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Using Participatory Scenarios to Stimulate Social Learning for Collaborative Sustainable Development

Kris A Johnson, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota
Genya Dana, Dana & Sharpe Risk Associates
Nicholas R Jordan, Agronomy & Plant Genetics, University of Minnesota
Kathy J Draeger, Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, University of Minnesota
Anne Kapuscinski, Environmental Studies, Dartmouth College
Laura K Schmitt Olabisi, Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation, and Resource Studies, Michigan State University
Peter B Reich, Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota


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Interdependent human and biophysical systems are highly complex and behave in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. Social and ecological challenges that emerge from this complexity often defy straightforward solutions, and efforts to address these problems will require not only scientific and technological capabilities but also learning and adaptation.

Scenarios are a useful tool for grappling with the uncertainty and complexity of social-ecological challenges because they enable participants to build adaptive capacity through the contemplation of multiple future possibilities. Furthermore, scenarios provide a platform for social learning, which is critical to acting in the face of uncertain, complex, and conflict-laden problems. We studied the Minnesota 2050 project, a collaborative project through which citizens collectively imagined future scenarios and contemplated the implications of these possibilities for the adaptability of their social and environmental communities.

Survey and interview data indicate that these participatory scenario workshops built and strengthened relationships, enhanced participantsí understanding of other perspectives, and triggered systemic thinking, all of which is relevant to collective efforts to respond to social-ecological challenges through sustainable development activities. Our analysis shows that participatory scenarios can stimulate social learning by enabling participants to engage and to discuss options for coping with uncertainty through collaborative actions. Such learning can be of value to participants and to the organizations and decisions in which they are engaged, and scenario processes can be effective tools for supporting collaborative sustainable development efforts.

Key words

adaptive capacity; collaborative action; participatory scenarios; social-ecological challenges; social learning; sustainable development

Copyright © 2012 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes 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