Wondwossen Sintayehu is an environmental lawyer involved in several biodiversity, climate change, and chemicals laws in Ethiopia and beyond. He was instrumental in coordinating the development of Ethiopia’s Climate Change Strategy, and the recent update to it known as Ethiopia’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Wondwossen co-initiated the Destiny Ethiopia process, which implemented the Transformative Scenario Planning process creating Ethiopia’s 2040 Scenarios, and its sequel – the Multistakeholder Initiative for National Dialogue (MIND), which laid the basis for an all-inclusive national dialogue process in Ethiopia. Currently, this platform has given way to the establishment of the fully mandated National Dialogue Commission which will hopefully consider the work undertaken by the MIND. Before this, he served as a judge at the Federal First Instance Court in Ethiopia presiding over civil and criminal cases. He is currently coordinating a program known as Justice Transformation Lab, intended to initiate a multistakeholder process meant to transform the justice sector – a task implemented by the Ministry of Justice, JLRTI, Destiny Ethiopia together with The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (https://www.hiil.org/) in the Netherlands. He leads the work for Natural Justice (https://naturaljustice. org/) Ethiopia segment, and is the co-founder of Eco-Justice Ethiopia

Scenario construction: the diverge-emerge-converge continuum

Participants were informed of the embedded nature of iterations during the three workshops where they were engaged in a rather confidential set-up over six months. The iterations included seismic rhythms of three phases of divergence, emergence, and convergence. The Ethiopian scenario development process drew guidance from Adam Kahane – the key facilitator – and as such defines diverging as the phase where participants raise divergent ideas and alternatives; while emerging is taking time to let ideas settle and to “talk it through”; while converging relates to collectively concluding agreed-upon points as well as on “what to do next.” The guidance urged participants to be open and to invite “ …diversity of inputs in the diverging phase; the patience to stay with the confusing and uncomfortable and creative emerging phase, and the confidence to decide and move on in the converging phase—even if not everything is settled and agreed upon” (Kahane 2012:64).

Understanding what to expect in these rhythmic iterations helped participants to overcome the early anxiety created when learning the extent of diversity in the group.

It enabled them at least to be patient to see what comes next though with the remotest expectation of a consensus in the backdrop of such an immense level of differences on polarized interest points on issues of national concern.

The history wall: understanding the current reality and conceptualizing mental models

The 2040 Ethiopian Scenarios development occurred in a highly polarized political context. Given the prevailing reality, it ambitiously aimed to map out possibilities of what could happen. It thus called for a reasonable understanding of what the current reality is. While some level of mutual understanding of the present reality is anticipated, a complete agreement on the present situation is not and may not of course be demanded since everyone has her/ his reality depending on the angle from which she/ he is looking. The steps taken to construct the current reality were through the conceptualization of what is known as mental models through a description of historical epochs seen as fundamental in creating the current reality.

It was agreed by the Scenario Team members that any understanding of Ethiopia’s current reality is hinged on the country’s history. So that informed narratives or stories about plausible futures succeed, these stories must represent a combination of analysis and imagination and be challenging, credible, and convincing to their architects and audience (Chermack et al. 2002:374). The team was then guided to look into the past through the lens of specific events, which were later clustered into patterns. The team was then led into thinking of underlying structures of which the patterns were examples. Structures where higher narratives explaining recurring patterns were then employed to draw mental models or systems which describe the attitude we currently developed and the reasons behind them.

Issue framing: power plays in defining uncertainties

Among other things, food security stands out among the seven structural uncertainties delineated by the participants to base future scenarios. However, when it was flagged out as one uncertainty, it did not garner immediate acclamation by fellow participants. It was rather met with resistance. However, its solid proponent strongly stood for its inclusion among the other uncertainties, claiming that food security is a “make or break situation” for the country’s future. Being a woman that compelled the government with the School Meals Initiative in the country and strong advocacy for it that later ended in the inclusion of the meals program within primary school policy, she insisted on telling a story that is important for determining uncertainty. The woman has this story to tell:

There was this boy at my elementary school in Bahir Dar who does not mingle with his colleagues during lunch recess. He routinely picks up his lunch box and runs to the trees. The teachers complained that the boy has antisocial behavior. I sent them back to watch where he is going and what he is doing during lunch break. A couple of days later they came back with tears in their eyes, “the boy brings empty lunch boxes.” We later searched all the lunchboxes and were dumbfounded to see that most of the lunch boxes were empty. What is political leadership that does not provide necessities to children at the age they are most in need?

The storytelling session ended leaving the ‘big’ political leader shedding tears. It was a revealing moment for most of them. During the second workshop, she brought three small children to demonstrate the disconnection between the large political narratives and the lived realities of the kids. Students were bringing empty lunch boxes to school and pretended to eat during lunch recess, and going to class on empty stomachs. The participants were deeply touched with some of them openly crying during the testimony from the kids. A senior opposition political party leader exiled for more than 40 years later commented, “I never knew I could be this emotional, I cried after many, many years.” Such an experience eases the tension and assists the creation of a “safe space” for further discussion.

It enabled them at least to be patient to see what comes next though with the remotest expectation of a consensus in the backdrop of such an immense level of differences on polarized interest points on issues of national concern.

Pivoting the issue to her agency, the scenario team member placed ‘food security as a fundamental factor determining future economic development and inclusion. In her assessment, it was a central issue that cannot be sidelined when forecasting any possible future for the country. Looking at the way she framed it, her peers could not keep the issue off the agenda during the discussion on “Uncertainties.” There were counterarguments for the proposal from those members who at best found it redundant and verbose as environmental change is already included and where food security or insecurity is established as a direct function of environmental degradation. Other counterarguments related to the uncertainty already established collectively by the group on economic inclusivity.

As one participating member argued, at the heart of economic inclusivity is economic development that pertains to all, and this is driven by food security or insecurity.” As stated above, the proponent could not let go of it and used all emerging opportunities to repeat andcement her arguments. During the second residential workshop, she offered to serve as a subject matter expert on the topic of food security. She used the circus tent to cast a video that narrated the history of the Ethiopian School Meals Initiative where three small children gave testimonies of the experience. It was an emotion-filled session that left most of the participants crying. The next day, food security was endorsed by the participants as one of the seven uncertainties determining Ethiopian future scenarios.

This was an explicit use of agency, entrepreneurship, and strong advocacy by a Scenario Team member to resist group rejection of an idea and make use of information towards one’s end. The rest of the participants relented fighting against an idea repeatedly forwarded and later wholeheartedly agreed to include food [in]security as an essential theme characterizing the future of Ethiopia.

Knowledge integration

Global SPI mechanisms such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) have seen the need to embrace location-based knowledge. Typically, the IPBES recognizes indigenous and local knowledge as this has a central role in biodiversity conservation. Both platforms have instituted mechanisms of aggregating localized knowledge through what are known as Technical Support Units (TSUs) within the structure of the platform.

In the Ethiopian Scenario development process, organizers saw the need of bringing onboard local knowledge in influencing future scenarios. Two elders – a local elder from the remote south and a religious leader of the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia were both invited to provide their insights on sharing experiences about realizing an amicable future for all Ethiopians. The elderly from southern Ethiopia, not only articulate in the local culture but also a linguist at a university, provided an example where he and a couple of other elders from his team bowed down before outraged mob leaders and saved the destruction of an iconic, local resort center.

In the Ethiopian Scenario development process, organizers saw the need of bringing onboard local knowledge in influencing future scenarios

Having heard that the mob was coming our way, we quickly dressed in the local outfits, grabbed freshly harvested grasses in our hands, and kneeled, blocking the lane towards the resort. It would mean that the agitated mob has to kill us first before the mob sets the hotel on fire as they have done elsewhere. Rather, the infuriated mob paused, took moments with themselves, and accepted our call for mercy in a complete local fashion.

What is in a name? Labeling the scenarios and the search for meanings

Deliberate or inadvertent, naming the four draft scenarios was a strenuous effort that took lengthy deliberations among participants compared to some of the constituent processes of scenario construction. A spin-off group was assigned to the larger Scenario participants to deal with naming the scenarios. Lessons were considered from other countries that underwent similar processes such as South Africa, Colombia, and Mexico. While it assumed the names of birds in South Africa, it was the title of folklores in Colombia and children’s games in Mexico. In each case, the future scenarios were presented in four alternative destinies futures with distinct pathways. In these countries, the naming did not have a specific negative reference at sight. With a closer look, all framing and naming of the three scenarios were negative while the remainder was a positive one, where it was looked upon by spectators.

The course it took in Ethiopia was different. There were 22 volunteers to take this assignment forward who fought for days on end to arrive at the four names – Dawn, Hegemony, Divided House, and Broken Chair Scenarios. All but one are negative at sight. It looks like it is designed to lock choice on the positively framed one as an obvious course to be pursued. However, this is not how different audiences interpreted it. During the dissemination phase, media personnel stated that Ethiopia needs a “divided house scenario where all regional states are more powerful than the federal, and the latter will only have spillover/ residual competences over the country.” In another session, a workshop participant argued for the rationale of having a hegemon for a while to bind an already divided society and saw that it is “the only option to continue as a nation”.

The fact that many of the participants volunteered in the extra effort of naming the scenarios was, in itself, telling of the ownership that evolved among the members. In an interview about the process, one participant said, “which parent would give up naming his child to a stranger? At least he takes advice, reserving the autonomy to himself.” The coordinator of the Destiny Ethiopia process reiterates “there were a maximum of 12 and a minimum of 6 names suggested to designate a particular scenario. One can see the challenge of building consensus and arriving at four names from a total of around 30 or more suggestions. At first, everyone seemed to cling to its particular name suggestion and did not wish to give it up for others. However, their improved relationship and the understanding they created helped them to make a courageous determination.”

The result of the scenarios development process did not end when achieving the core product but continued with naming them – which was the ultimate expression of ownership of the collective product in the co-creation.

Key takeaways from the process

It is abundantly clear that the policy space is much more complex than what the linearity assumptions and attempts to explain. Instead, collaborative knowledge creation is lending alternative conceptualization by bringing together knowledge generators, policymakers, and end-users into the policy space. Recent experiences demonstrate how these co-creative exercises shape even inbounded, localized, political spaces such as happened in Ethiopia’s Transformative Scenario Planning course. Provision and sustenance of safe spaces for trustworthy, and inclusive engagement of participants have proven to yield beyond the technicalities of facilitation often argued for in participatory processes. Collaboration is deceptively simple (Allo 2020) but difficult to implement as it may require working with people we don’t like, trust, or even want to work with (Kahane 2012).

…collaborative knowledge creation is lending alternative conceptualization by bringing together knowledge generators, policymakers, and endusers into the policy space.

In the Ethiopian scenario’s development process, participants from opposite corners with seemingly irreconcilable differences were seen to collaborate to influence the future.

As some would note later, the process was a demonstration of “how a major national conversation can be had between people who disagree with one another when we embrace the messy realities of political life, or, … to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust.”(Allo 2020). While collaborative spaces would require tailored designs to enable the interchange of information among the many players specific to that space, there are significant learnings to glean from this recent process.

First, participants representing diverse corners of the space in question have to be pulled toward the intended conversation. The role of the convenors is undoubtedly important to ensure that participants will be comprehensive and inclusive of all to represent the system we want to change. Diversified representation can be attained by ensuring that the convening team itself is diverse enough to create a “microcosm” of the bigger reality intended to emulate. Secondly, there is a need to create a “safe space” for participants to engage at ease where trust grows slowly and organically. This is cumulative of nurturing trust, empathy, and a persistent assurance that all voices are taken seriously.

In areas where collective action problems are prevalent, and multiple players have individual roles in effecting change, collaboration is a must. This is evident in some of the wicked environmental problems that we see today amongst which climate change is the major one. When designing the space for collaboration, the value of attracting several voices to the middle in a space free and trusted by all is a consideration to make.

From the experience of global bodies such as IPCC and IPBES, where indigenous and local knowledge is tapped and brought to the fore, it is imperative to bring on board traditionally neglected knowledge sources. Local practitioners including grassroots communities should have a say on knowledge of climate adaptation. It is also important to understandnational and global knowledge uptake routes, for aggregating knowledge from the bottom up as well as integrating mainstream knowledge with the indigenous. In this regard, while the value of organizational structures in the likes of Technical Support Units is important at the global level, the influence of local leaders in bringing local knowledge to the national is equally recognizable. In the Ethiopian scenario building process, custodians of local knowledge are directly integrated into the collective scenario generation platform where they were allowed to integrate their previous understandings and individual experiences directly into the collective policy patchwork.

Climate scenario projections such as being coordinated through the IPCC need to result in a process for ownership. Ownership emanates from an improved relationship. It propels collective action. This has been demonstrated around the culmination of Ethiopia’s Transformative Scenario Planning process. While the process presented a tough challenge for the coordinators and the participants, it ended up creating a strong sense of ownership of the result. This was later demonstrated in the epic image of holding hands while declaring the future Ethiopia wants in an event on the 3rd December 2019, where the participants held hands and narrated the process they went through together, the possible futures for Ethiopians, and their desired scenario which they collectively agreed to pursue. Understandably, there are differences in thinking the same process as global or local climate policy processes. However, the need to create a sense of ownership is one vital element in co-creative platforms by infusing small steps such as processes for naming scenarios.


Allo, A. (2020, January 08). Opinion: Writing Ethiopia’s future: Reflections on Destiny Ethiopia’s Transformative Scenario Planning Process. Addis Standard. https:// addisstandard.com/opinion-writing-ethiopiasfuture-reflections-on destiny-ethiopiastransformative-scenario-planning-process/.
Accessed 20 January 2020.

Chermack, T. J., & Lynham, S. A. (2002). Definitions and outcome variables of scenario planning. Human Resource Development Review, 1(3), 366-383.

Kahane, A. (2012). Transformative scenario planning: Working together to change the future. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


shares his experience of the design process behind the multi-stakeholder dialogue that projects four possible outcomes twenty years into the future. The first part of the article is an exploration of the process and literature that served as the knowledge base for the co-creative space known as the Destiny Ethiopia Initiative. It details the election process of the participants, explains how safe spaces were fostered due to the clandestine nature of the experience, and outlines the literature/research used to inform the process

As a result, a coalition of 50 prominent thinkers and relevant voices, despite their divergent perspectives, collaborated to address Ethiopia’s deep-rooted challenges through dialogue to produce a shared vision of a desirable future. This interactive process birthed the four scenarios Dawn, Divided House, Broken Chair, and Hegemony, one of which was endorsed as the favorable future.