Social–Ecological–System–thinking in scenario development: Experiences from action-research with a German Orchard Initiative

Authors and Affiliations: 

Christoph Mathias, Simone Sterly, Kerstin Hülemeyer,

Institute for Rural Development Research at the Goethe-University Frankfurt, Frankfurt (Germany)

Corresponding author: 
Christoph Mathias

This paper explores the application of social–ecological systems (SES)-thinking and scenario development processes in transdisciplinary research. It shows benefits and limits of combining both approaches and reflects on the experience of using it for working with practitioners and volunteers. The paper draws on the insights from a scenario development process with the Support Association for Regional Traditional Orchard Cultivation (Fördergemeinschaft regionaler Streuobstbau, FÖG) as part of case study within the EU HORIZON 2020 project PEGASUS (Public Ecosystem Goods and Services from Land Management – Unlocking the Synergies, 2015–2018). The aim of the project is to analyse collective actions related to agricultural and forestry land management and to find ways to improve their impact on the resulting provision of environmentally and socially beneficial outcomes.

The FÖG is one of the oldest supplier premium initiatives for orchard meadows in Germany and currently struggling with a decreasing number of members. Based on Schwartz (1996) four workshops were implemented to develop scenarios and corresponding strategies for the future of the initiative. The objective was to identify and assess potential pathways for the initiative and their impact on environmentally and socially beneficial outcomes from orchard meadows.

The application of the SES framework (McGinnis & Ostrom 2014) allowed for a systematic reflection of the different variables in terms of prevalent settings, subsystems and actors. The three developed scenarios were transferred into SES diagrams, building the ground for analyzing the dynamic change of the initiative and related ESBO provision. While the SES framework turned out to be a powerful analysis tool, its suitability for application in participatory processes was limited due to its complexity. The scenario development process, however, allowed participants to include and discuss their individual objectives and proved very useful to develop common strategies. It helped them to open up their mind for possible future pathways instead of seeing future as a forward projection of the present. We conclude that the combination of SES thinking and scenario development can be fruitful for taking a holistic perspective through bringing together the ecological and social aspects within a case, and understanding the dynamic processes of an SES.


McGinnis, M. D. and Ostrom, E. (2014): Social-ecological system framework: initial changes and continuing challenges. Ecology and Society 19(2):30.

Schwartz, P. (1996): The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World. Doubleday, New York.

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