Scenario building to understand complex systems

Cailin Huyck Orr
School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Washington State University
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Initial Publication Date: April 12, 2010


Scenario building is a method of understanding and planning for outcomes of an uncertain future. It was initially developed by oil companies and was further developed during the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. In essence, it is a method for envisioning possible futures for complex systems to understand major drivers of future change.

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Variations on a theme of scenario building could be used in classes of different levels. It could be used as a brainstorming exercise, or as an in-depth numerical modeling lab stretched over several weeks.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Non-linearity, feedbacks, the general concept of a system model (conceptual/mathematical), uncertainty, adaptive planning

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity could be used as a culminating project, as a stand-alone exercise,or as part of a sequence of exercises depending on how extensively the modeling component was developed.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

To help illustrate for students an approach for bounding the possible future states of a complex system when there is high uncertainty. To determine what parameters the system is most sensitive to.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Other skills goals for this activity

Scenario development can be adapted to include skills such as conceptual or mathematical model building, consensus building, or community capacity building.

Description of the activity/assignment

"A scenario is a plausible, simplified, synthetic description of how the future of a system might develop, based on a coherent and internally consistent set of assumptions about key driving forces and relationships among key variables" (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Building scenarios that envision a (or a set of) possible future, promotes learning about what drivers are most important in driving change in a system.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students are able to envision future scenarios, describe how likely or unlikely they are, articulate what drivers would lead to each scenario and the uncertainty associated with those drivers.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Shell group

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Scenarios Group

Resilience Alliance

Northern Highland Lake District Scenarios

Peterson, G. D., T. D. Beard Jr., B. E. Beisner, E. M. Bennett, S. R. Carpenter, G. S. Cumming, C. L. Dent, and T. D. Havlicek. 2003. Assessing future ecosystem services: a case study of the Northern Highlands Lake District, Wisconsin. Conservation Ecology 7(3): 1