Overcoming Obstacles to Scenario Planning

Over the last couple of years, I’ve presented about my book, Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Managing and Envisioning Uncertain Futures many times. While preparing a presentation for the Inter-American Development Bank’s Regional Policy Dialog, I began to reflect on what obstacles face practitioners seeking to introduce scenario planning in their local contexts. As I define it, scenario planning involves the use of multiple scenarios either to define a preferred future, or to improve resilience by making decisions that consider future uncertainty. I came up with three major challenges that practitioners may face. Although somewhat abstract and therefore difficult to study, they come from my experiences engaging with practitioners about scenario planning in many places.

Scenarios Can be Threatening to Established Interests

By their nature, most scenario projects involve questioning the status quo to varying degrees. For this reason, the powerful interests in many cities–elected officials, major companies, land owners, and the like–may resist long-term planning. However, I think often they realize it is required to pursue their goals, so in most cases they prefer planning that simply accommodates their interests and priorities. As a consequence, they are often comfortable (and even support) either vision- or forecast-based planning, so long as the visions or forecasts which serve as the basis of planning serve their interests. Contrasting these official futures with alternative scenarios is threatening, since it it may result in decisions to pursue an alternative future which may be less desirable from their point of view. The unfortunate result is political pressures on planning practice to avoid facing realities that planning should be addressing head-on, such as climate threats, structural racism, or threats to the regional economy. In essence, there is a relationship between political economy and the selection of planning methods. Although I’m not aware of research which has put so fine a point on the issue, critical scholar Rachel Weber has written about related issues, and this discussion makes me think of her book chapter “Anticipatory knowledge: how development consultants see the future.”

Scenarios Require Practitioners Take a New Approach

Although there are many planning practitioners who are immediately attracted to the scenario planning framework, my sense is that there are many others who hold different ideas about the goals of planning practice. Although I’m not aware of research on this exact issue, I think that some practitioners find the notion of defining scenarios too normative and subjective, and prefer to stick with technical modeling and forecasts, even if they know deep down that their technical models require many subjective assumptions. Others are driven by normative goals–such as New Urbanism or racial equity–and although scenarios can be a means to achieving those ends, may seem less effective than simply advocating for policies in their preferred areas. Others prefer to work closely with community, perhaps seeing long-range planning as not relevant or too top-down as compared to pressing community concerns. The diversity of approaches is a strength of the planning field, but communities routinely prepare the types of plans where scenarios can have a major impact. The most effective practitioners remain open to new methods that are most effective given a certain community and planning context.

Some Cities or Regions May Lack a Culture of Collaboration

Although scenario planning can be conducted purely as an academic exercise, in my book I argue that using it as a professional urban planning method requires collaboration, since cities are the shared creation of many actors. Therefore, even cities with a supportive political climate and interested practitioners can face challenging local contexts. Stakeholders may expect a top-down analysis, or be unfamiliar with engaging in a process where their feedback will be valued and reflected in the process outputs. Citizens may not be motivated to participate if they have experienced being ignored in the past. Powerful interests may be reluctant to engage on an equal basis with community organizations and activists, assuming there will be private channels to influence the project discretely. The results of all of these can threaten project success, and reflect the influence of long-running planning culture on individual projects.

What to do?

To a certain extent, these challenges are already known among practitioners, but I think it is useful to name and discuss them. The most common strategy, which I mentioned in a previous blog post, is to take an incremental approach and use successive planning projects to introduce the methods, build political support, and reach higher levels of collaboration. Engagement with professional networks and studying innovative projects can help project teams build their own capacity and engage in reflective practice. Planning has never been an easy sell in market-oriented, individualistic western societies. However, its relevance today has never been higher, when cities face a host of shared challenges that require collective responses. Even as we face short-term crises and the persistence of challenges like those above, planning remains essential to ensure many decisions we make today, about infrastructure, land use, and public policy, are moving our cities in the right direction.

Author: Rob Goodspeed