Last year I participated in a large scenario planning effort as part of the University of Oxford’s “Future of Cities” programme. The project interviewed a range of business leaders, property developers, environmentalists, community activists, political scientists, engineers, architects and designers from around the world. It then extracted a variety of themes and drivers in using a traditional STEEP framework and synthesised these into three scenarios through several workshops. Although the scenario process was inductive, the final scenarios were presented on a 2×2 deductive grid to help explain their dominant logics to the stake-holder group.
Key themes and implicationsThe three scenarios for the future of cities were:
- Gulliver’s World: A world of continued progress and innovation for a reduced number of elites, surrounded by a large, fragmented fringe of developing world power blocks.
- Massive Sociotechnical Revolution: A world where climate change and peak oil severely strain cities across the globe, but produce a revolution in more holistic values led by a generation of young leaders championing a new work-life-ecology balance.
- Triumph of the Triads: A world where global systemic risks exceed our capacity to manage them, producing state failure, economic stagnation and predatory warlordism
- The simultaneous retreat of the State in some areas and its growing influence and power in others.
- Competition between civil society groups and community-driven initiatives versus the role of organised crime and warlords.
- The potential for large energy producers and infrastructure companies to act as local governments and municipal services providers.
- Cultural shifts towards enhanced quality-of-life values, including stronger family, ethnic or community bonds.
- A hopeful potential for civil society-led, bottom-up regeneration of local communities.
- A focus on wealthy, ageing communities.
- The end of most large infrastructure mega-projects.
Reactions to the scenariosI’ve since presented a version of these scenarios to several different groups, including a group of Leob Fellows at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and some of my colleagues at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Their reactions have been interesting. Most of the discussion tended to focus on either the “utopic” nature of the second scenario, “Sociotechnical Revolution”, or the dystopic nature of the third, “Triumph of the Triads”. “Gulliver’s World” seems to go by without much notice, almost as if it were automatically accepted as a matter of fact extrapolation of today’s current urban environments. [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="504" caption="Graphic representation of the three Future of Cities scenarios."][/caption]
Images of the futureBack in the 1980’s Jim Dator identified four generic archetypes of the future, which helps to shed light on people’s reactions to these scenarios. Dator posited that there are roughly four generic “images of the future” which people tend to gravitate towards. These were:
- Continued Growth
- Societal Collapse
- Conservation (i.e., managed decline)
“There are two chief routes to victory over an unknown future. The religious route and the secular route. One is eschatological and the other utopian…” “The pendulum of history is constantly swinging back and forth,” he writes. “Awareness of the future makes possible a conscious, voluntary and responsible choice between alternatives.”The combination of eschatological (i.e., pre-ordained, predetermined) or utopian world-views (i.e., future in the hands of humankind), and optimistic or pessimistic attitudes describes the essential outlines of our ability to think about the future. This can be seen in the grid below. Both strands can be seen in these scenarios and in people’s reactions to them. “Socio-technical Revolution” paints a picture of a radically transformed, hopeful vision, whereby society navigates its own course and optimistically overcomes its limitations through intelligent and compassionate choices. “Triumph of the Triads” paints an almost inevitable, pre-determined pessimism, where the world is essentially dark and man’s role to change it is limited or non-existent. The third, “Gulliver’s World”, is a hybrid of the two which combines a pessimistic view of the world and society’s reaction to limited resource (i.e., realpolitik) with an optimistic view of the self-determiniative power of a small group to continue to realise “heaven on Earth”, albeit from within a walled garden.
Lessons for other “Future of Cities” exercisesWhat does this all mean? Looking back it is interesting to see how the Oxford exercise were different from so many other “Future of the City” exhibitions on show this year such as the recent Audi Future of the City competition. While the Oxford scenarios span the gamut of human emotion and visions of the future and are richly detailed with realistic examples from key stake-holders and sectors, finalists in Audi competition consist mostly of high-tech visions of fancy cars and living cities managed by advanced IT-robotics; a kind of perfectly sustainable “City-Lite”. Other examples such as Cisco’s Connected Cities initiative or IBM’s Smarter Cities initiatives hew along similar lines.
Why the future is importantQuoting Dator again, the purpose of scenarios should be to take into account, “what is likely to happen, what people think will occur, and what kind of future we want.” Critical futurist Sohail Inayatullah calls this the “push of the present, the pull of the future and the weight of history”. Unfortunately most contemporary urban futures projects take an overly limited view of these factors, often resulting in a biased or short-sighted view of what tomorrow’s cities might look like. In fact most contemporary urban planning in general takes an overly limited view of these factors, as summarised by Isserman (1985) when he writes:
“Urban planning has lost sight of the future… creating increasingly feeble, myopic, degenerate frameworks that are more likely to react to yesterday’s events than to prepare the way from here to the future”Why are images of the future important? Because they define what we think is possible and desirable, thereby strongly influencing our actions in the present. Without both strong and wide images of the future, urban planning is likely to be, at best, “absorbed in operational and managerial activities characterised by short time horizons and value choices likely to be equally short-sighted and ad hoc” (Couclelis, 2005) or at worst, “anti-strategic and anti-intellectual” (Hall, 1996), subject to waste, gaming and inefficiencies at every level.