Visions: finding common ground, building positive futures

What is it that we as a society want from our relationship with the land in the 21st century? With a ‘perfect storm’ of ecological and social challenges brewing (Beddington, 2009), there is a strong argument to be made for far more transformative changes in the way that we interact both with one another and with nature.

An example of a vision created by stakeholders as part of the VOLANTE project – ‘Regional Connected’

But how can we bring about these kind of changes? Society must balance a wide range of environmental and other diverse aspirations (Kenter, 2016). Traditionally, management of ecosystem services (or the benefits that we receive from the environment) has focused on making decisions around trade-offs (Kenter, 2016), whether these be between land uses, or different groups within society. So far, this approach has not been as effective as hoped in influencing policy decisions, and can lead to conflicts between different groups.

To move forward, we must come together around a shared vision for the future (Kenter, 2016). Visions are a branch of ‘futures-thinking’, which provide a range of plausible and coherent descriptions of positive futures (Verkerk et al, 2016). More broadly, futures thinking aims to both acknowledge and address barriers to thinking openly and creatively about the future (Cork, 2016).


Approaches such as this have the potential to help to make better informed decisions. In particular, visions pose important challenges in terms of the policy, strategies and governance, technological developments and changes in lifestyle needed to achieve them (Perez-Soba et al. 2016). As such, they can stimulate dialogue, help to build consensus on shared priorities, and support planning by providing long term targets. Their role in helping to find common ground between diverse viewpoints is particularly valuable.

In the case of discussions around targets for woodland expansion in Scotland, there is an opportunity for visions to have a role in both searching for common ground between diverse stakeholder groups, and in thinking openly and creatively about the types of woodland that can be encouraged and how the Scottish government aspiration can be met.

My research is using stakeholder visions for woodland expansion to explore the effect of different visions on the benefits that we receive from the environment, and to test novel mechanisms for encouraging woodland creation. If you’re interested in finding out more, drop me an email at, or tweet @vee_burton.


Beddington (2009) Food, energy, water and the climate: a perfect storm of global events? In Conference presentation given to the Sustainable Development UK Annual Conference, QEII Conference Centre, London, 19 March 2009.

Cork (2016) Using futures thinking to support ecosystem assessments, Ecosystem Services Handbook, Routledge, New York

Kenter (2016) Editorial: Shared, Plural and Cultural Values, Ecosystem Services, 21, 175-183

Perez-Soba et al. (2015) Visions of future land use in Europe: stakeholder visions for 2040, VOLANTE consortium, MediaCenter, Rotterdam

Verkerk et al. (2016) Identifying pathways to visions of future land use in Europe, Regional Environmental Change, DOI 10.1007/s10113-016-1055-7


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