New possibilities for using scenario planning tools

Data modeling, Image courtesy ULI

Scenario planning tools are increasingly being used in North America as means of community engagement. The state of the art is reviewed in a new publication that attracted attention at the recent American Planning Association conference in Los Angeles. The development of web-based GIS and mobile phone technologies opens the prospect of a rapid emergence of new techniques that could fundamentally change the way we do planning.

Once, long ago

Use of scenarios to help focus thinking on long term trends has been around for 50 years, but never really become mainstream in planning practice. In those distant days back in 1969 when I painstakingly wrote out my lecture notes in longhand, I did actually teach about long range forecasting methods, including scenario writing. One example I used was Herman Khan’s epic book, The Year 2000, which was published in 1967. With a moon landing imminent, it gushed with enthusiasm for the potential of technology, and amongst its predictions were the widespread use of computers, the possibility of universal, real time banking systems and what it called “pocket phones”.

So why didn’t my graduating students start using scenarios as a practical planning tool? Were they simply bored by my lectures? Maybe, but the way statutory planning practice operated then did not encourage speculative thinking. The development plan was a statement of what the council wanted to happen, not how a way of thinking about how a place might adapt to an uncertain future. Public participation meant telling people about the plan and why it was good for them.

From “Predict-and-Plan” to Adapting to Uncertainty

In contrast, the new Lincoln Foundation booklet observes that “Decisions about the future are often controversial due to competing economic interests, different cultural values, and divergent views about property rights and the role of government. Broader and more effective civic engagement is needed to ensure community support for decisions about development and other land-related policies and public investments. The traditional predict-and-plan paradigm is inadequate to address all of these challenges. We need to move toward developing and implementing planning tools and processes that foster anticipation and adaptation.”

While these sentiments may be especially pertinent in the USA, they should have some resonance for planners in other parts of the globe. It is in this context that the authors review the state of the art. They argue that “Scenario planning is a valuable method to help regions and communities understand and plan for their futures under highly complex and uncertain conditions.”

In this perspective, planning practice is urged to develop as a form of “anticipatory governance” which considers “a range of possible futures, prepares strategies to respond to one or more of these futures, and then adapts to those changes as the future unfolds over time.” In today’s world of climate change and economic shocks, such sentiments are sound. They chime well with ideas about planning for resilience that I have discussed previously. Three basic steps are recommended:

1. Use foresight and futures analysis;
2. Anticipate adaptation;
3. Monitor and adapt.

Tools currently in use

A number of scenario tools currently in use are described. Most use GIS; some are relatively simple, others much more sophisticated; some focus down to a plot or even a building, others operate largely at regional or sub-regional scale. They can be used in urban design or as tools for creating strategic plans on a larger scale.

One that I have seen something of is the Urban Land Institute Reality Check, This has been used in regional visioning projects in Maryland, Arizona, North Texas, and the Puget Sound area. It works like a board game, using LEGO® bricks to allocate future growth on a map, and is “played” at public workshops across the region. Proposed allocations of development are collated by computer in an iterative way as more and more groups take part. The result is an ensemble of future urban form scenarios that can reflect “business as usual” or shifts to more sustainable forms of growth. Through synthesis guiding principles and policy recommendations can be derived.

What’s next? Open source and web-GIS

This is now, but what of the near future? So far the tools have mainly been developed independently from each other by different companies who can control the use of their software. However, as we move towards open source software systems that could all change. It should be possible to link up different models from different parts of the world and link them to advanced visualization engines. Access via web-based GIS should become easier, bringing use of the methods within the scope of more people, professionals and non-professionals. Such applications could make use of crowd-sourcing to build up data collected by people on their mobile phones from their neighbourhood or about their journey to work.

In short, there is more to planning than fretting about the National Planning Policy Framework or yet another review of how to reduce the “burden” of planning on businesses. Techniques discussed in this blog are being used in practice. Furthermore, a small INTERREG project in the Baltic Sea Region, called Trans-in-Form, that I have worked with, has produced an on-line,, downloadable step-by-step guide to using scenarios for its partners (almost all of whom are small municipalities with few professional planning staff) to use within the project. Ten years from now, will such approaches have become mainstream, or will this blog still sound unrealistic and academic, just like those old lecture notes of mine were 40 years ago?

  • Neil Homer

    Just seen this article. Very timely. I’m contributing to a Front Runner Neighbourhood Plan that is going to use scenario planning to inform the local community in deciding what choice to make about its vision of the future. Its circumstances mean the town faces a genuine choice of alternative futures that local land use planning policy will play a signficant role in shaping and delivering. The stimulus for this approach, for which I too have seen little precedent in the UK, is mine and another local resident’s previous experience in businesses where long range forecasting (of at least 15 years) is a crucial element in CAPEX and R&D plans. I’ll be reporting on progress on my The Naked Planner blog (www.thenakedplanner.blogspot.com).