by Joe Ravetz
Can our hollowed-out rust-belt cities re-emerge as ‘powerhouses’ in the global economy? Behind the rhetoric there are deep concerns – political distrust, low productivity, divided communities, crumbling infrastructure, and structural inequalities.
In May 2015, the Chancellor invited “England’s big cities to join Manchester in bidding for devolved powers, as long as they agree to be governed by a directly elected mayor”. This could be a major change in their fortunes: or it could be a trap set up to fail, as argued by Moran & Williams (2015): “…. ‘Devo Manc’ is not doing enough if it only offers bits of money and devolved authority to an elected mayor whose role will be to manage more cuts and preside over unsolved structural problems.” Cities may trade a little more power for a big drop in resources, and for some the outcome may be more like ‘poorhouses’ taking the blame for ‘austerity kills’ fallout (Stuckler and Basu 2013).
In an age of scarcity and flux, this calls not only for hard infrastructure, but a creative rethinking of how global-local economies and communities can work. This needs a combination of long term ‘pro-visioning’ future-oriented strategy, with real-time creative collaboration and innovation. So I argue here that building the city’s capacity for learning and synergy, strategic thinking and shared intelligence isn’t a luxury – more like the only realistic option.
Current City Foresight around the UK
Such a capacity for learning and thinking doesn’t always organize itself, but there are various pathways, as explored in the forthcoming Urban 3.0. But where to start? One approach is with the methods and tools known as Foresight. At present there are several levels of activity around the UK:
- a national project on the ‘Future of Cities’ in the UK, run by the Foresight Unit at the Government Office of Science: – as on
- a regional Network looking at parallel projects in Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Cardiff. There is a wider set of 21 cities with various foresight-type activities.
- Here, the Greater Manchester 2040 project is a demonstration of work in progress, on the ‘vision /success’ approach to foresight.
Many cities / regions in Europe seem to have no problem in looking to 2030 or 2050 (CoR, 2011). But from here in GM, and other city level foresight / futures projects, there is a common view from participants: that the knowledge is there but not joined up: that policies are simplistic and disconnected from problems which are complex and inter-connected. Strategic planning takes place mainly within departmental silos. For instance the UK National Infrastructure Plan contains few connections to housing, economic, environmental or social policies (TCPA, 2015). The projections for transport and other infrastructure are often based on narrow ‘business as usual’ projections, leaving out other possibilities. And in the current hollowing out of strategic governance, external organizations have to provide essential evidence (Wong et al, 2012).
Foresight and strategic urban intelligence
One approach to the ‘policy gap’ is with Foresight: a package of methods and tools for building strategic intelligence, of organizations, policies, governments, technologies and so on (Loveridge, 2009). There are generally 3 strands:
- futures(scenarios, forecasting, prospectives),
- planning(strategic analysis, road-mapping, evaluation), and
- networking(participation, deliberation, learning etc)
When we apply these to cities it seems there are many barriers. Cities aren’t generally freestanding units, more like hubs in a network, with little control on their destiny. It’s a challenge just to do strategic planning, let alone a more wide-ranging process. And often the results of Foresight can conflict with existing powers and vested interests.
We see the way forward with a co-evolutionary approach. There’s a ‘linear’ (1.0) model of Foresight which just looks at growth trends and their implications: this doesn’t really get out of the box and can’t cope with systemic change. An ‘evolutionary’ (2.0) model of Foresight is more entrepreneurial but orientated by power (economic, political, cultural etc) in a ‘winner-takes-all’ kind of society: typical results are the financial crisis, technological disasters or climate change. In response we can point towards a ‘co-evolutionary’ or ‘3.0’ model of Foresight: this is about enhancing the learning capacity and intelligence, for a strategic transformation of cities, economies, governance and technologies (Mulgan, 2014: Cohen, 2012: Ravetz, 2013, 2014, & forthcoming).
We are now looking at applications of such ideas for the next phase of Future of Cities Foresight. There are many possibilities: strategic policy intelligence, universities in the knowledge economy, new research paradigms, smart / ‘wise’ socio-technical systems, promises / perils of big data, new models for complexity and social learning, and so on. The test of these is in practical benefit to hard pressed cities whether ‘powerhouse’ or ‘poorhouse’. So we are now developing a ‘City Foresight Platform’, with an online resource base and a social process framework, to enable greater participation, deliberation, collaboration and learning.
The ‘City Foresight Platform’ will be discussed at the ‘Foresighting a Future with Cities‘ roundtable forum which is co-organised by CURE and cities@manchester. For more details please contact Joe Ravetz.