Adaptive planning and adaptive pathways

By Marjolijn Haasnoot

The adaptation pathways approach to decision making under deep uncertainty emerged almost 15 years ago. The approach explores alternative sequences of decisions (adaptation pathways) for multiple futures and illuminates the path dependency of alternative strategies. The Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathways method provides stepwise guidance to support the design of an adaptive plan based on exploring and evaluating adaptation pathways. Such a plan includes initial actions, long-term options, and adaptation signals to identify when to implement the long-term options or revisit decisions.

The “Adaptive planning and adaptive pathways” session will highlight three elements of the pathways approach to adaptive planning: the exploration of pathways, governance and implementation of an adaptive plan, and the evaluation of pathways.

An approach to exploring adaptation pathways is the use of storylines that describe sequences of developments and events, their impacts and human and natural responses that can on their turn affect the changing conditions. Coultier and Dessai use storylines to explore causal links between climate related weather events and their impacts to offer decision makers a better understanding and imagination of the future under uncertain climate change. Their climate risk storylines are communicated through words and visualization.

Since its emergence the pathways approach it has been applied in practice in flood risk and water resources management, in particular under uncertain climate change. New Zealand adopted the approach in its national guidance to coastal adaptation and the Netherlands and the city of London have used the approach to design an adaptive plan to adapt to climate change. Applications in other domains, such as transport and forest management, exist.

While the scientific literature on adaptive pathways planning is growing, and the approach is being adopted in practice, real-world implementation of adaptive plans has received little attention in literature. Malekpour and Newig address this gap. They have reviewed 40 cases of adaptive planning applications and assessed whether these studies identified enablers and barriers to implementation. On the one hand they found a lack of long-term adaptation strategies and focus efficiency with rapid delivery, on the other hand the found studies that addressed governance and investments beyond short-term budget cycles. Based on the review Malekpour will provide lessons for governance to get adaptive plans implemented. Evaluation of alternative pathways to assess trade-offs helps to identify preferred pathways and an adaptive plan under uncertain changing conditions. Most studies evaluate cost and benefits of pathways under multiple futures. Gold and Reed go beyond traditional trade-off analyses of performance objectives, with an interactive visual decision analytic framework. This framework shows a broad set of trade-offs including performance robustness, and vulnerabilities. They will illustrate the framework for the Sedento Valley test case.

About this Blog Post:

This blog post is part of a series of posts contributed by the chairs of the 2020 DMDU Annual Meeting. For more information about the Annual Meeting, including registration, visit our website at We hope to (virtually) see you soon!

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