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How scenarios could support the orientation of R&I agendas


Ulli Lorenz

Jun 27, 2022

Making use of the four “Imaginaries for a Sustainable Europe[1] in 2050”presented by the European Environment Agency and the Eionet[2]

Making use of the four “Imaginaries for a Sustainable Europe[1] in 2050”presented by the European Environment Agency and the Eionet[2]


The European Green Deal is the flagship initiative of the European Commission to turn Europe into a climate-neutral continent and foster the transition towards a modern and resource-efficient economy. Four areas with ambitious goals have been defined in the strategy: becoming climate-neutral; protecting human life, as well as flora and fauna by cutting pollution; helping companies become world leaders in developing clean products and technologies, and helping to ensure a just and inclusive transition.

Nobody could really question these broad goals. Nonetheless, it is likely that most people have different associations and inner images when thinking about e.g. climate neutrality, and it is important to seek to clarify what is behind such broad concepts.

Such debates and orientations about sustainability are not new at all. The beginning of the exploration, of what sustainability is, or better said should be, goes back to the late 1980s: from the Brundtland Commission in 1987 and later in 1992 with the Rio conference, sustainability rests on three pillars: a social, environmental and an economic pillar. This very first conceptualisation was, on the one hand, a breakthrough in the global political arena but was later mainly criticised for the missing mutual interactions and the integration of the three pillars. The critique is not entirely fair. The pillars have always been coupled, but often one was given a stronger focus. It was even used to promote the economic paradigm of growth to be in the position to finance social systems and environmental protection. Without going into details at that stage, this decoupled debate was mainly possible by the missing internalisation of external (environmental) costs. Nonetheless, it was the first time that on a global political agenda, it was acknowledged that the immense production and consumption creating waste and pollution and social imbalances globally could not be a model for the future.

One of the most recent conceptualisations by the United Nations uses seventeen sustainability goals (SDG), including economic development, resource efficiency and environmental goals, amongst others. Since adopting these goals, many initiatives have been put in place across the world. However, the goals, especially on a more concrete level, can be conflicting and are partially contradicting each other. For example, SDG 9 promotes industrial production, which might conflict with decreased resource use (SDG 12) and pollution (SDG 15). Depending on how such developments are shaped, also equity and justice are not guaranteed as still, profitability dominates the economic discourse. Such issues are commonly resolved by the argument that priorities are different in different regions of the world and that the concept, therefore, needs to be adapted to regional specificities. Furthermore, even when goals are reached, that does not automatically imply that different countries have taken the same measures and pathways towards the same goal.

All in all, even with more details on what is meant by “sustainability”, still further clarification can help. The concept can be seen as a plain field to freely manoeuvre: sustainability is the vision, and the planetary boundaries define the corridor in which it can be reached based on different values, cultural heritage and available resources.

The Green Deal is an attempt to further shape sustainability for Europe. But it goes without saying that the goals and ideas are still broad and can be realised completely differently in different regions of Europe. There are twenty-four official languages in Europe and twenty-seven member countries with different cultures and values. Some countries have coastlines, others have no access to the sea at all. Also, population density varies significantly across the different countries. Some countries have a focus on industrial production, others on agricultural production or on IT services. Sustainable solutions must differ across the different European regions. Here the scenarios/imaginaries co-created by the European Environment Agency (EEA) and its country network Eionet kick in as a useful tool to further explore what concrete alternative options for shaping sustainability are.


Whenever it comes to “thinking in different options”, it is a good starting point to think in scenarios. The term “scenario” originates from the theatre world and literally means the description of the set-up of the stage for a specific scene. The relation to the theatre is useful: the same scene in the same play might look completely different, depending on the art director, the tradition of the theatre, the city and the expected audience. In all cases, one can describe the stage and all items needed for the play. The same applies to the scenarios: the play is “sustainability”, and the items are the different areas that strongly impact it and are highly uncertain. In the terminology of scenario management, these items are the key factors or dimensions. The specific variant of the “item” is called projection. Certainly, there are different techniques for systematically thinking about the future and setting up scenarios. One of these approaches is called “Scenario Management” or “Scenario-Technique” where in the core, a set of relevant key factors is identified, and for each key factor, different (3-5) projections are constructed. These key factors form, together with the projections, a morphological box. A consistent combination of one projection per key factor forms the skeleton for one scenario.

This kind of scenario management technique has been applied in the project “Scenarios for a sustainable Europe in 2050” by the EEA and the Eionet. Based on the normative concept of sustainability – as framed in the Green Deal – a set of influencing factors was first collected in a participatory process along with the STEEP categories (Social, Technological, Environmental, Economical and Political). Factors like “values, lifestyles, attitudes towards sustainability”, “Production and consumption of energy”, “Role of technology”, or “Pattern of European cooperation” have been selected, next to others. These key factors define the skeleton of the narrative of how sustainability can be shaped in Europe.

The four imaginaries of the European Environment Agency and the Eionet

The four imaginaries are called: “Technocracy for the common good”, “Ecotopia”, “The great decoupling”, and “Unity in adversity.

The detailed descriptions of the imaginaries can be found on the webpage of the EEA:

All scenarios carry elements that are visible already today. In addition, these scenarios are normative in the sense that only sustainable solutions are covered in the key factors and projections. The bandwidth of different developments in the scenarios is not that wide or extreme. It is striking that these imaginaries also represent different current discourses in Europe, which makes this kind of assessment especially rich. The imaginary “Technocracy for the common good” advocates technological innovation as the key solution to a sustainable development in Europe. In contrast, “Ecotopia” promotes a “back to nature and communitarian” solution. The imaginary “The great decoupling” focuses on a neo-liberal path toward solving all challenges economically, while the imaginary “Unity in adversity” suggests a strong top-down EU policy as the central key to sustainability.

Apparently, tensions and possibly conflicting objectives between the different solutions and certain protagonists lead the public debate. The imaginaries do not resolve the conflicting goals but allow to make these different discourses visible and accessible for an informed political debate.

How could R&I make use of such kinds of scenarios or imaginaries? Should all discourses be supported or followed by in the research programmes? Who are the prominent actors in the field having an interest in one or the other solution? Which role does the subsidiary principle play? How much freedom and independence are needed for shaping sustainability effectively in the different regions of Europe? How must this be reflected in the Research Programmes?

Imagine us starting to cross-link the discourses to some domains in R&I. For example, how would R&I be shaped within the different discourses?


Education/ Research




Digitally supported high tech.

Filter technologies

Artificial intelligence and digitalisation in schools/universities

Digital health assistant systems

Smart grids, smart metering, high tech, AI


Ecological agriculture. Animal wealth

More alternative forms of education

Alternative health approaches

Renewable energy, energy saving

Economic growth

Globalised markets define agricultural production

Private schools, performance-oriented

Privatisation, profit-oriented, market-driven, research by companies

Market-based mechanisms


Strong planning

Definition of curricula by government

Research by state organisations, agenda defined by the government

Planning and research, and funding by the state

This table is not a completed research project but illustrates in simple a way how a different discourse might shape the orientation of the research agenda.

In such a sense, the imaginaries of the EEA and the Eionet are useful tools to support the political exchange and reconsider R&I policy. We can assume that there are different solutions to a sustainable Europe. Which is (where?) the most effective? How fast do we need to transform? What are the most urgent topics and issues to resolve? Is transformation always the solution to the problems? Shall we be prepared for the less attractive transformations? And how?

Scenarios like those from the EEA and the Eionet do not deliver all the answers. But they help to concretise abstract concepts like “Sustainability”. And such scenarios help to facilitate a debate about what we as a society want. Interestingly, current discourses are all well reflected in such scenarios, and while the tone of the protagonists of the discourses might be harsh on social media, with the help of such scenarios, the options and viewpoints can stand next to each other, and the discussions get a different characteristic.

How would YOU like to shape sustainability for and in Europe? And what are the most important research topics?

Let's exchange on the future of Europe.


[1] Europe stands for the 27 countries being in the European Union. [2] The European Environment Information and Observation Network (Eionet) is a partnership network of the European Environment Agency and its 38 member and cooperating countries.





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