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Participatory futures thinking in the African context of sustainability challenges and socio-environmental change

Emma Li Johansson, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS)


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Futures thinking is a key competency in sustainability studies, and the field is currently experiencing a strong surge in participatory scenario development and visioning approaches. Sub-Saharan Africa has a particularly long history of participatory approaches to development; however, the same participatory approaches have often faced critique for lacking the potential to stimulate empowerment and social change. To explore these contradictions, I systematically review the use of participatory scenario development and visioning in sustainability and socio-environmental change research in the region between 2011 and 2021. The analysis is structured around three key questions: Who participates, in what, and for whose benefit? Of the 23 reviewed studies, most focused on exploratory scenarios and aimed to understand trade-offs and future risks to identify sustainable pathways to alternative futures. Fewer scenarios were normative and aimed to imagine futures beyond current societal structures and values, and thereby radically challenge the status quo (e.g., business as usual, current socioeconomic systems) by including solutions to power imbalances and injustice. Most scenario development processes engaged a wide range of participants (in terms of power and agency) because this strategy was meant to facilitate knowledge co-production and understanding between (sometimes) conflicting stakeholders. In the end, most scenario development processes strived for consensus and compromise regarding which futures were wanted and which futures were to be avoided. Based on this review, I challenge what is often considered “best practice” in sustainability discussions by raising some limitations of mixing a wide range of stakeholders in the futures thinking process. Although such mixing is considered to enhance mutual understanding and conflict resolution, it might also limit the potential to stimulate radically different futures that would benefit the vulnerable and marginalized through challenging the status quo. My findings provide guidance for researchers and other actors who intend to use or develop methods for exploring innovative solutions for more just and sustainable futures in different areas and contexts of sustainable development.

Key words

justice; social change; stakeholder participation; sustainable futures; transformation; visions

Copyright © 2021 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087