Planning Under Uncertainty

Planning Under Uncertainty

There’s a saying: “forecasts are always wrong.” But we, as planners and analysts, spend a great deal of our time and energy trying to anticipate and plan for the future. How then, do we manage a world of compounding and multiple uncertainties?

In September, 2022, I had the privilege of attending the TRB Scenario Planning Conference. It was fortuitous timing, as EBP and our partners at High Street Consulting Group, C2G, Michael Baker International, and Redd Engineering were about to dive head first into the NCHRP Project 08-154 Guidance for Agencies to Incorporate Uncertainty into Long-Range Transportation Planning. As Principal Investigator, I was looking forward to (and a little bit intimidated by!) the challenge of developing guidance on why, when, where, and how to consider and manage uncertainty within the long-range transportation planning and investment decision-making process. 

In any case, while at the conference, I heard Robert Lempert of RAND describe traditional planning as a two-step process: 

Predict then Act


Scenario planning, and methods like it, try to reach beyond this framework to ask, not “what will happen?” but “what could happen?” and “how do we best prepare for many different futures?” 

As described by Alan Iny of BCG during the conference, scenario planning can help us look for resilient strategies in a new way: 

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We are now a few months into our foundational scan and review of practice related to planning under uncertainty. To say my team and I are learning a lot would be an understatement. I will have much more to share over time as we develop and eventually publish our findings, but for now, let me offer just a few of my own observations thus far: 

Planning under uncertainty may sound radical and new, but in some ways, it means going back to the core philosophies and cyclical nature of good planning. The “Plan, Do, Check, Act” framework (developed by W. Edwards Deming building on prior work by Walter A. Shewhart), for example, emphasizes monitoring the outcomes from implementing a plan, so that adaptation and continuous improvement are enabled. In that same vein, learning is critical to building a flexible organization that can handle change and the unexpected. This means that to really make use of methods like scenario planning or risk management, you need staff engagement and institutional buy-in. 

I also believe that it means that diversity in perspectives, skills, and lived experience of the people in an organization is crucial. We are better positioned to learn and adapt collectively if we have a wide range of perspectives and knowledge to tap into. This is further justified as the types of uncertainty that we face in transportation require new knowledge and connections outside the traditional boundaries of State DOTs and MPOs. For example, planning for fleet electrification requires coordination with utilities in ways that have never happened before. 

While all of that may sound great, a core challenge is limited organizational time and capacity. To truly mainstream planning for uncertainty, we need to figure out a way to make it not a “nice to have” or “in emergencies” activity. It is crucial to identify and leverage the opportunities within the existing day-to-day activities and responsibilities of transportation planning agencies. For example, State DOTs must develop Transportation Asset Management Plans (TAMPs), including consideration of uncertainty within each TAMP’s Risk Management Plan section. Similarly, financial plans within long-range transportation plans present the opportunity to consider funding uncertainty. 

We also need to build a shared community of practice that demonstrates the value of doing things differently. It’s not easy to be a first adopter of methods or approaches, so there is incredible value in sharing best practices and lessons learned across organizations. 

I look forward to learning and sharing more over the coming months. I hope you join me!