By Joe Ravetz
There are aspirations that our cities can re-emerge as ‘powerhouses’. But behind the rhetoric there is political distrust, low productivity, divided communities, crumbling infrastructure, and structural inequalities. Cities may trade a little more power for a big drop in resources, and for some the outcome may be as ‘power-cuts’ or ‘poorhouses’.
In an age of scarcity and change, this calls not only for hard infrastructure, (‘toys for the boys’ according to some) – but a more creative rethinking of how global-local economies and communities can work. To shift austerity towards prosperity, calls for long-term vision and strategy, combined with real-time social learning and policy innovation. Can universities help??
At the CURE forum on Foresighting a Future for Cities, this question was for starters – ‘How can future-oriented research help ‘devo’ cities turn austerity to prosperity’… But stepping back from that, should UK cities be even thinking about the future, when most are trying to survive the next round of cuts? Certainly they are laying down infrastructure and housing sites which could be there for many years: but futures thinking is often problematic and provocative.
We saw the fundamentals of growth in time, space and activity, with a macro-view of London from Sir Alan Wilson’s spatial scenario modelling. In contrast Karel Williams presented the alternative to the dominant narrative of ‘There Is No Alternative’, with huge implications for cities who are otherwise awaiting ‘death by 1000 cuts’. As for city foresight schemes, from Mark Tewdwr-Jones it seems that Newcastle leads in best practice, in a city which is all about change and modernity. Meanwhile in Liverpool and Cardiff, from Nicola Headlam and David Waite, it’s more problematic to get the many players into alignment for constructive thinking: and in Greater Manchester the excitement of ‘devo’ seemed to push other longer term thinking to the side.
The questions of – what is foresight, and what kind of research is most relevant, were explored by Ian Miles and Sally Randles of MBS. Then looked at the ‘user’ side of the table. The challenge of the low carbon transition in Greater Manchester was put by Mark Atherton of AGMA: and the future transport system by Nicola Kane of TFGM. A reality check was sounded by Cllr Derek Antrobus, whose ward is one of the most deprived and also vulnerable to flooding in the city-region.
Finally there were responses from CURE. Saska Petrova explored the dilemma of austerity capitalism vs Laissez-faire localism: Stefan Bouzarovski looked at the low carbon transition in terms of changing patterns of winners and losers: Andy Karvonen summed up a relational view of cities and urban change.
Meanwhile some long-term thinking colleagues with day jobs as spatial planners, trying to make a complex system of allocations and quotas work, see their aspirations for ‘liveable communities’ pushed to the side, in an endless game of housing numbers and legal challenges. Others see the looming conflict between elitist ideology and grass-roots initiatives as a positive sign of change in motion.
Now if foresighting is about improving policy by exploring possible futures, then it might be more of an expert process of evidence and analysis. But if foresighting is more about anticipating and creating the future by collective vision, then it has to build bridges between opposing worldviews. The hard-pressed cities of the UK might seem to need both, and this is the aim of the current proposals for a city foresight ‘platform’ or ‘hub’. The question is then how to mobilize collective resources out of the thin air of austerity, in divided and distracted cities?
NOTE: The CURE / cities@manchester Forum on FORESIGHTING a FUTURE with CITIES was on Wednesday 24th June. It addressed the question – ‘How can future-oriented research help ‘devo’ cities turn austerity to prosperity’? It included the following contributions: Sir Alan Wilson (UCL), Prof. Karel Williams (MBS), Mark Tewdwr-Jones (Newcastle), Kevin Morgan (Cardiff), Nicola Headlam (Liverpool), Sally Randles (MBS), Colin Talbot (MBS), Mark Atherton (AGMA), Nicola Kane (TFGM), Cllr Derek Antrobus (Salford/ AGMA), Saska Petrova (CURE), Stefan Bouzarovski (CURE), Andrew Karvonen (Cities), Ian Miles (MBS), Joe Ravetz (chair).
With many thanks to cities@manchester for generous support to the reception.