Skip navigation

Pardee Logo International Futures at the Pardee Center

International Futures Help System

Scenario Description

A scenario is a story or story outline. Thinking about the future normally involves creating alternative scenarios, or stories, about the possible interactive evolution of variables. Some such scenarios are exploratory and consider the possible unfolding of different futures around key uncertainties, such as the rate of some aspect of technological advance or the fragility of some element in the global environment. Other scenarios are normative and develop stories about preferred futures, such as a global transformation to sustainability.

Scenarios in a computer model typically are built from multiple interventions that collectively help create a coherent story about the future. Often, but somewhat imprecisely, the word scenario is used more loosely to refer to any intervention (such as the change of a fertility rate for a country or an alternative assumption about oil resources).

Scenarios or interventions with respect to what? When IFs or other computer simulations are "run", without making any changes to parameters or initial conditions specified as the default values, they generate a forecast that is typically called the Base Case. The IFs Base Case, always available when a model session is initiated, is itself a scenario. Sometimes the Base Case is incorrectly referred to as a trend extrapolation or a "business as usual" scenario. More accurately, however, the IFs Base Case is a computation that involves the full dynamics of the model and therefore has very nonlinear behavior, often quite different from trends. It is a good starting point for scenario analysis for two reasons. First, it is built from initial conditions of all variables and on parameters that have been given reasonable values from data or other analysis. These initial conditions and parameters make up the package of interventions that constitute the Base Case scenario. Second, the Base Case is periodically analyzed relative to the forecasts of many other projects across the range of issue areas covered by IFs and is to a degree "tuned" for internal coherence and consistency with insights of respected forecasters.

There are two file types involved in IFs scenario creation: scenario files (or Scenario-Load-Files) and run files (or Run-Result-Files). Scenario files, the first type, are saved with an extension of .sce. Very small in size, .sce files contain information that the IFs model uses to create alternative scenarios; i.e., .sce files contain a list of parameter values that diverge from the Base Case. It is important to note that scenario files do not contain any forecasts. Forecasts are generated and saved only in the second type of file, run files with the .run extension. Because they contain forecasts of all IFs variables and parameters, .run files are much larger than scenario files. Although the IFs standalone model software allows users to save both types of files, web users are only able to save .sce files to retrieve their parameters and regenerate their scenarios.

In addition to the Base Case, most versions of IFs will include a number of other previously-run scenarios (see How Do I?/Lesson 0 for additional important terminology), typically those for the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). If you look, for instance, at the Flexible Displays form, you will see a list of previously-run scenarios in the box at the bottom of the screen. Because those have already been run, based on a set of interventions constituting their foundations, the user can immediately display their results.