Step 6. Analyzing future conditions

“The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. It was man’s ability to invent that has made human society what it is.”

– Dennis Gabor, 1900-1979, Hungarian-British physicist, Nobel Prize in Physics (1971)

What outputs should be delivered from this step?

  • A “business-as-usual” spatial scenario illustrating how the MSP area will look at the end of the planning horizon if present conditions continue without new management actions;
  • Alternative spatial scenarios illustrating how the management area might look when human activities are redistributed based on different values, e.g., conservation, development, cultural heritage; and
  • A preferred or desired spatial scenario that provides the basis for identifying and selecting management actions in the spatial management plan (Step 7, Developing the plan).


The previous Step 5,  Analyzing existing conditions, concentrated on analyzing existing conditions within the marine management area. Its main purpose was to gain understanding of the existing distribution of important ecological and economic areas in the marine environment and the nature and scope of its human uses. Essentially, it provides an inventory of what exists today in the management area. The purpose of this phase of the planning process is to answer another seemingly simple question: Where do we want to be?

The answer takes the form of alternative spatial scenarios and the selection of a preferred spatial scenario. A spatial scenario is an answer to the question: “What would happen if?” For example, “What would the marine management area look like if we maximized environmental values without regard to economic costs?” Or alternatively, “What would the marine management area look like if we maximized economic values without regard to environmental costs?”

DEFINITION. A spatial scenario provides a vision that projects the future use of marine space based on a core set of values (reflected as principles, goals, objectives, and assumptions) about the future. Alternative spatial scenarios are desirable in the MSP process.

MSP is a future-oriented activity. Its purpose is to help envision and create a desirable future and enable proactive decision-making in the short run to move toward what is desired. Consequently, planning should not be limited to defining and analyzing only existing conditions and maintaining the status quo, but should reveal possible alternative futures of how the area could look in another 10, 15, or 20 years.

Scenarios are “imagined futures”. Scenarios are not forecasts. Scenarios are not plans. Their purpose is to illustrate that current management actions will lead to different spatial futures.

Defining and analyzing future conditions involves the following tasks:

  • Projecting current trends in the spatial and temporal needs of existing human uses;
  • Estimating spatial and temporal requirements for new demands of ocean space;
  • Identifying possible alternative future spatial scenarios for the planning area; and
  • Selecting the “preferred spatial scenario”.

Although it will take hard work and imagination to create spatial scenarios, their creation will help you ask the right questions and prepare for the unexpected.

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”

– Walt Disney, 1901-1966, American entrepreneur and cartoonist


Projecting trends in the spatial and temporal needs of existing human uses visualizes what is likely to happen if you do not interfere in the management of the area. It is often referred to as a “trend” or a “business as usual” spatial scenario.

First, you will need to determine the time frame for your forecasting. Step 3, Organizing the process through pre-planning, provides information on determining the time frame for planning. It is important to use your selected time frame consistently for all forecasts so that future human activities can be compared across sectors. Forecasts can be made in different ways. One way is by looking at historical trends about each use. For example, if sand and gravel mining has expanded an average 2% each year for the past 10 years, your projection for the next 15 years (= time frame for planning), can be that sand and gravel mining is likely to expand at the same rate of 2% each year (= projection).

DEFINITION. A forecast is a description of a relatively unsurprising projection of the present. For example, “What will the human population of the marine management area be in 2030, if the population increases at 2% per year?”

For the development of its National Waterplan, for example, the Netherlands projected current trends by asking representatives of each sector how they saw their sector developing in space and time during the specified time frame. Each sector was asked how the future would look by 2015 and by 2020, considering: (a) maximum level of development, (b) medium level of development; and (c) minimum level of development. This information provided the basis for the development of alternative spatial scenarios (See Key MSP Documents).

Second, you will need to map the projection for each of the human uses so that the spatial and temporal implications are visualized to the maximum extent possible. These maps should clearly indicate where, when and how the projected human uses and non-uses (e.g., marine protected areas) will occur.


Defining and analysing future conditions is not an exact science. Contrary to mapping existing conditions (see Step 5, Analyzing existing conditions), the maps developed to visualise future conditions do not need to reflect “exact” locations. Instead, they should indicate patterns, trends, and direction. You will typically involve planners (not necessarily scientists) who will rely on drawing programs and other tools rather than Geographic Information Systems (GIS).



In addition to projecting trends of existing uses, it is likely that new demands for ocean space will be made within the marine management area (and within your selected time frame). This task will provide insight into what is likely to happen without any management intervention, in addition to the trends you defined in the previous task.

New demands for ocean space are closely related with the development of new technologies that make possible what was previously unachievable. Most likely, you will be able to estimate the required space on the basis of government policies, licensing applications, and industry proposals that specify what new human uses are desired or proposed in your management area. Germany and The Netherlands, for example, were able to forecast the amount of space that was required to make all industry proposals for the development of offshore renewable energy operational. The spatial and temporal requirements for new demands for ocean space should be integrated in the maps developed in the previous Task 1.

Together, they will provide an idea of how the area is likely to look at the end of your planning time frame. This exercise might well reveal that the total demand for ocean space is larger than what is actually available. It might also illustrate that certain human uses can simply not continue without conflicting with other uses or with the environment. Such analysis in Belgium, for example, estimated that the total demand for ocean space exceeded about three times what was actually available (see Maes 2005).


For any marine management area, there will always be various alternative futures possible. Depending on the importance you give to certain goals and objectives, each of these alternatives will have human uses distributed differently in space and time. Developing alternative spatial scenarios is a crucial step in the MSP process because it sets the stage for choosing the direction (the “spatial vision”) you want your area to develop for the selected time frame.There are various ways how spatial sea use scenarios can be developed. Belgium, for example, has developed six alternative spatial scenarios, each depending on the importance that was given to a set of goals and objectives (more information on selecting goals and objectives in Step 3, Organizing the process through pre-planning). In the Belgian example (Maes 2005), all goals and objectives were grouped into three categories:

  • Ecology and biodiversity: this category includes goals and objectives that contribute to the conservation and maintenance of the ecologic functioning and biodiversity of the area (e.g., objectives related to the establishment of marine protected areas);
  • Economy: this category includes goals and objectives that contribute to the economic return obtained from the use of the marine resources of the management area (e.g., objectives related to maximizing maritime transportation in the area); and
  • Society and culture: this category includes goals and objectives that contribute to the well-being of the human population of the area (e.g., objectives related to the establishment of recreation and tourism opportunities or the preservation of cultural heritage).

Based on these categories and a set of relevant decision rules, six scenarios were developed, each based on different combinations of categories of objectives and the importance that was given to them. A spatial scenario was developed for each of the categories and for a combination of the categories. For example, the “natural sea” scenario represented the spatial and temporal distribution of human use in the area in the case of maximum protection of important biological and ecological areas. The “rich sea” scenario indicated how human use would be distributed in space and time if a maximum economic return were expected from the area. Other scenarios concentrated on a maximum representation of social/cultural values or a combination of all the above. It is important to realise that certain “decision rules” will be relevant for the development of spatial scenarios. Decision rules can be considered as “fixed” rules or constraints that need to be taken into account when locating certain human uses or non-uses to particular spaces in the area.

The spatial scenarios will primarily indicate:

  • Places of activity concentration in your management area resulting from the choice of objectives;
  • Areas needing special protection;
  • Areas for development;
  • Spatial relations or connections between different areas; and
  • Spatial networks (e.g., maritime transport routes or networks of marine protected areas).

Spatial scenarios for economic development and climate change in the Netherlands

The central goal of the Dutch National Water Plan is the creation of a safe (limiting shipping accidents and reduction of climate change effect), healthy (good water quality and biodiversity conservation) and productive (economic return from oil and gas, wind energy, fishing, and sand extraction) ocean. To achieve this goal, the Dutch government prepared three alternative spatial sea use scenarios for a time horizon of 10 years (base year: 2005; target year: 2015). The alternative spatial sea use scenarios indicated where opportunities were likely to occur with respectively minimum, medium, or maximum economic growth of human uses.

As a first step, for each activity (including wind energy which is a government priority) in the area an estimate was made of: (a) what economic developments can be expected; (b) what policy development can be expected; (c) what technical or operational developments can be expected; (d) what are the spatial requirements until 2015; and (e) what are the spatial requirements after 2015?

Secondly, the analysis included an economic valuation (both direct and indirect) for each activity in relation to its demand for ocean space. The economic value was estimated in terms of economic return, added value to the general economy and employment. On the basis of this information, three spatial sea use scenarios were developed, each indicating a different level of expected growth, e.g., maximum growth, medium growth, and minimum growth.

Thirdly, the spatial and temporal implications of each growth scenario were visualized in maps. These maps further contained information on expected policy developments and estimated technological improvements. By visualizing these scenarios, it was possible to anticipate what opportunities or conflicts could occur when certain objectives (set through the political process) would be implemented. It also allowed drawing initial conclusions about a desired future for the Dutch part of the North Sea.

The scenarios were developed through close cooperation with all relevant agencies and steered by an interagency Board of Directors. The estimates for the human uses were mainly developed in cooperation with the sectors themselves. The economic valuations were largely based on economic and financial statistics, historic prices for products, international trade trends and forecasts, and expert opinions. The study took about two years to complete.Additionally to this work, a State Advisory Committee (Delta Commission) advised the Dutch Government on measures to protect the low-lying country against effects of climate change in the long term. Alternative sea level rise (SLR) scenarios were developed. For the year 2050 relative SLR could be 20-40 cm (including 5 cm subsidence of the bottom), in 2100 the maximum plausible SLR could be 1.30m.

The Dutch government decided to integrate SLR into the National Water Plan, and to protect the coast through beach nourishment, equally to the actual SLR (acknowledging the maximum SLR as a safety strategy albeit not actually planning for it). Further, the Dutch government intends to explicitly offer space for additional sand extraction for coastal and flood protection measures by reserving space in between the 20-m depth contour and the 12-mile zone. The latter is included as a “preferred sand extraction zone” in the National Water Plan.

Adapted from: Verkenning van economische en ruimtelijke ontwikkelingen op de Noordzee, 2008.
Ministerie van Verkeer and Waterstaat. The Netherlands; and Pre-policy document North Sea, 2008.

Criteria to help define “decision rules” for the development of spatial scenarios

  • International and national regulations: Decision rules can be derived from reviewing international and national regulations and policies that influence space allocation in the area and are not readily changeable. Changes in shipping routes and traffic separation schemes, for example, need to be approved by the International Maritime Organisation;
  • Economic and technical considerations: Decision rules can also be derived from economic or technical requirements to make a particular activity operational. Offshore wind energy, for example, is likely to be more economically viable when placed closer to shore;
  • Physical and environmental conditions: Decision rules can also be derived from physical and environmental conditions. Most extracting activities, for example, are dependent on the availability and quality of the resources. The functioning of infrastructure, for example, could be impaired by certain conditions, such as bathymetry, sediment type, and currents; and
  • Preferential conditions: Decision rules can also be derived from reviewing preferential conditions (environmental, economic, social) for the allocation of space to certain human uses. For example, the “Integrated Management Plan for the North Sea 2015” of the Netherlands stipulated that no wind farms are allowed within 20 km of the shoreline. Another example is that no economic activities are allowed during marine mammal or bird feeding areas at certain times of the year.

Reasons why developing alternative spatial scenarios is important

  • Spatial scenarios can help illustrate how the area will look if current trends continue without new management actions (interventions);
  • Spatial scenarios can illustrate the spatial and temporal consequences of implementing certain goals and objectives. It can, for example, help estimating the required marine space to build 100 offshore windmills (approximately 300 MW) in the management area and help identify its implications upon other uses and/or the environment;
  • Spatial scenarios allow you to anticipate potential future opportunities, conflicts or compatibilities for the area that can guide proactive decision-making; and
  • Spatial scenarios are important in determining the desired direction you want your management area to develop and in selecting management actions needed to get there (see Step 7, Developing the plan).

More recently, spatial scenarios were used in the development of the Plan Maritime 2030: Abu Dhabi Coastal and Marine Framework Plan (See Key MSP Documents) to identify a preferred spatial scenario through a stakeholder engagement process. Three alternative spatial scenarios were generated based on the emphasis on different values: (1) economic development (68% of the surface area of marine waters is already allocated to oil and gas development—need for diversity); (2) marine conservation (Abu Dhabi has the second largest population of dugongs in the world); and (3) society (with an emphasis on public access, recreation, and tourism). The scenarios were presented at a public engagement event, and a preferred spatial vision was created.

Evaluation is the essence of spatial scenario planning. Engaging stakeholders and decision makers in a broad discussion about different options for the future of the marine management area is essential. Spatial scenario evaluation allows several alternative futures to be created and compared, illustrating the consequences of different management actions.

Involving stakeholders and decision makers is critical to evaluating the pluses and minuses of different choices, and identifying realistic options. Stakeholders and decision makers should consider how changing economics, demographics, technology, and social, cultural, and environmental conditions affect the prospects and options for the future.Finally, stakeholder involvement in evaluating a range of choices sets the stage for developing and selecting a “preferred spatial scenario” that best achieves the goals and objectives for the marine management area.

Should a vote be taken by the stakeholders on the “best” spatial scenario?  No—the point is to identify the pros and cons of each spatial scenario.  Based on the comments of the stakeholders and decision makers, a “preferred spatial scenario” should be created by the planning team that combines and balances the most positive aspects of each spatial scenario.

“Environmentalists have failed perhaps more than any other set of advocates to project vision […] the best goal most of us who work toward sustainability offer is the avoidance of catastrophe. We promise survival and not much more.”

– Donella Meadows, 1941-2001, American environmental scientist and author

Good practices for analyzing future conditions

MSP is a future-oriented activity. The past and present cannot be changed—only the future can, based on where we want to be in 10 years, 20 years and beyond, often called a “vision”, and preferably a “spatial vision”. A preferred spatial vision is usually developed through a stakeholder process. A early example of good practice for analysing alternative future spatial visions was the work completed from 2002-2005 by the Maritime Institute of the University of Ghent for the Belgian part of the North Sea (Maes et al. 2005). The Ghent team developed an approach to “spatial structural plans” (spatial plans) and applied the process to developing six alternative spatial scenarios for the Belgian part of the North Sea based on different values—a process that is still works 15 years later. The same approach was used to develop Plan Maritime 2030 for the marine waters and coastal zone of Abu Dhabi from 2014-16.

The Norwegian government developers of the management plan for the Barents Sea (2002-2006) considered the future development of the region by interviewing representatives of the fishing, shipping, and oil & gas industries about their plans through 2020. With that information, the steering group of four ministries assembled environmental assessments in relation to the starting situation (2003) related to future impacts up to 2020. The results of the environmental assessments were brought together and analysed in more detail, focusing on: (i) the total impact of all human activities combined, both for the current situation and up to 2020; (ii) areas of conflicts among human activities and between human use and ecologically valuable areas; (iii) the definition of management goals required for implementation; and (iv) identification of gaps in current knowledge. A similar process was used in the development of management plans for the two other Norwegian marine regions, the Norwegian Sea and the North Sea. The government of the Netherlands used a similar process to consider the future in its development of a plan for the Dutch part of the North Sea (see above box in this Step).

The Belize Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan (2016) developed three separate zoning scenarios that emphasised different priorities of stakeholders: Conservation, Development and “Informed Management”. To understand the implications of each zoning scenario, the InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs) model was used to analyse several ecosystem services and to create final zoning schemes. The InVEST results indicated that in a “Development” future, the risk of habitat degradation would increase, and the delivery of ecosystem services would decrease. A “Conservation” future would improve the health of ecosystems, but would reduce human use of the coastal zone. An “Informed Management” future embraced a combination of development and conservation priorities, and would minimise impacts on coastal and marine ecosystems. The informed management scenario was selected since it represented the most sustainable future for Belize’s coastal zone.

Useful references:

Kolzow, D., 1999. A perspective on strategic planning. What’s your vision? Economic Development Review, 16: 5-9.

Lindgren, M., and H. Bandhold, 2009. Scenario Planning: the link between future and strategy. Palsgrave MacMillan: New York. 204 p.

Maes, F., et al, 2005. Towards a Spatial Structure Plan for Sustainable Management of the Sea. Brussels: Belgian Science Policy.

O’Brien, John, 2015. Visions 2100: Stories from your future. Vivid Publishing: Fremantle, Australia. 358 p.

IOC-UNESCO’s Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-step Approach toward Ecosystem-based Management offers a 10-step guide on how to get a marine spatial plan started in your region – choose a step on the right and click on the title!

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