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Participatory scenario planning in times of uncertainty: five key lessons

Written by Tiina Pasanen

Trying to get to grips with uncertainty feels more important than ever.

We can’t know or predict for certain all the possible mid- and long-term consequences Covid-19 will have globally and in our societies, organisations or (global development) programmes and projects. However, we can explore and prepare for alternative futures. For programmes, this means both reacting to what is happening at this moment but also preparing for different future scenarios.

This is of course what many organisations and teams have been doing during Covid-19 – and even before the outbreak – in particular, adaptive programmes. These programmes are designed to adjust their strategies and activities based on (new) evidence of what is and isn’t working, as well as to respond to external changes. But how can we build scenarios remotely and in a participatory manner, involving a range of people and perspectives to get a more holistic understanding of the situation and what may happen?

Although there are many ways to do this, such as workshops and webinars, we trialed an online tool called ParEvo which has been developed by Rick Davies. We had discussed how to test it before Covid-19 hit the UK (which feels like a lifetime ago). When it did, it felt more urgent than ever to understand whether this type of exercise could support not only ODI, but also our partners.

Our pilot exercise – five things we learnt

Our pilot exercise explored the intersectional threats of Covid-19, conflict and climate change, and what role digital technologies could potentially play in tackling these.

Here are five things we learnt about constructing participatory scenarios that could be useful for other organisations and programmes.

1. It is important to get the parameters, boundaries and framing ‘right’

This is essential though not necessarily easy, especially at first attempt. ‘Right’ means that the issue and framing needs to be aligned with a group’s interests, needs and knowledge while encouraging sufficient depth of exploration.

The exercise supports a transdisciplinary way of working, and having participants with different backgrounds, interests and expertise allows for a more holistic take on the topic. However, there needs to be some common ground too to ensure that the exercise is relevant and produces meaningful results for the participants.

On top of this, there are a lot of other details to think through. For example, there is the timing, frequency and length of contributions, how the exercise is facilitated, and the ‘length’ of future explored (e.g. the next few months or five years). All of these affect how the exercise plays out.

2. Consider the uptake and use from the start

Like with any planning or evaluation exercise, it’s important to think about how the results will be used, how they will help the programme to prepare for the future and who is ‘in charge’ of taking them forward. The ParEvo tool has a built-in evaluation stage to support the start of the content analysis, but it’s up to the organisers and participants to take it further. This can include exploring questions such as which storylines to pay attention to, which are most desirable or relevant, how to monitor which storylines are unfolding, and what it all means for our organisations, partners and/or programmes. More options and ideas for the use of results can be found here.

3. Anonymity of contributions mitigates against group biases

While in-person scenario building workshops allow for real-time brainstorming, they are also an auspicious ground for cognitive biases, heuristics and power dynamics. Dominant people tend to get more airtime and can sway the discussion in certain directions. The same can happen between partners based in different organisations or countries. All contributions in ParEvo are anonymous, which mitigates against typical group biases.

4. Be realistic with time commitments

Like any participatory approach, it takes a long time to design and build something collaboratively. It can take a few rounds to get into the habit of writing short paragraphs to extend storylines. The more people and rounds there are, the longer it will take to go through storylines and decide which ones to build on.

In our pilot, many struggled with the time allowance. Our schedule of one contribution per day didn’t perhaps allow enough time for reflection or additional research if one wanted.

5. Low Wi-Fi tech solutions encourage inclusivity

While all our participants were based in Europe with strong internet connection, this may not always be the case. There have been calls for low Wi-Fi solutions to ensure that partners in places with unreliable connectivity can participate too. Tools like ParEvo that don’t require people to be online at the same time (as long as they write their contributions within the agreed timeframe) can help.

What's next?

Overall, the exercise worked well for us and we are already using the tool again to support our internal organisational thinking and preparedness for the upcoming years. This time we made sure to bring in different perspectives more strongly. In other projects, we may also explore assigning different ‘roles’ or ‘voices’ for participants, or create small groups to engage more people. For example, someone playing the role of a donor (if their attendance themselves is not possible) to ensure their concerns are included too.

In the end, like with any other tool, it doesn’t work in every situation for everyone and it is up to participants how they use it. However, if the exercise is well designed with motivated participants, tools like this can strongly support a transdisciplinary way of working and bring in different perspectives and considerations in a structured manner. This in turn can help programmes and teams to expand their thinking of what may happen and then keep these alternative scenarios on their radar as the future unfolds.