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The uses and limits of visionary scenarios: learning from the African experience

Adam Gordon (Director, Adaptive Futures, Cardiff, UK)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 19 July 2011




There has been no shortage of rosy visions for the future of Africa or its regions. Almost without exception, these visions have been dashed by reality. The question therefore arises: “To what extent or under what conditions is visioning an ideal future a worthy exercise?” or “Under what conditions is it useful and when is it limiting?” In anticipating the future in general, and seeking a better future for Africa in particular, might foresight tools built on another (non‐visionary) basis provide better fruit? This paper aims to address this issue.


The paper considers this question as it applies to scenario planning in particular, by investigating recent, contrasting case studies of scenario‐building activities in Africa (Tanzania and South Africa).


The paper determines the appropriate uses and limits of “visionary” scenario planning, and suggests a contrasting “adaptive” basis for scenario work.


It is argued that maintaining the purpose‐platform distinction between these two modes is fundamental to getting full value out of scenario work in general, and in the African context in particular. The contrasting case studies explain how and why the adaptive‐normative distinction is important; how different purposes each demand different use of the scenario process tools that currently exist, and show why failure to fit scenario approaches to purpose greatly diminishes the efficacy of the method for either purpose.



Gordon, A. (2011), "The uses and limits of visionary scenarios: learning from the African experience", Foresight, Vol. 13 No. 4, pp. 64-81.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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