BLOG | Envisioning with Empathy: Reflections on the Transformative Scenario Planning Methodology and its use in ASSAR

By Chandni Singh, postdoctoral researcher, Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS), ASSAR

CARIAA aims to generate new knowledge in ways that strengthen climate change adaptation policy and practice. One of the key challenges facing climate change practitioners, however, is motivating vulnerable people and policymakers to undertake adaptation action now for benefits that may not be visible until much later. Past experiences show that barriers to changing one’s behaviour can be cognitive (climate change is a problem too far away or at too large a scale to comprehend on a daily basis); financial (least developed countries may be hesitant to invest in expensive technology); technological (lack of appropriate technology to undertake effective adaptation); scientific (uncertainty around climate projections); or institutional (political instability overshadowing climate concerns). In such a situation, building a case for climate action that is mutually acceptable to a diverse range of actors is almost impossible and potentially paralyses decision makers from taking any action at all.

In the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-arid Regions (ASSAR) project, one of four research consortia funded through CARIAA, teams across Africa and India are exploring how such inertia can be overcome in such ‘stuck situations’, especially when dealing with highly complex wicked problems (like climate change) in messy uncertain contexts that are seen in fast-developing countries like India or Ghana. This ties in with the core question ASSAR is trying to answer – what constrains or enables effective, widespread and sustained adaptation in semi-arid regions?

One promising way that the ASSAR team has been testing is using a methodology called Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP). The TSP has been used across the globe from post-apartheid South Africa to democratic futures across Latin America. Following from promising experiences in Ghana and Mali, in October 2016, the ASSAR India team co-organised and participated in a training workshop on the TSP to explore whether it can be used to construct transformative scenarios for Bangalore's water future. 

About transformative scenarios: Transformative scenarios aren’t about predicting the future, they’re about creating it. While most scenario planning methodologies focus on adaptation, transformative scenarios seek to not only understand or adapt to the future but also to shape it. The structured yet creative process helps diverse actors to see the different futures that are possible and discover what they can and must do. Constructing transformative scenarios may lead to working together over time in social labs.

How Transformative Scenarios Work: Transformative scenarios offer a way for diverse stakeholders together to unblock situations that are polarized or stuck. The facilitated process combines imagination and rigour. It is useful when a diverse set of people face a complex challenge that is vital to them but that they have not been willing or able to work on together, perhaps because they disagree on the very nature of the problem. Transformative scenarios enable them to construct shared understandings, stronger relationships, and clearer intentions, thereby creating the potential for action that will shape a better future. From the Reos Partners Website 

The precariousness of Bangalore's water situation, which is marked by polluted lakes, ecologically-insensitive real estate development, and high groundwater extraction, is accentuated by the city’s rapid growth, and inadequate public service and infrastructure systems. Further, the city’s recent development trajectory does not offer much promise: research ASSAR presented at the Adaptation Futures Conference in May 2016 demonstrated how urban development in Bangalore has narrowed the adaptation options available to the city in the present and in the foreseeable future. 

Given multiple and competing interests of policymakers, environmentalists, city dwellers, and the construction sector, the theme “Bangalore's Water Future” was used to understand the applicability of the TSP process.  For more details on what the ASSAR team learnt and how the TSP works, please read a detailed post here