The future of the biosphere

Biosphere Futures is an online database that offers a global collection of place-based social-ecological scenario case studies. Here, practitioners and researchers can learn about scenarios and find resources, explore case studies from around the world and showcase their own work.

The Earth is a living planet. As far as we know, the only living planet in the Universe. The “Biosphere” is the place on Earth’s surface where life dwells, as defined in 1875 by geologist Eduard Suess. In 1968, the first intergovernmental Biosphere Conference was held in Paris. It was recognized that humans, including their social interactions, are an integrated part of the biosphere, and a key factor in modifying the biosphere. The Biosphere Conference declared firmly that the conservation and use of resources of the biosphere should go hand-in-hand rather than in opposition — thus promoting what we now call sustainable development — and that interdisciplinary scientific approaches should be promoted to achieve this aim. To that end, we created Biosphere Futures to promote the development and application of scenarios that explicitly incorporate interdependencies between humans and their supporting ecosystems. 

Creating a commons, to strengthen the practice

Our aim is to facilitate the use of social-ecological scenario planning for sustainable development of the Biosphere and help build a community of practice around social-ecological scenarios. 

We provide access to a rich collection of case studies from around that can be used to explore the various ways in which the future might unfold. Together, the case studies give insight into the diversity and plurality of people’s expectations and aspirations for the future, and help understand interactions between the Sustainable Development Goals in different social-ecological contexts.

Biosphere Futures is the product of a community effort. Case owners are encouraged to promote their work by contributing information about their study and share references to their products.

Supporting IPBES

With Biosphere Futures we aim to support the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and in particular its Task Force on Scenarios & Models.

IPBES is an intergovernmental body designed to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services. The main objective is to develop and present a knowledge base for international agreements. IPBES produces global and regional assessments that evaluate the state of knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem services. A key component of these assessment studies is an assessment of existing scenarios, to include future interactions between nature and people.

In 2016, IPBES produced a methodological assessment of scenarios and models of biodiversity and ecosystem services. An IPBES Task Force continues the work on scenarios and models. Their objectives are to support other IPBES work on the use of existing scenarios and models (e.g. assessments and other task forces), and catalyse the development and use of scenarios and models by the broader scientific community for future IPBES work.


The idea of creating the Biosphere Futures database was inspired by two articles. The first is the blog post by Jenny Seifert and Steve Carpenter, titled: We need a global collection of local case studies. The second is the peer-reviewed article led by Elisa Oteros Rozas, titled: Participatory scenario planning in place-based social-ecological research: insights and experiences from 23 case studies, published in Ecology and Society in 2015.

Furthermore, Biosphere Futures is inspired by the Regime Shifts DataBase, an open source resource providing examples of regime shifts in social-ecological systems, and the Seeds of Good Anthropocene project that builds a global database of “Seeds” – existing initiatives which hold the potential to shape the future.

Next steps

The current version of Biosphere Futures is a beta version focusing on a limited set of key functions. We will continue to develop this project in the near future and seek additional funding resources. A planned next step is to collect additional information for each case study in the database to facilitate cross-case comparisons and assessments. We encourage members of the community of practice to provide us with suggestions for improving the functionality of Biosphere Futures.

Associated projects

Seeds of the good Anthropocene

The Seeds of the good Anthropocene project aims to counterbalance dystopic visions of the future that may be inhibiting our ability to move towards a positive future for the Earth and humanity. The project does this by soliciting, exploring, and developing alternative visions of futures that are just, sustainable and desirable – “Good Anthropocenes”. The theory is that any “Good Anthropocene” will be radically different from the world as people know it, but will be composed of many elements already in existence today, called “seeds’. Seeds can be combined in unique and surprising ways to create almost unimaginable but plausible positive futures.

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Regime Shifts DataBase

The Regime Shifts DataBase is an open-source online resource that provides examples of regime shifts that have been documented in social-ecological systems. Regime shifts are large, persistent changes in the structure and function of social-ecological systems. Each example in the database is accompanied by an in-depth description of how the regime shifts works, the impacts it has, and how managers can build resilience to the shift. The initiative is led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and focuses specifically on regime shifts that have large impacts on ecosystem services, and therefore on human well-being.

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Wayfinder is a resilience guide for navigating towards sustainable futures. Wayfinder is produced by the Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for development (GRAID) program. GRAID served as a knowledge platform to streamline insights and the latest knowledge on resilience thinking and methods for assessing and approaches for building resilience, as a strategic support to the Global Resilience Partnership. Looking at alternative future trajectories is a key step in the Wayfinder resilience assessment process.

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UREx Sustainability Research Network

The Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRN) is led by Arizona State University and focuses on integrating social, ecological, and technical systems to devise, analyze, and support urban infrastructure decisions in the face of climatic uncertainty. The scenarios working group promotes visionary thinking by stakeholders, including policy-makers, planners, scientists, engineers, and city residents, through the development of desirable and plausible scenarios that analyze possible future pathways through which cities can achieve more resiliently designed infrastructures.

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Resilience Alliance

The Resilience Alliance is an international multidisciplinary research organization that focuses on resilience in social-ecological systems as a basis for sustainability. The RA approach involves three complementary strategies:

  1. Contributing toward theoretical advances in the dynamics of complex adaptive systems.
  2. Rigorous testing of theory through a variety of means, including: participatory approaches to regional case-studies, adaptive management applications, model development, and the use of scenarios
  3. Developing guidelines and principles that will enable others to assess the resilience of social-ecological systems and develop policy and management tools that support sustainable development.

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