This paper describes a formalized approach to identify and engineer future-oriented land use systems. Such land use systems can be used to explore options for strategic decision making with respect to land use policy and to do ex-ante assessment of land use alternatives to be further tested or developed in experimental settings. The so-called goal-oriented approach consists of three steps: (1) goal-oriented identification and design of land use systems; (2) quantification of biophysical production possibilities; and (3) defining the optimal mix of inputs, i.e. the production technique, required to realize production possibilities. The goal-oriented identification and design depends on the land-related objectives of a system under study, whereas plant, animal and environmental characteristics determine biophysical production possibilities. Characteristics of the production technique determine the realization of production possibilities. General guidelines are given to structure the specification and number of alternatives to be explored and to apply agro-ecological principles required for quantification of future-oriented land use systems. Concepts of the approach are illustrated with data from the northern Atlantic zone of Costa Rica and the Sudano–Sahelian zone of Mali. Finally, suggestions are given for the application of the approach at spatial and temporal scales exceeding the field level and time horizon of 1 year.