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Participatory scenario planning and framing of social-ecological systems: an analysis of policy formulation processes in Rwanda and Tanzania

Lucas Rutting, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University
Joost M. Vervoort, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University; Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford; Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto
Heleen Mees, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University
Peter P. J. Driessen, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University


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Governance of social-ecological systems (SES) involves multiple stakeholders with different perspectives on the system and associated problems, and different ways to value and use the system. This has implications for decision making because this diversity of interests and framings may cause conflicts between stakeholders and/or marginalization of certain groups. In general, the literature agrees that strategically considered stakeholder participation is key to well-informed and legitimate SES governance and to alleviate differences and conflicts between stakeholders. Because SES represent uncertain, complex governance contexts, methodologies that address complexity and future uncertainty are needed. In this regard, participatory scenario planning is widely regarded as a useful tool. However, little explicit analysis exists about its role in framing. We therefore analyzed two scenario-guided policy formulation cases to assess how and to what extent it contributes to system and problem framing. We developed an analytical framework building on critical systems and resilience scholarship: the questions of “resilience of what, to what, for whom and over what timeframe?” are important framing dimensions. As such, we used them as the basis for our framework. We analyzed two scenario-guided policy formulation processes in East Africa, facilitated by the CGIAR’s Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. We found that participatory scenario planning significantly contributes to system and problem framing and can add to efficacy, legitimacy, and analytical rigor of planning processes through involving a diverse range of stakeholders in strategic dialogues about futures. Our results also highlight its potential to make the political dimension of policy and broader SES governance processes more explicitly visible by addressing the “for whom?” dimension. We recommend designing novel participatory scenario approaches that explicitly use insights from critical system theory, incorporating questions of who decides how the system and problems are framed, who should benefit, and whose knowledge is used.

Key words

governance; policy formulation; problem framing; scenarios; social-ecological systems; system framing

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