E-Mail Alert

Add your e-mail address to receive forthcoming issues of this journal:

Journal Browser

Journal Browser

Special Issue "Scenarios and Indicators for Sustainable Development–Towards A Critical Assessment of Achievements and Challenges"

A special issue of Sustainability (ISSN 2071-1050). This special issue belongs to the section "Social Ecology and Sustainability".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: 31 March 2018

Special Issue Editor

Guest Editor
Dr. Joachim H. Spangenberg

Helmholtz Centre for Environment Research UFZ, 04318 Leipzig, Germany; Sustainable Europe Research Institute SERI Germany, 51103 Cologne, Germany

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

The global ecosphere is a complex, evolving system, and the anthroposphere another, more rapidly evolving one. Globalization and telecoupling are enhancing their complexity, and even more that of coupled socio-ecological systems. Sustainable development as a global normative development concept, as defined by Agenda 2030 and the SDGs, adds another level of complexity. As a result, the demand for tools to assess future risks and support precautionary decision making for sustainability is growing by the day in business and politics.Scenarios are means for simplification, reducing the real-world complexity to a potentially high but limited number of factors, analyzing their interaction, and supporting policy formulation. Indicators help monitoring selected trends recognized as decisive, and support communication and decision making. However, political or management demands can emerge rather spontaneously, while scenario development takes time—the demand for climate scenarios with a maximum 1.5 °C global warming took the IPCC by surprise. How can the scientific community prepare itself, and make sure that decision makers' demands can be met in due time, while the window of opportunity for decisions is still open?Integrated models have been a great success story and are used all over the world for sustainable development assessment and strategy development. Still they are criticized (and in particular the economic computable global equilibrium models most of them incorporate) for a lack of transparency, covered implicit assumptions, impossibility to capture stark and structural changes of effect driving mechanisms, technical insufficiencies and political bias. For instance, the model-based IPCC scenarios' warnings are ever more severe with every new report—is that only due to newly found facts, or can one of the reasons be the implicit habit of scientists of avoiding type 2 errors (claiming a relationship when it does not exist) at the expense of making type 1 errors (not finding a relationship when it exists)? Which role do other habits and routines, and the world views of scholars, play in the assumptions made and the interpretations given? The assumptions made regarding the effects on social, economic or environmental policies on society, its structures and processes are heavily influenced by the choice of the social theory applied, and there are many to choose from. For instance, there is no scenario analyzing in any detail how a no-growth, steady state or even degrowth economy would work out on social structures, economic prospects and community flourishing. Even the impacts this has on the environment, nature's contributions to people and human well-being are rather speculative so far. Scenarios tend to be path-dependent themselves: Some more assumptions, some more details are added, but the basics remain unchanged (like the current IPPC scenarios, derived from the SRES scenarios published by IPCC et al. in the year 2000).In particular, how does “the social” as one of the core dimensions of sustainable development enter scenarios and models? It includes the effects and dynamics of public orientations including values and preferences, decision making mechanisms including equity, gender issues, power statures and democracy, and implementing organizations, their role and functions—all factors which lend themselves often better to qualitative description (at best ordinal scale measurement as used by IPCC and IPBES) rather than to quantification. They can be rather well accommodated in scenario narratives, but hardly so in quantitative models: shouldn't scenarios be considered to consist of narratives with certain elements illustrated by occasional modelling? This would imply that that 'hard' figures are soft facts which have to be interpreted and modified in the narrative context to be hardened.However, in that case uncertainties would become less quantifiable—and which decision maker understands the scientific concept of uncertainties? How can it be explained to the users? Anyway, how reliable are uncertainty figures? A decade ago, assuming a collapse of the gulf stream was considered a futile assumption; these days its details are being modelled. The economic shock following a pandemic when hundreds of millions of people desert their working place for retreats in the country side assuming to be to be safer there goes beyond what models can model, but is in line with what the WHO warns about. So how do we deal with shocks, defined as single events changing the prevailing development trajectory? What do we consider plausible assumptions to be used in scenario development, and why?In a nutshell: Which are the most urgent tasks in improving the existing scenarios and their presentation (making assumptions and caveats more explicit), and complementing them with new ones filling the existing gaps? How should scientists communicate the uncertainties and deficits without reducing the policy impact of their work (which was, for instance, one of the core foundations for the Paris Climate Accord)?Similar questions apply to indicators, a main tool to communicate scenario results. Which systems are chosen, how does the choice reflect the world view of its designers? Are the relevant, newly emerging trends the issue of reporting, or only those where good time series of data exist (which implies that the problem has been recognized as such at least a quarter century ago)? Such questions have been, implicitly and explicitly, a matter of dispute in the process of developing and agreeing on indicators to monitor the SDG implementation, and a critical examination of reporting so far could probably identify significant room for improvement.Indicators simplify even more than models, but they make communication easier: the question then is, how to strike a balance? How to avoid that the information lost by indicator design makes the result easy to communicate, but potentially misguiding? What are the limits of aggregation (again, communication gets easier, but information gets lost, and negative trends in one aspect can be camouflaged by positive ones in another)? Finally, if implicit assumptions and methodology choices influence the results, how can it be avoided that influential groups produce their models and scenarios, seemingly scientific but interest-driven, and produce fake facts to undermine scientifically informed decision making (not that farfetched an assumption as we all know)?For all past successes, scenario development, model building and deriving indicators deserve and require a permanent critical assessment, and in particular a critical self-reflection of scholars if they are to maintain and enhance their usefulness in supporting better decision in an increasingly complex world.

Dr. Joachim H. Spangenberg
Guest Editor

Manuscript Submission Information

Manuscripts should be submitted online at www.mdpi.com by registering and logging in to this website. Once you are registered, click here to go to the submission form. Manuscripts can be submitted until the deadline. All papers will be peer-reviewed. Accepted papers will be published continuously in the journal (as soon as accepted) and will be listed together on the special issue website. Research articles, review articles as well as short communications are invited. For planned papers, a title and short abstract (about 100 words) can be sent to the Editorial Office for announcement on this website.

Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are thoroughly refereed through a single-blind peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. Sustainability is an international peer-reviewed open access monthly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1400 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI's English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.


  • Sustainable Development
  • Scenarios
  • Models
  • Indicators
  • Uncertainties
  • Deficits

Published Papers

This special issue is now open for submission, see below for planned papers.

Planned Papers

The below list represents only planned manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts have not been received by the Editorial Office yet. Papers submitted to MDPI journals are subject to peer-review.

Title: Role of Scenarios in Sustainable Development Policy: Achievements, Challenges and Contrasts with Indicators
Aurore Fransolet and Tom Bauler
Affiliation: Center for Studies on Sustainable Development (IGEAT), Université libre de Bruxelles, CP 130/02, Avenue F.D. Roosevelt 50, 1050 Brussels, Belgium
Abstract: Current environmental problems tend to encompass many different interconnected issues—both technical and social—, to go well beyond regular time horizon of public action, but also to involve intricate interactions between different policy sectors, level of power—from local to global—and actors. Facing this complexity, we observe a growing call for orientation and decision support tools to implement sustainable development policies. Indicators, scenarios and sometimes combinations of these two artefacts are meant to respond to this need for scientific knowledge in policy-making. In this paper, we consider a scenario as an open-ended narrative on the future that results from a reasoned and established approach aiming to explore the range of possible and/or desirable long-term futures (i.e.: foresight). We don’t include the scenarios that result from approaches consisting in predicting the most likely future (i.e.: forecast).
While the use and influence of indicators in policy-making 1 have been thoroughly explored for the past 30 years, the role of scenarios in the public sphere remains poorly studied. Indeed, even if some empirical studies on the social work of foresight start to emerge, they remain quite marginal in comparison with the importance given to methodological developments. This leads to a growing imbalance between the increasing technical sophistication of foresight approaches and the simplicity of our understanding of the social origins, uses and implications of scenarios in policy-making and, more broadly, in the surrounding society. Our research question is therefore formulated as follows: How do scenarios shape policy-making? I.e.: How are scenarios used by political actors 2? Beyond the purely instrumental use, how do foresight exercises influence policy-making? How do the different actors appropriate the representations of the futures developed through foresight works? In light of the theme of this special issue, two additional questions arise: How does scenario use differ from indicator use? What can scenarios learn from explorations of the social work of indicators?
The paper develops on a multiple case study which analyses comparatively the role in policy making of four energy foresight studies carried out for Belgium. The analyses is based on the one hand, on an examination of policy plans, reports and documents, and on the other hand, on extensive semi-structured interviews with the actors involved in the long-term policy process of GHG-emissions’ mitigation, both from the perspective of producers of these scenarios (i.e.: consulting firms, universities…) and of intended users (ranging from administrations to utilities). It suggests that the role in public policy varies strongly from one foresight study to another. However, few examples of purely instrumental use of scenarios as orientation and decision support tools to devise mitigation policies have been noted. The scenarios are rather used to justify decisions already taken or to improve someone’s relative position in the policy systems compared to opponents (i.e.: political role). The scenarios also contribute to expand the knowledge base and introduce new ideas or concept in policy (i.e.: conceptual role). The research further shows that the level of appropriation and the uses of foresight studies varies greatly from one actor to another. It appears, among others, that the actors within administrations seem to be more permeable to the investigated foreknowledge, whereas—on the contrary—political authorities mark little interest in the scenario exercises.
On the basis of this multiple case study and in the light of previous works on the role of scenarios and indicators in policy-making, we discuss the differences, but also the possible articulations between these decision support tools. The paper thus aims, on the one hand, at providing empirical contributions on the social work of scenarios, and, on the other hand, at building bridges between two artefacts that are often studied separately in the scientific literature.
Keywords: foresight; scenarios; indicators; decision support; science-policy interface
1 The policy-making is here understood as a process by which political actors adopt and pursue a course of action with a view to solving a collective problem.
2 The political actors correspond to “he individuals and social groups concerned by the collective problem that the environmental policy try to solve, and more specifically, by the issues addressed during one or several phases of the cycle of this policy?” (Knoepfel et al. 2009, p. 37). These actors can therefore be public (e.g.: political and administrative authorities) or private (e.g.: environmental and development NGOs, employers’ federations, workers’ unions and consumers’ organizations).

Back to Top