The Historical Evolution of Scenarios as a Policy Influencing Tool

In this overview we briefly describe the evolution of scenarios in decision making, highlighting the particular role they played in certain policy formulation venues. Utopia by Thomas More (1516) offers a very early example of a visionary scenario, aimed at stimulating social change in Renaissance society (More 2012). By contrast, Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was based on a statistical analysis of trends and warned that limitations in agricultural productivity would halt population growth. Other types of 'frightening' scenarios have been published in more recent decades (for example, on climate change or resource scarcity), and were intended to provoke action to address risks.

Are futures studies, we might ask, science, fiction, or science-fiction? The future cannot be tested empirically because there are no data. In his article The Discovery of the Future, H.G. Wells was the first to discuss the possibilities of exploring the future as a scientific activity (Wells 1913). Later on, techniques and methods were developed that systematically included the future in policy strategies and planning. Although science-fiction literature, futuristic 'megatrends' or mystical prophecies can be a source of inspiration for policymakers, in this chapter we have focused on scenarios developed by scientists.

Futures studies nowadays closely relate to 'strategic planning', which aims at meeting a certain goal and choosing the required means, depending on the (possible) circumstances and reactions from other parties. Originally, strategic planning had a military meaning, inspired by 2400-year old lessons on the 'art-of-war' (Sun Tzu 400BC), but later on was also used by private companies. In the private sector, Royal Dutch Shell first developed scenarios in the 1970s to prepare for the impact of sudden changes in oil prices. Pierre Wack acknowledged that uncertainties and potential discontinuities made traditional surprise-free forecasts less useful and introduced the development of alternative scenarios (Wack 1985).

The US military think tank RAND first used scenarios in the 1940s for strategic planning. After the Second World War, the RAND corporation became a leading institute for technologically oriented futures studies. RAND's Herman Kahn was one of the lead authors of The Year 2000 (Haydon 1967), an optimistic study about the possibility of political control and technological and societal progress. In sharp contrast, the Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome, produced by the System Dynamics Group of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (Meadows et al. 1972), presented (in Malthusian style) political challenges including resource scarcity and pollution of the atmosphere that remain important. Several countries started to develop economic forecasts after the Second World War to optimize economic policies and to assess the need for infrastructural investments. Some, including the Netherlands and Belgium, institutionalized this activity in Central Planning Bureaus.

In the more recent past, the range of topics covered by futures studies has widened, from national security and technology development, to social and environmental policies. In some European countries, futures studies are common practice in government institutes, with the UK's Foresight Horizon Scanning Centre (and formerly the Central Policy Review Staff), and the Netherlands' economic, social and environmental planning offices providing prominent examples. In international policy venues, futures studies have become especially indispensable. The celebrated Brundtland report, for example, set out an influential vision in Our Common Future (WCED 1987). Since the 1980s, the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution has used cost-minimized policy scenarios as a starting point for policy negotiations, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change derived political greenhouse gas reduction targets from the scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Swart et al. 2004; Robinson et al. 1996). The OECD has been involved in futures studies since the 1970s. In 1979 it published the Tnterfutures' report Facing the Future: Mastering the Probable and Managing the Unpredictable. More recently, the OECD (2013) started a web-based knowledge bank for futures studies.

The relevance of future studies for European policy formulation is shown by the institutionalization of foresight activities. For example, in 1989 European Commission president Jacques Delors established a Forward Studies Unit as a think tank to evaluate European integration on the basis of long-term prospects and structural tendencies. This interdisciplinary unit is now known as the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (ВЕРА). A Forward-Looking Information and Scenarios (FLIS) working group was created in 2010 by the European Environment Agency Strategic Futures group as part of EIONET (European Environment Information and Observation Network) to share the latest developments between their members (for example, tools for visions building, environmental goal setting).

The next section explores issues of use by investigating a selection of environmental, economic and spatial planning scenarios that were used by policy formulators. We describe why particular scenarios were developed, how they were applied in combination with other policy formulation tools, and what the impact was on policy decisions. We focus on one international experience (the abatement of air pollution), and a national one in the Netherlands. The chosen cases offer examples of policy formulation venues where 'official' (government sanctioned) scenarios were developed 'externally' by experts (and not 'internally' by policymakers). We conclude with lessons learned and recommendations for forthcoming scenario development as a policy formulation tool.

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