, convincing, logical, and plausible.
  3. A table of comparative descriptions: This provides planners and decision makers with a sort of ‘line item’ description that details what might happen to each key trend or factor in each scenario. This is to encourage returning to the list of key drivers to ensure their inclusion. As such, the table provides the back-up material that gives the scenarios their nuances and texture.

Finally, as scenarios are ready it is time to begin turning the scenarios into strategy. This would be taken as the topic of the workshop or online participatory tool. The scenarios are then analyzed in detail through asking the following RIS3 related questions:

  1. What strengths and weaknesses the region has in each scenario?
  2. What are the opportunities and threats for the region in different scenarios?
  3. What options do the scenarios suggest for the region?
  4. What strategies and actions should the region take to realise the opportunities and to minimize the risks present? Which actions are beneficial independent of scenarios?

Scenario building provides the regional partners with increased understanding of the different alternatives for future development and what implications these have for the region. As a concrete result, the regional partners have built a common plan how together to prepare for the future. This plan should be referred and taken into use also in the later stages of RIS3 development in priority setting, action plan implementation and monitoring and evaluation.

Usability and impact

The scenario building method has the potential to increase the quality of RIS3 strategies as it fosters future-oriented thinking and creativity, and supports the development of shared plans for future preparation. It also provides a framework for development and reflection of regional strategies. It helps in monitoring environmental development and to reflect related consequences to regional strategies.

Required data

Required data for scenario building:

  • List of key trends and uncertainties influencing the future development of the region/nation
  • Ranking of trends and uncertainties based on their level of importance and their level uncertainty (scale: high-medium-low)
  • Analyses of scenarios, selection of most likely scenario and the development of related strategies, priorities and actions

Key trends and uncertainties can be collected partly prior to workshop through desk research or Delphi-Foresight survey. Ranking and assessment of them can be done through Delphi-Foresight survey. Forming the scenarios, describing and elaborating on them based on the Delphi-Foresight results can be done by members of regional council or other RIS3 facilitators. The workshop can be then focused on analysing scenarios and their implications for RIS3, and on developing a shared plan for future preparation.

Alternatively, all the required data may be collected through an online platform involving a Delphi survey to collect it from experts, and a collective assessment of it. The online platform stores this information in an online database and would provide basic analytical tools to both analyse the trend data, and build scenarios based on it. Thereafter, the collaborative online tool could be used to draw conclusions on scenarios and to develop the shared plan for future preparation.

Relevant data sources

Trend data:

Data about uncertainties:

  • Wild cards and weak signals (iKnow database), http://wiwe.iknowfutures.eu/

The iKnow platform is particularly useful at addressing issues that have often remained off the policy radar and, so far, have received little attention in forward-looking activities: the identification and analysis of Wild Cards and Weak Signals (WI-WE) and their effects on European and global science, technology and innovation (STI) policy.

  1. Wild Cards are issues that can potentially shape our future.
  2. Weak Signals relate to issues that are currently shaping it

Online forms to develop surveys:

Implementation roadmap
  • Determine the scope of scenario work e.g., the development of the nation/region in the following 20-30 years.
  • Determine the scope of scenario work e.g., the development of the nation/region in the following 20-30 years.
  • Assess the uncertainties based on the Delphi expert survey
  • Formulate scenarios based on the input from step 3. Describe and develop the scenarios to provide the necessary input for understanding them properly.
  • Prepare for a scenario workshop or use an online collaborative tool for identifying scenario implications and forming a plan for future preparation. The online collaborative can be used to collect the required inputs and views from stakeholders
  • Write down the results from the workshop or the online collaborative scenario tool
  • Incorporate the results to RIS3 work.



  • Raford, N. 2015. Online foresight platforms: Evidence for their impact on scenario planning & strategic foresight. Technological forecasting & social change, 97, pp. 65-76.