Reflections from Wednesday session “Toward realistic, plausible, positive futures for the planet”.
Photo: Flickr: wagdi.co.uk
People have been telling stories to make sense of the world, and to guide its course, for Millennia. The world has always been complex, and a good narrative can weave elements, such as feedbacks, surprise, unintended consequences, system memory and our hopes and desires for future well-being in an ingestible way. Little surprise, then, that participatory scenarios has become one of SES researchers’ favourite tools for understanding how complex adaptive systems, from local to global scales, might change in unpredictable, surprising, desirable and undesirable ways, and what those potential changes might mean for the decisions we make today.
Now that participatory scenario research has become more mainstream, session organizer Jan Kuiper (Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stanford University) argues, the time is ripe for us to consolidate our efforts, take stock, and strategically plan the way forward. So in this navel-gazing session, presenters talked us through the details of four very different scenario development processes to reflect upon the usefulness of scenarios in SES research, the research needed to improve its practice, and to identify research frontiers.
With super-human poise in the face of first-speaker-of-the-conference-at-this-venue-tech-fail, Elena Bennett (McGill University) opened the floor to explain how, in the Seeds of the Good Anthropocene project, they developed scenarios from small, positive “seeds” of the future, already present in small measures today. These processes, she argues, can help engage stakeholders in conversations that can shift thinking towards futures that are more positive and radical, but still robust.
Anne Guerry (Natural Capital Project) weighed in with a more spatial, policy-centred example from Belize, explaining how a combination of participatory system mapping, ecosystem service modelling and scenario iterations engaged stakeholders in conversations that allowed them to move from imagination to analysis, ultimately yielding results that offered significant wins for people and planet.
Garry Peterson (Stockholm Resilience Centre) followed with a talk about scaling the “Seeds” processes for IPBES. He reflected on, among other things, the value of local scenario processes for promoting polycentricism and fostering complex adaptive thinking, and stressed the importance of scenario iterations. Like Elena, he spoke about the usefulness of the three horizons framework for identifying both the pathways that we want to grow, and those that will need to be disrupted.
Lastly, Ilse Geijzendorffer took us on a trip to the Mediterranean wetlands, making the case for positive, normative scenarios that integrate all elements of wetland use and function, to engage stakeholders to take action around wetland management.
As pointed out by panellist Hallie Eakin (Arizona State University), the use of positive scenarios to shift people away from dystopic thinking and what they might lose, rather than gain, was a key theme that emerged from many of the talks. This is not to say that we should ignore negative narratives without understanding the costs and benefits of either approach, as the other panellist Graeme Cumming (James Cook University) pointed out.
The importance of nuance and framing was another theme that crossed many talking points. We need the right tools for the right kind of scenarios, and guidance on how to use them, Garry Peterson argued. Additionally, others pointed out that we should be very clear about what the purpose of our processes is, and what are our agendas are, being particularly sensitive to favoured epistemologies and world views. This is not only important for making sure that we continue giving voices to the voiceless (if that is an objective), but is also essential in guiding our decisions of who should, and should not be in the room. A comment from Elena Bennett that resonated with me was that: scenario processes that offer an equal platform for everybody to speak do not necessarily promote equity, and can easily result in shouting matches.
Another big talking point, closely related to finding the right people to include in scenario processes, was scaling up the impacts of scenarios. How do we make sure that the few people engaged in our scenario processes are the ones who can leverage maximum impact? How do we include more people in scenario processes, and how do we disseminate scenarios beyond just the people involved? Elena Bennet alluded to the use of online gaming as a promising avenue. In general, I would have liked to hear more discussion around how technologies can help disseminate the experience of realistic, plausible futures to wider audiences (ie. VR, AR), and how that could have a large impact on how we use SES scenarios.
There were far too many discussion points, identified research needs, processes and frontiers identified to cover in this short reflection. However, the future of SES scenario research is an ongoing discussion that you can participate in, even if you were not at the session.
In the last talk of the session, Jan Kuiper introduced a “horizon scan,” which aims to collect key questions and research frontiers in participatory SES research. Following a Delphi process, a forecasting method, their team has already collected and synthesised questions from various experts. Now, here at PECS, they are launching the next phase of that process: getting you to vote on the most important ones. Please consider taking their survey here: https://goo.gl/VshWk8
I definitely plan to weigh in on Jan’s survey, but in the interim, I would also like to put on my futuristic hat here, and list five talks or sessions I would like to go and listen to at the next PECS conference:
Seeds of the bad Anthropocene. We know of all the big bad stuff that is happening, but how about the bad stuff that is not yet mainstream? What happens if they become the norm? What kind of dystopian futures could we imagine? Could some of these bad seeds be “turned” for good? (Inspired by Graeme Cumming)
Shrubs of the good Anthropocene (credit to Garry Peterson). How can (or has) scenario development helped to encourage the growth, cross-fertilisation and development of small positive initiatives?
Growing with grief: Dealing with the loss of the present for a better future. (This one courtesy of Hallie Eakin).
Measuring what hasn’t happened: A toolkit for assessing the future.
Living future worlds: how virtual reality and other immersive experiences of the future is changing who can participate in scenario research, and who can be impacted by it.
Arkema, K.K., Verutes, G.M., Wood, S.A., Clarke-Samuels, C., Rosado, S., Canto, M., Rosenthal, A., Ruckelshaus, M., Guannel, G., Toft, J. and Faries, J., 2015. Embedding ecosystem services in coastal planning leads to better outcomes for people and nature. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(24), pp.7390-7395.
Oteros-Rozas, E., Ravera, F. and Palomo, I., 2015. Participatory scenario planning in place-based social-ecological research: insights and experiences from 23 case studies. Ecology and Society.
Sharpe, B., Hodgson, A., Leicester, G., Lyon, A. and Fazey, I., 2016. Three horizons: a pathways practice for transformation. Ecology and Society, 21(2).
Bennett, E.M., Solan, M., Biggs, R., McPhearson, T., Norström, A.V., Olsson, P., Pereira, L., Peterson, G.D., Raudsepp‐Hearne, C., Biermann, F. and Carpenter, S.R., 2016. Bright spots: seeds of a good Anthropocene. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 14(8), pp.441-448.
I’m a lecturer in Environmental Science at Rhodes University, South Africa. I started off my career as a behavioral-ecologist researching seal-shark interactions. These days, however, I’m mostly focused on protected area systems, thinking about questions related to scale, ecosystem service flows, and (spatial) resilience. I’m increasingly interested in thinking about the protected area (networks) of the future, and all the tricky and complex questions related to protected area benefits to society. As an educator, I’ve also been thinking about methods used to understand social-ecological systems. I’m not averse to a good dollop of technology with my research, and am, as a general rule, easily fascinated.
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II CONFERENCE OF THE PROGRAMME ON ECOSYSTEM CHANGE AND SOCIETY