Using participatory scenarios to stimulate social learning for collaborative sustainable development

Kris A. Johnson, Genya Dana, Nicholas R Jordan, Kathy J. Draeger, Anne Kapuscinski, Laura K. Schmitt Olabisi, Peter B Reich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

97 Scopus citations


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 participants' 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2012


  • Adaptive capacity
  • Collaborative action
  • Participatory scenarios
  • Social learning
  • Social-ecological challenges
  • Sustainable development


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