Redefining tomorrow through strategic foresight.
‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.’
– Niels Bohr
When we plan with foresight, we can better adapt to emerging issues, trends and risks. Given the given endless possibilities of current and potential crises that cities are dealt with, strategic foresight offers a way for them to better understand uncertainty, complexity and dynamic change, and translate those into policies, strategies and actions.
Some of the most widely known tools in this planning approach include horizon-scanning, trend analysis, road mapping and scenario planning. These provide a a systematic approach to long-term urban planning, in a bid to increase city resilience and sustainability.
In the context of a consultancy project at the University of Cambridge, and in collaboration with the Resilient Cities Network (R-Cities), we sought to understand how strategic foresight is used in different urban contexts. Our research methodology included the collection of three case studies: Barcelona (Spain), Calgary (Canada) and Paris (France). These were enriched with interviews with the respective Chief Resilience Officers (CROs), allowing the assessment of real-life examples where strategic foresight has been used in the context of city planning to enhance urban resilience.
Figure 1: City Foresight considers different types of futures (Source: Adapted from Government Office for Science, 2016)
City of Barcelona
“To what extent can we use data and information to foresee what is happening?”
– Ares Gabas, Head of the Urban Resilience Department, Barcelona City Council
Barcelona’s approach to resilience and foresight focuses on risk management, risk analysis and risk reduction. Resilience has been institutionalized within the wider City Council through the Municipal Resilience Committee, a committee of several stakeholders who focus on identifying strategic changes and project developments to address potential risks. To plan for the future, resources have been dedicated to the study and understanding of past events, while simultaneously promoting a more proactive approach to resilience to assess future trends and vulnerabilities. The Committee strives to gain a better understanding of risks and their potential impacts to implement projects and develop proposals to improve. These can either eliminate the root causes or their probability of occurrence and help cities to better prepare for and enhance its resilience capacities to absorb any potential impacts.
City of Paris
“Resilience is human first, not simply a technocratic process.”
– Noémie Fompeyrine, Head of Resilience, Strategic Foresight, Research and Innovation, Ville de Paris
Paris’ approach to incorporating strategic foresight into its resilience planning includes (i) territorial strategic foresight, (ii) prospective strategic foresight, and (iii) creative and participatory strategic foresight. Paris has a strong focus on citizen participation and engagement in the use of strategic foresight. By including Parisians in the formation of scenarios and visions for their city through collective exercises, the city enables them to imagine potential futures and identify solutions advance urban resilience together.
City of Calgary
“Some signals were suggesting a future we did not want to see.”
– Heather Galbraith, Program Lead, Resilience & Futures, City of Calgary
The City of Calgary, developed a corporate-wide strategic foresight program as part of their Resilience Calgary strategy coined “Future-Focused Calgary”, to improve decision making and incorporate futures thinking into long-term planning, strategy and policy development. To identify emerging changes that could shape the future of Calgary, Calgary’s Resilience Team set up the FYI Calgary Scan Club.The club identified 200 signals of change that could disrupt the expected future. and created future scenarios (set in 2035) that stakeholders could use to stress-test their strategies and policies so that they are more resilient and future-ready. The City of Calgary is now adapting this model so that local government and communities can better sense, shape and prepare for different futures and emerging stresses, shocks, and opportunities – ultimately to create a more resilient and future-ready Calgary.
While there is not a single path forward in an uncertain future, three broad elements of successful future-focused thinking were identified. These can help a city learn from past experiences, identify potential future risks, and implement solutions which fit with the city’s current portfolio of resilience projects. These include:
- Exploring the resilience landscape by gathering information about the future using foresight tools. This includes using data to discover vulnerabilities, coping capacities, and drivers of change.
- Building a resilience portfolio of preliminary solutions to emerging problems. These can be iteratively tested and appraised through the lens of resilience characteristics and sustainable development principles that reflect the unique needs of the city.
- Implementing projects by prioritizing the solutions that provide holistic benefits considering the context, capacity, and available resources that the city has available.
Below are some examples of questions which decision-makers can ask while progressing through the above stages:
Figure 2: Examples of Capacity Building Questions (Source: Authors)
Additionally, cities must be able to adapt to emerging information and learn from changes in the urban landscape. The varying approaches taken by R-Cities’ member cities indicate the multiple ways to approach and deal with future risk. For instance, Barcelona is building data-driven dashboards and vulnerability maps to better understand past events and inform strategic decision-making. Another approach, taken by Paris, is championing creative projects which encourage local communities to imagine the future of their city.
The future’s uncertainty is inherent, but its consideration is crucial for decision-makers. Various frameworks and tools using strategic foresight enable city officials and planners to navigate through different futures. Nevertheless, there are no fit-for-all recipes. Different cities have varying sets of problems, which require different solutions. The Barcelona, Paris and Calgary case studies showed various approaches to resilience.
Barcelona views resilience to be dealing with risks through institutionalized actions, Paris utilizes the foresight approach and creative processes, while Calgary focuses on capacity building and highlights the importance of communication. All three examples highlighted the importance of incorporating and understanding the local context and characteristics to build a resilient city.
The solutions to the identified problems or risks should be determined through an iterative process, allowing solutions to evolve as new inputs from evaluation and monitoring emerge. We acknowledge the limitations each city might have to its resources, and prioritization is a noteworthy suggestion that might untangle the complexities of a city.
Knowing that the future holds the probable and improbable, risk identification will allow the process of learning to be included in the planning. ‘Learning’ is essential for generating outcomes and feedback processes that will lead to optimal solutions. In the end, accepting uncertainty is the first step towards a resilient city.
Co-Authored by team pursuing MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development at the University of Cambridge.