Many cities are struggling to cope with population growth and the challenges of climate change and depleting energy resources.
Having worked with city planning strategies in Melbourne, and researched many others from across the globe including those of Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro, one key challenge is in ensuring that strategic plans for major urban centres are robust and adaptable enough to withstand the pressures of population fluctuations and economic instability.
At present, most are not, as population and economic growth are the very cornerstones upon which the plans themselves are conceived.
City planning strategies acknowledge a need to address a wide range of challenges, including:
- Significant population growth in urban areas.
- Increased urbanisation of the developing world, with disadvantaged people making up a large part of future urban growth.
- Congestion and the cost of providing urban transport systems.
- Energy shortages, particularly during peak demand times.
- Climate change, including such impacts of climate change as water shortages, extreme weather events and drought.
- The need for infrastructure investment to keep pace with population growth.
- Regional competition between cities for resources.
- Escalating costs of living.
- Inability of short-term election cycles to address long-term needs.
- Growing disenchantment with conventional political systems and structures.
- Reducing the taxation base to fund required expenses.
These are complex problems with a variety of different origins and drivers. There are often no easy answers in sight.
Opportunities for our cities in overcoming future challenges will differ from the way we have done things in the past and still do things today. A linear projection of the past is unlikely to provide us with much in the way of useful data to determine our course over a long-term future. We are also unlikely to find “answers” to these future challenges through “hard science” or new technological discoveries alone.
There is a great need for qualitative measures to assist with our analysis, reasoning, and planning for cities. This requires innovative thinking and new approaches to be considered. This must go beyond visioning a desired future, and delve into forecasting a probable future.
Organisations are now using a variety of foresight techniques to assist them in strengthening their ability to understand and plan for plausible futures.
- Has benefit where there is a significant amount of uncertainty in the decision making context.
- Assists in reducing complexity and making sense of the future.
- Improves the likelihood of considering possibilities that may have otherwise been overlooked, or not even considered.
There is significant opportunity for foresight to “value-add” to the strategic planning process for city planning for anywhere from a five-year to a 100-year time horizon. There are also significant opportunities for foresight to shape the way in which organisations develop plans and respond to this future context.
The use of Environmental Scanning and Scenarios are two techniques in particular which can be used to complement strategic planning, and both offer the prospect of delivering significant benefit to the future planning of our cities.
We cannot predict ‘the’ future when there are so many possible futures. In trying to forecast what may occur in the future, it is important to consider a range of possibilities. Strategic plans for our cities, therefore, need to respond to a broader range of future challenges which may be ahead. There is a greater need for foresight to:
- Challenge current perceptions of the future.
- Challenge our existing strategies exposing them to a wider context, therefore improving robustness.
- Identify previously unforeseen directions and opportunities.
- Allow us to anticipate, plan and more readily adjust to different conditions.
- Allow us to make decisions which better align strategy with different plausible futures.
In my opinion, there appears to be an overwhelming emphasis on a projection of the past and the present, without much consideration of the type of world that we will be living in in future.
This could have dire consequences for our cities, as they will not be geared to meet the types of challenges which may be ahead. Quite simply, there is a significant opportunity to use foresight to develop an improved picture of the future, and dramatically improve our capacity to understand, plan, and adapt to meet future challenges.