Futures tools help explore possible futures with experts and stakeholders at an early stage of a policy-making process (collecting Ideas; Surveying and Assessing ‘data’) such that decisions can be informed by likely outcomes under different future circumstances.
This may be through Visioning what is desirable, defining a preferred future state and then considering how to get there (Backcasting with Roadmapping), considering different plausible trajectories (through Foresight and Scenarios) or testing plausible scenarios against set goals, potential stresses or threats (Wind-tunnelling).
Futures tools are also germane to the decision-making and evaluation stages of policy and practice, and can help provide links throughout the policy cycle through use of a consistent framework and language.
Futures research and policy tools include a range of usually expert-led approaches to explore future possible states. They are creative and exploratory tools rather than merely extrapolating from existing data. Consequently, expert-led futures tools lend themselves to, and benefit from, input by stakeholders and the public.
Futures tools can draw on a wide range of other tools to inform Scenarios and associated narratives (e.g. Ecosystem Assessment; GIS-based modelling, policy appraisals of Regulatory and Incentive tools) and are best used in combination (e.g. visioning plus backcasting with roadmapping plus wind-tunnelling).
Outputs from windtunnelling, for example applied to test how elements of a Vision or Roadmap might perform against a range of anticipated pressures or selected criteria, can inform a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) or Sustainability Appraisal (SA) (e.g. by testing scenarios against SA/SEA criteria and assessing the extent to which they achieve the principles of sustainable development) as well as to modify a preferred Vision or Roadmap to ensure that it is more ‘future-proofed’ with respect to uncertainty.
The further into the future one looks, the more uncertain the future becomes. Consequently, the value of ‘planning’ in any rigorous form deteriorates. Thus when looking over long timescales (let’s say 20 years and beyond), visioning can help create a clearer idea of the conditions and context aspired to by society. Combinations of futures tools – for example backcasting, roadmapping and wind-tunnelling – can be valuable for assessing near to medium-term actions that are the least risky, and where there are likely to be bifurcations or break-points at which fresh assessments may be required.
While not yet widely practised, taking an Ecosystem Approach – for example by using the ecosystem services framework in Visioning and Scenarios processes – does not necessarily require additional steps or processes and can be easily integrated into existing Foresight and Visioning exercises.
As the ecosystem services framework is becoming part of the policy landscape, the relevance and plausibility of scenarios can be improved by adopting a similar ecosystem services lens and expressing actual/likely policy priorities to the full spectrum of ecosystem services, including implications for their many beneficiaries. Applying an Ecosystem Approach in futures tools can strengthen considerations of resilience and risk reduction (e.g. examining ecological feedback processes and how likely changes in the environment may impact on the provision of goods and services in the different plausible scenarios, as well as better anticipating unintended trade-offs).
Essentially, any Scenario, Backcasting or Roadmapping exercises for a specific place will consider net impacts on the natural environment and its multiple beneficiaries. The ecosystem services framework can aid the description of outcomes in scenarios and the interactions and interdependencies between different beneficiaries of ecosystems. Thereby, the ecosystem-based approach helps identify actions of mutual benefit and highlight issues that may require agreements to ensure the sustainable management and sharing of ecosystem resources.
Importantly, the Ecosystem Approach facilitates integration and supports the assessment of cumulative effects and impacts across sectors and scales and, in doing so, can improve Foresight and Scenarios work.
Work supporting water allocation reforms in South Africa, replacing the top-down apartheid-era management regime with a new democratic and devolved structure, required a process of engagement of a wide range of formerly disconnected stakeholders within focal catchments to determine how best they would approach the task of sharing a common water resource (Colvin et al., 2009). Awareness of the catchment context and of ecosystem services was fundamental to group working, serving as a common framework to articulate the benefits and aspirations enjoyed by, as well as the interdependencies between, all stakeholder groups.
Once consensus had been achieved within the catchment stakeholder group about a desire to work positively together, a visioning exercise exploring historic, current and desired future circumstances with respect to water management and sharing helped all stakeholders appreciate the close interdependencies of their varied livelihoods, the types of water management practices appropriate for meeting needs, and the economic and governance arrangements best suited to achieving sustainable management and sharing (Everard, 2013). In particular, a common focus on the shared ecosystem identified that collaborative co-management of a common ecosystem resource was essential if desirable services were to be protected or enhanced. Identification of this consensual ‘end goal’ helped the group work together to address current constraints to sustainable progress, and provided a basis for backcasting in order to test options for collaborative management. This in turn helped the group understand feedbacks between their uses of water and land, provision of water and steps necessary to secure sustainable management (Everard et al., 2009). The net outcome was agreement by the catchment group to form a Water User Association (WUA), one of the devolved management structures identified in South Africa’s National Water Act 1998. The process relied upon a patient process of trust-building to overcome former cultural barriers, with devolution of authority from local government also proving a significant obstacle.
Scenario tools discussed here tend to work as a meta-tool in that a wide range of other tools can operate within futures work, in a nested fashion. Furthermore, Scenarios can play an important part in other tools. We recommend the use of futures tools in combination rather than stand alone to support decision-making.
For example, wind-tunnelling is viewed here as a quick and valuable test for any of the Futures work rather than a tool used in isolation. If applied with an Ecosystem Approach mindset, using the ecosystem services framework will go beyond a change in language and affect the way a challenge is defined, approached and tackled.
Applying the ecosystem services framework to Futures tools enables more explicit attention to the links between human activity and ecosystem services provision, including interdependencies between stakeholder groups and their uses and management of common ecosystem resources, essentially considering plausible cause-effect or impact pathways to inform decision-making.
Considering the dynamic complexities of the environment is more effectively done through paying attention to processes, interactions and dependencies rather than describing a snapshot future state. Thus applying the ecosystem services framework to all forms of futures work can help explore more realistically the future wellbeing and adaptive capacity of both the environment and those dependent upon it.