‘Exploratory scenarios (also known as ‘descriptive scenarios’) that examine a range of plausible futures, based on potential trajectories of drivers – either indirect (e.g., socio-political, economic and technological factors) or direct (e.g., habitat conversion and climate change) – can contribute significantly to high-level problem identification and agenda setting. They are particularly relevant in the agenda-setting stage of the policy cycle where the scale, relevant stakeholders and problem specificities are first addressed as the problem is brought to public attention.

Exploratory scenarios can illuminate the discourse on the specific problems to be addressed by society in the presence of limited resources, by illustrating various potential futures starting from the current point in time. They typically have both strong qualitative and quantitative components and are often combined with participatory approaches involving local and regional stakeholders.

Benefits of exploratory scenarios include:

  • flexibility to construct storylines (conducive to greater creativity),
  • coverage over a wide range of outcomes, and
  • their application to problem areas where specific policy responses have yet to be formulated or the nature of the problem remains unclear.

Figure SPM 2: Exploratory scenarios illustrated by a graph of changes in nature and nature’s benefits over time. The dashed lines represent different plausible futures, often based on storylines.

Table 3.1: Combining scenario approaches and policy objectives (in the context of exploratory scenarios).

Approaches for using scenarios

Brief summary

Relevance for policy making processes

Role of indirect and direct drivers

EXPLORING alternative futures by using exploratory (descriptive) scenarios

Based on plausible alternative futures built on extrapolations of past trends and new assumptions

Creates awareness of future policy challenges and agenda setting. Assumes the absence of explicit policy intervention

Projections of indirect drivers and their effects on direct drivers

Examples of assessments which have used exploratory scenarios:

  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
  • Global Environmental Outlook (GEO)
  • OpenNESS
  • United Kingdom National Ecosystem Assessment