Planning for our urban futures beyond COVID-19
Jessica Thornton, Evergreen’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, on preparing for our urban futures when the unexpected arrives.
Published on April 09, 2020
Planning for our possible urban futures is a challenging task at the best of times. In our current crisis, it feels especially difficult. Every household, organization and level of government is working around the clock to make sense of how best to survive in these times, and how to recover when it’s over.
The question of “when” seems to be one of the biggest variables to wrap our minds around. Will it be three months? Six? More? The longer the timeline, the more that will be impacted in our cities, and the more far-reaching the rippling effects.
The role of wildcards in strategic foresight
For many of us, COVID-19 is what we call a “wildcard” in strategic foresight practice. Wildcards are changes and events that have low probability, yet high impact. Planning for wildcards is one of the best ways to future-proof any strategy, program, or policy, and to build resilience. Wildcards are typically dismissed by most as things we don’t need to waste our time considering, which is sometimes true, until it’s not. They are unexpected, create tremendous disruption and amplify existing systemic weaknesses. Sounds pretty familiar in our current circumstance, doesn’t it?
However, can we really say this is unexpected? In 2017, the Obama administration ran a pandemic simulation, acknowledging that it was a possible threat to consider. The Gates Foundation funded a similar initiative in 2019, which played out bears striking similarities to our current situation. Epidemiologists and many within the health community sounded alarms around the potential for an upcoming pandemic. And yet, for many of us this was an unexpected crisis.
What does this mean for our futures?
As early as February 2020 we started to see predictions of how COVID-19 might change our lives. Now, every day new scenarios are shared by various think tanks, futurists, and management consulting firms, suggesting what various futures may play out. With the onslaught of COVID-19 news telling us about the growing severity of the pandemic globally and locally, making sense of these scenarios is a challenging task, but vital to our ability to plan for what’s next for our cities.
From a foresight perspective, it’s important to note that some of these scenarios are straight forward projections. This means taking the data we know, and thinking about what the possible outcomes could be, often organized by best-, worst-, and medium-case scenarios. This can be very helpful in many cases. However, these scenarios do not often allow for considering other possible outcomes and impacts. In foresight, scenario development approaches specifically ask this question. While questions as to the length of time we’ll need to stay home and potential economic impacts are critical in these times, for planning and ensuring community resilience, we must also consider the other changes on the horizon. Broader consideration can truly prepare us for the futures before us.
While exploring possible futures, we should also think about how we’d like cities to change after this is over. Everyday we’re seeing new initiatives aimed at protecting the health of residents, that also have, at their core, a human-centred city-building approach. Should we reopen road that have been closed for social distancing? Should we continue with rear-door transit boarding? Providing vacant hotel rooms to homeless populations? What other urban interventions are happening today that show promise for the future of our cities? Going “back to normal” should not be the default strategy. As Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Planning for what sometimes seems like infinite possible scenarios, while also considering our ideal urban futures during a global crisis is a tall order, and one that most do not have time to prioritize. However, this crisis has taught us that planning for possible futures, including wildcard events, is critical to enabling our long-term community resilience.
The way forward
Evergreen, as founding partner of Future Cities Canada, is currently exploring promising ways to support city-builders during these uncertain and complex times. We look forward to sharing insights from a diverse mix of city builders on what our urban futures could be post-COVID-19 and helping make sense of the scenario planning toolkits being generated by others.
Over the coming months, we’ll be supporting cities to explore possible futures beyond COVID-19, to collectively identify possible steps to mitigate future risks and impacts, and plan for changes already in motion. Our goal in doing so is to build community resilience, so that cities are prepared to face whatever is next, moving toward a future that is equitable, regenerative and prosperous for all.