City Leaders Must Think Futuristically

As technology increasingly plays a role in our daily lives, and at a rapid pace, an unknown future of the effects of automated intelligence, automated and connected vehicles and algorithms will become prevalent. Governments of all levels are tied to reacting to crises and issues Cities are not prepared for the future. How can the public gain trust in a government every 4 years with Councils’ terms of priorities that are politically driven?

Most thinking is in the medium term. Official Plans, Transportation Master Plans Leadership teams are caught in a never ending loop of addressing long term risks with uncompromising short term solutions and tactical responses. These drain organizational resources and make disruption an inevitability.

Municipal administrations, policy professionals, technical staff and politicians are not in strategic foresight but must have those trained or be consulted on the approach to bring cities well beyond the 21st century. Cities must be equipped for complex decision-making about the digital era governance future, says Jones a professor at OCAD University, in a way that engages appropriate partners and communities. They must think from a systems-level approach. They must develop an innovative and resilient public sector and guide long range planning in the fear of greater uncertainty that will require regional collaboration.

Strategic foresight develops a range of competencies instrumental in envisioning future strategies, informing planning alternatives and strategic options through applications of expert evidence, creative and collaborative methods. Foresight provides the opportunity to update the future models of public administration and service provision according to Peter Jones, an OCAD University professor.

Strategic plans are forecasting exercices that rely on linear timelines and extrapolations. It opens up leaders to blind spots when it is related to threats and opportunities – the OT in the SWOT analysis. When it comes to policy, forecasts heavily use statistical inferences of the recent past and lacks the ethnographic context. It them leads to risks of unexpectant occurrences

Amy Webb published a recent article in the Harvard Business Review on describing elements of strategic foresight projects, as seen in the image below.

Strategic foresight projects should be designed like a cone. First stage are tactics because trends can be identified and could include performance improvements and program redesign, as examples. Tactical decisions tie into the overall strategy. This where actions include defining priorities, funding opportunities, allocating resources and human capital, if needed. A vision then tacks onto the strategy where organizations analyze new trends, global events, social changes and economic shifts. Finally is a system-level disruption where there is the highest degree of uncertainty. Futurists, alchemists and visionaries are willing to take these risks. The public sector is risk averse and won’t enter this territory, unfortunately.

There are various methods utilizing foresight. The most common is scenario planning. Scenario planning allows us to create multifaceted strategies that are effective no matter which future emerges. When using the backcasting method, it looks at all potential scenarios and policymakers would have the opportunity to develop policies and programs preparing for future events. Below is an example of the difference between forecasting and backcasting.

Image via Demos Helsinki

In my research, I found three common themes surrounding strategic foresights. First was naturally innovation. When organizations instill foresight and futures thinking into an innovative culture, they are better equipped to see those possibilities and opportunities that I mentioned earlier.

Second is resilience. An organizational culture that fails to be open, resilient and forward thinking will struggle to survive. Enhancing resilience is about early identification of risks and relationship building. Recent public sector examples focused on resilience includes Toronto’s ResilientTO Engagement Strategy and the Region of Peel’s 2018 Housing Strategy. The Ontario Nonprofit Network’s study Reimagining Governance also used a strategic foresight exercice.

Finally and overlapping resilience is public engagement. Creative public engagement provides opportunities to demonstrate leadership qualities of a municipality and strengthens civic pride. It breaks through the normative consensus methods that are common in the public sector, promotes divergence and allows for storytelling about possible futures.

The strategic foresight needed internally for municipal administration and with other levels of goverment would require inclusive and diverse participation, storytelling and systems thinking. In 2016, the UK government published a study Future for Cities:Foresight for Cities where they outlined actions for all levels of government. I slightly modified their actions to reflect the Canadian perspective. Refer to the document to gather a full perspective.

Actions for City Governments

  1. Consider the long term future in short term decision making
  2. Cities can establish mechanisms for collaboration between local, city-regional, provincial and federal partners to explore the future.  Timely access to knowledge and lead to wider ownership of policy issues.
  3. Shared knowledge and lessons learned from difference approaches with regional partners in energizing a longer term future.
  4. Experiment with foresight exercises to adopt them to their own needs and circumstances.

Actions for federal and provincial governments

  1. Encourage evidence based exploration of cities long term futures like Future Cities Canada at Evergreen and Horizons Canada.
  2. Give cities licence to experiment by setting new directions using strategic narratives, legally sanctioned, local planning examination that could clarify distinctions between visions, analysis of current projections and alternative scenarios.
  3. Instead of the current formal Constitutional relationship with cities, provide evidence for cities to consider their future position within a national system of cities, through an organization like Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
  4. Take account of local intelligence in federal and provincial policy decisions that can lead to enhanced approaches to long-term challenges.
Figure 2. City foresight engages many stakeholder groups and can stimulate
new forms of relationships and insight
Existing...
Via UK Government Office for Science, 2016

Changing governance structures present an opportunity for cities to reposition themselves for future roles. The 2018 and 2019 SXSW conferences had 3-day sessions where city mayors played the role of futurists. They worked with futurists, activists, and architects to figure out how to deal with future challenges brought on by innovation over the next decade. Like the example of the golf cart used in Amy Webb’s HBR article, one mayor looked at an enterprising way and be creating with the boring zoning process to revitalize their downtown. No answer will be right, but at least is about thinking innovatively.

It’s time to for municipal leaders and administrators to cease from thinking in four year cycles. Rather they should implement foresight to develop proactive policies to respond to the climate crisis, automation, and artificial intelligence that will be before us in the next decade.

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