Whilst some experts claim that we have all the necessary knowledge for sustainability, but that implementation is the issue, the NEXUS FUTURES project builds on fundamentally different assumptions. Actionable knowledge and suitable learning to change every-day practice for sustainability, which is relevant to people in their professional and personal lives, is mostly place-based and can only be developed for and with the people concerned.  Moreover, social practice for sustainability needs to embrace systemic interdependencies of human-environment interactions, and the fact the future is open.

Accordingly, one way to describe the overarching project goal is to engage stakeholders in structured dialogues with the aim to generate mutual understandings across differences in language and expertise, interests and worldviews, with the help of the methods of collaborative systems mapping and scenario approaches. More long-lived forms of participation are helpful, as in complex dynamic environments there usually are no silver bullet solutions, but well- structured and reflective social learning processes based on empirical data and scientific inquiry can helpfully inform every-day decisions.

One of the project’s main goal is thus the co-design of and capacity building to use methods for future-oriented systems thinking as a basis for social learning processes that allow to identify fields for concerted action in diverse groups of stakeholder groups.


In the face of complex challenges, especially in group meetings, we tend to take a stance and defend our point of view based on past experiences.  In turbulent times of accelerating global and local changes that are interconnected, this mode will not suffice.  How can we find better ways to embrace that the future is open and uncertain, and jointly tap into collective intelligence and very diverse sets of experiences and world views as we deliberate which developments we might want to influence, and how?

Scenarios present a set of images of challenging but plausible futures in divergent but complementary ways. A set of scenarios thus helps to highlight possible challenges and opportunities, as well as risks and uncertainties.  At best scenarios also illustrate how and why disparate groups attribute very different values to alternative development pathways, and present a basis for structured negotiation and anticipation of possible future trade-offs.  At the same time, they also highlight fields for collaborative action among the involved stakeholders, in particular in situations where shared risks can only be averted with common action.

Scenarios are always created as a set in which each scenario addresses very different systems structures, dynamics of interactions, patterns of behavior, and their impacts and uncertainties.  Open futures suggest an infinite number of possible different development paths leading to different sets of outcomes. By simply juxta-posing three very different images of the future, as in a scenario set, helps us to open our minds to the vast number of possible futures that are evoked with the help of a good scenario set.  At the same time, we have three clearly structured and salient future spaces that we can point to and talk about when we have to take into account open futures in decisions today.

In the scenario approaches in the NEXUS FUTURES project, the common journey of scenario development is part of the goal.  All who engage in the participatory process in our workshops already during each workshop can gain new insights from dialogues that should be salient to defining their strategies, priorities and projects. The scenario set can also provide a framework for future-oriented systems thinking to test national policies and action plans together with recommended measures for implementation.

The national scenarios are being developed in a process that comprised interviews as well as  three workshops  with experts and stakeholders from different sectors including agronomy, climatology, hydrology, ecology, architecture, energy, land planning, art, economics, education and environmental policy.

A total of 63 participants from a wide variety of organisations participated in the three workshops. The first workshop was held on 18th & 19th June 2018, the second on the 27th November 2018 and the final on 29th Janaury 2019. The resulting narratives created by the workshop participants are now being enriched through collaboration with working groups and experts. The outcome of this process will be a rich set of plausible but challenging future scenarios for Luxembourg.

Collaborative conceptual systems mapping

Already at school we learn to break down complex dynamic situations into simple problems with well-defined and usually linear unidirectional cause-effect relationships between two elements, or a couple more.  In reality however everything is interdependent, there are multiple feedback loops where outcomes change inputs, and there are time delays.  How can we become better at grasping which influences across diverse elements may matter most to shape patterns of behavior? And to make ourselves understood, when trying to convey this?

There are many approaches to represent complex systems in simplified diagrams. However, we often feel overwhelmed by the large number of factors that might be included in such diagrams. The approach to collaborative conceptual systems mapping chosen for the NEXUS FUTURES project, allows groups of participants from different sectors of society to establish a common representations of which influences matter most to determine systemic outcomes and patterns of behavior, and to analyse jointly how undesirable patterns might be changed by improving our self-organisation through new social structures and practices.

The chosen method of collaborative conceptual system mapping offers two advantages: Firstly, it allows aspects of change in society, technology, and the environment to be considered in relation to each other. Therefore, the method brings together knowledge and experience from different policy, practice and scientific fields, shifting attention to processes of mutual influence between these spheres, rather than on individual systems elements or precise cause-effect relationships within just one subsystem.. Secondly, the method aims to create manageable influence diagrams with a limited number of interrelated factors that illustrate key influences on our behavior as we engage with water and soil that the diverse participants all deem to be of central importance.

The participants in the workshops are therefore encouraged to agree on a limited number of related factors. The value of the system diagrams lies not in their reflection of a single truth, but rather in their capacity to enable a rich, structured and problem-focused dialogue, which is necessary for creating the diagrams. Through the dialogue on prerequisites for and potential impacts of actions and solutions participants develop a better understanding of each other’s perspectives and what is important and of value for whom and why. As a result, common action fields can be identified, and common plans on how the system’s organization might be improved through human action, such that new patterns of behavior emerge become evident.  Such dialogues provide a promising basis for exploring future collaboration between stakeholders across different interests and world views. More details on the processes and results are outlined in the workshop reports.

Following are some examples of system diagrams on water in Luxembourg, which were prepared during the national scenario workshop on 18 & 19 June 2018: