Top 5 Urban Scenario Planning Mistakes

My forthcoming book, Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions, describes the diverse ways that scenario planning methods are used by urban planners. In general I try to take an inclusive approach and discuss a wide variety of projects that use scenarios, since planning is diverse and therefore different settings call for different methods. However, I do take a position on a few issues, based on theory, research findings, and professional practice. Here are the top five scenario planning mistakes:

1. Not Naming Scenarios

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flipped open a detailed scenario planning report, only to find the scenarios simply labeled A, B, and C. How forgettable! For the audience of these projects to remember their findings, they have to remember the gist of each scenario. Therefore I suggest urban planners adopt the best practice from corporate strategic planning practitioners of naming each with a pithy, evocative name helps the audience remember the key ideas under each, which improves their ability to digest the analysis and conclusions. I think sometimes public sector urban planners feel uncomfortable giving scenarios names which may trigger unwanted associations, such as calling one “sprawl” which suggests the planners are already biased against it. Be that as it may, I think there are ways to come up with names which are both vivid and accessible to diverse audiences. As an example, one case I discuss, the Gwinnett 2030 Unified Plan, contained scenarios with names that suggested some of the factors they explore: Middle of the Pack, Regional Slowdown, International Gateway, and Radical Restructuring.

2. Creating Too Many Scenarios

This is another typical amateur mistake that undermines the power of the scenario approach. It’s very understandable–once you take the trouble of holding the scenario workshop or adopting a powerful scenario planning tool, why not analyze as many scenarios as possible? The problem is people have trouble keeping track of more than roughly 7 distinct ideas in working memory. Your huge matrix of scenarios may be a marvel of analytical rigor, but is likely to glaze the eyes of decision makers who find it overwhelming. Instead, cognitive theories suggest that 4-7 scenarios may be ideal: there are enough to highlight the range of possible futures but not too many to be confusing. Many projects create 3, but that tends to encourage the audience to understand them as simply different degrees on one dimension –when most scenarios are defined by more than one dimension. For example, Vibrant NEO in the Cleveland, Ohio region considered both urban form as well as the amount of regional growth to create four regional scenarios: Trend, Grow the Same, Do Things Differently, and Growth Differently.

3. Analyzing Implausible Scenarios

One other consideration about the qualities of scenarios is perhaps one of the most tricky issues in scenario planning theory. I believe all scenarios should be plausible, meaning they really could occur, even if the expected likelihood today may be small. To me this is a critical distinction from utopian planning, which is much less concerned with real-world plausibility. This does not mean a good set of scenarios should play it safe and remain confined to, say, a range of options currently accepted in local policy debates. To the contrary, effective scenarios are often constructed to specifically illustrate futures which are quite different from today, in order to broaden our understanding of what could happen. I have occasionally seen scenarios created which make implausible assumptions, for example modeling all growth for a city or region as occurring within transit oriented development (TOD). The defense of this type of scenario is that it is just a “what if thought exercise” to see what the consequences may be. My concern with this is that in the US at least, due to private property rights it is implausible that no growth could go anywhere else, even if there is a strong shift towards TOD. We can see that the scenario principle of plausibility forces planners to consider in detail what is required to pursue the scenarios some may desire. Although such an extreme scenario may be interesting for the analyst, it may be immediately dismissed by stakeholders who hold real power. The effect of implausible scenarios is to give the impression that scenario planning is just an irrelevant academic exercise that has no place in decision-making. The best scenarios, therefore, balance the value of learning from analyzing dramatic change with the power of demonstrating they are plausible and therefore carrying important lessons.

4. Focusing on the Digital Tools, Not the Issues

Plenty of planning organizations have caught the scenario bug, and then immediately turned to asking their technical modelers to create a new tool or write an RFP for a new tool they “need” to create scenarios. Focusing on the digital tools first puts the cart before the horse, since there are such a diverse array of technical approaches to modeling scenarios. Agencies that work on tools without figuring out the substantive focus of their scenarios often end up with tools that don’t answer the right questions. My book’s chapter on digital tools reviews a wide range of models which can be used for scenarios, stressing the importance of fitting them to the project not the other way around. As a practical matter, equating scenario planning with the tools can have the effect of avoid discussions of the underlying conceptual approach of scenario planning, which is often quite different than conventional forecast- or vision-led approaches known by the agency’s staff. Effective scenario planning exercises begin with a focus on the issues and scope of the project, only then deciding on the suite of tools needed to bring it to life.

5. Skipping Collaboration

My final mistake is interrelated with the others. Although planning professionals generally understand the ethical and practical importance of participation, they can be tempted to avoid the real work it takes to truly collaborate. The truth is most agencies can “check the box” of participation without allowing much substantive input into their projects. The problem with this approach is that it undercuts the potential power of the scenario method. As I argue in the book, the aim of planning is not simply to generate analytically rigorous and visually arresting plans, but to actually impact decision-making. To do that, the diverse stakeholders who hold power to shape the city must be meaningfully engaged in the project, and be provided opportunities to shape the scenarios and learn from the analysis results. After all, creating the right number of well-named, plausible, and appropriately modeled scenarios is not enough to make an impact if the key decision-makers are not at the table all the way along.

Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions is available for pre-order (expected publication April 1, 2020) from Amazon.com, the publisher the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, or your preferred bookseller.

Author: Rob Goodspeed

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