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 implications
The 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
Looking across the scenarios we can see several interesting themes emerge. Some of these themes were:
- 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 scenarios
I’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.
Images of the future
Back 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)
The Oxford scenarios fit well within this framework, as do the reactions of most groups who have seen it. “Gulliver’s World” is a story of Continued Growth, for example, with large pockets of Conservation & Decline interspersed. “Socio-technical Revolution” is clearly a Transformation story, whilst “Triumph of the Triads” is an excellent example of Societal Collapse.
Most groups that I have presented the scenarios to tend to gravitate towards the Collapse scenario as somehow “more plausible”, or perhaps just more powerful and scary. But equally powerful has been the urge to emphasise the positive aspects and opportunities; even though most people I spoke with thought “Socio-technical revolution” was unlikely to transpire. This tension is a perfectly described by Fred Polak’s observation that,
“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” exercises
What 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.
While such high-tech networked futures are certainly possible (and it is of course slightly unfair to compare an in-depth research exercise with a superficial design competition), most such exercises focus too narrowly on a single view of the future and use too limited a set of drivers and influences to build a complete view of how tomorrow’s cities might unfold.
Why the future is important
Quoting 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.
Mixed futures and deeper urban foresight
If one were to critique most of today’s future of cities projects, it would be easy to suggest that they look more like marketing exercises for their sponsor than in-depth explorations of future possibilities. A colleague of mine at MIT recently told me how he met with representatives from a large IT company’s “Smart City” division. This group brought over 20 computer engineers to the room to proclaim their vision, but didn’t have a single urban planner or social scientist on staff. What kind of future would such a group create without broader investigation of the trends, perspectives and world-views of a more diverse audience? Most likely something similar to the myopic “urban renewal” projects of the late 1950’s and 1960’s that did more harm than good, such as Boston’s West End redevelopment or this proposed image of Tottenham Court Road in Central London. Is this really the vision of the future that we would “want to have happen?”
In its review of the Audi competition the Economist wondered if, “the whole exercise was misconceived.” I believe this is true for many futures-oriented projects related to cities and urban planning. This does a disservice to both our professional capacity as planners and designers, as well as to our personal capacity as residents and communities envisioning a more compelling future.
While it might not make for sexy ad copy, the future of cities is likely to be a mixture of inspirational possibilities enabled by new technologies and social movements, as well as one of depressing limitations imposed by our age-old constraints, prejudices and burdens. Exercises like the Oxford Future of Cities programme could be greatly improved, but they are most certainly a step in the right direction. Almost everyone I have presented these global scenarios to has suggested that they should be deepened and made more detailed by applying them to a specific city or place. This is an excellent idea and I would love to see this taken forward.
It was a pleasure working with the research team on this project and the remarkable group of stake-holders it assembled. I look forward to seeing other projects building upon its example.
You can learn more about the Oxford Future of Cities project and its outputs here.