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Today’s cities face an ever-growing number of uncertainties, from the impacts of global climate change to the stability of their food systems. That’s why local leaders are finding ways to broaden their focus—beyond the management of day-to-day and medium-term priorities—to include time to anticipate and plan for long-term challenges and opportunities before they materialize. This long-view approach, called foresight thinking, is part of what Bloomberg Philanthropies’ James Anderson, in a recent piece for Stanford Social Innovation Review, described as a new set of problem solving skills local leaders will need to develop and deploy in the face of their mounting challenges.
While it might, for many city leaders, represent a change in the way they’re used to working, it’s a transition that is not as difficult as it may sound, according to Peter Glenday, who is program and research director at the School of International Futures (SOIF) and author of “Beyond Strategic Planning: A Foresight Toolkit for Decision Makers,” published by SOIF and California 100. “It’s not hard to start asking the right questions—or to start thinking more about the future, thinking critically about the alternatives out there, and bringing an intergenerational lens” to these challenges, Glenday explains.
Here are three key steps to putting foresight thinking to use in creating future-ready strategic plans.
Get to know foresight thinking.
Foresight thinking is an effort to build upon traditional planning to create ambitious, longer-term strategies. It has three primary benefits: First, it helps develop a vision of the future that city leaders hope to achieve. Second, it manages risk by preparing for an array of possible futures. And third, it increases awareness and adaptability to help cities pivot as events unfold.
Achieving those kinds of benefits is what brought together city and county leaders from the Chicago region, as part of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), to plan for their cities’ 2050 future. Their ON TO 2050 plan has tapped extensive resident engagement to chart an ambitious path focused on inclusive growth in Chicago, clean energy in Evanston, and investment in future-proof infrastructure in Niles.
In each case, the cities looked further into the future than they typically do. But it wasn’t just the timeframe that was different. Leaders aimed higher and incorporated strategies to aid future administrations in implementing and sustaining the work.
Investigate areas of uncertainty with residents and other stakeholders.
When a city has a long-term challenge it's determined to address, foresight thinking is a helpful way to think about uncertainty and how it impacts planning. This starts with asking the right questions and uncovering answers that help cities land on projects that are effectively targeted at future needs.
City leaders may benefit from taking time upfront to understand the purpose of a foresight exercise: Why engage with the future on a given issue? Then, they can define the key questions powering the foresight work and its scope: What is this exercise intended to accomplish—for instance, will it explore the future of the subway system, or the future of mobility more broadly? Finally, the process can expand to engage stakeholders to come to a shared vision for what’s next.
This approach helps ensure foresight projects remain targeted, insightful, and grounded in practical needs and realistic levers for action. Critically, it connects community members to a concrete vision that anchors—and makes tangible—long-term planning.
That’s part of how officials in Leuven, Belgium, began fleshing out a plan to become carbon neutral called Leuven 2030. Once they recognized the need for aggressive action against climate change, they set about taking a foresight approach to getting there beginning in 2013. The process included what Leuven Mayor Mohamed Ridouani described to Bloomberg Cities as a particularly ambitious form of community engagement. Everyone, from local officials to individual citizens and NGOs to business leaders to academic institutions, got seats at the table, and began experimenting with possible fixes to problems like more efficiently heating ancient buildings.
This kind of engagement is a critical ingredient in guiding a community toward focusing on a longer-term horizon—which, in turn, helps produce bolder ideas. Ultimately, the process led to a push to remove cars from the city’s center without massive political backlash, which the mayor credited to having an infrastructure for future planning in place. In 2020, the city was named the E.U.’s capital of innovation.
Consider specific risk scenarios and resource environments.
One of the key differences between foresight thinking and traditional strategic planning is the development and assessment of alternative, but possible, futures. Moving away from a fixed idea of the future and toward a range of several possible ones enables city leaders to create more agile solutions. Central to this work is examining the key drivers of change—such as the growth of the economy and shifting demographic patterns—and then identifying critical uncertainties. After that, cities can consider which of those forces and uncertainties are important to explore, and how they interact in different scenarios.
When local leaders in Chicago’s regional planning agency were preparing their plan, they looked to “stress-test assumptions about the macro-trends that will shape the future of the region and to solicit input on strategies and priorities for addressing those trends.” They asked specific questions to explore significantly different near- and far-term possibilities, such as What if the impact of climate change intensifies by 2050? and What if more people choose walkable communities by 2050?
In doing so, city leaders are able to look beyond traditional policy tools and budget frameworks and consider how external events, which they might have little control over, could raise challenges or opportunities along the way.
As city leaders position themselves for uncertain futures, foresight planning can help them identify possible outcomes and potential paths to get there. In that way, foresight thinking is not just about surviving in new conditions, but thriving in them. As Glenday notes, “Foresight thinking can open up [leaders’] mindset and help them start thinking, I should do this, and I can do it.”
Read more about how to put foresight thinking into action in the SOIF and California 100 guide "Beyond Strategic Planning: A Foresight Toolkit for Decision Makers."