Engaging the Future

The book review I wrote for Environment and Planning A appears in the latest issue (39:11). View the pdf here or read on below…

Engaging the Future: Forecasts, Scenarios, Plans, and Projects (2007) edited by Hopkins, L.D. and Zapata, M.A.

The future is inherently uncertain. In accepting this we should not be fatalistic suggest the authors of Engaging the Future. Rather, as the title of the book suggests, scholars, planners, public officials, and citizens alike should endeavour to engage the future, creating and shaping it via a continuing process of regional and urban planning. The tools available for us to advance this process are forecasts, scenarios, plans, and projects.

The opening chapter by the editors Hopkins and Zapata sets the tone for the volume, highlighting that these tools are ways of representing, manipulating, and assessing ideas about the future. They allow us not simply to think about the future but also to influence it. Predictions, however, are conspicuous by their absence from Hopkins and Zapata’s putative toolbox. This, as Moore discusses in chapter 2, is because of an all too frequent over-reliance on quantitative output from models. Moore complains that the emphasis on using numerical predictions about populations, transport demands, and other regional trends can inhibit creativity, stifle debate, and limit policy alternatives, when predicted futures are regarded as inevitable ones. Thus, numerical predictions can suppress uncertainty rather than engaging and dealing with it effectively.

The alternative approach, developed and explored throughout the remaining chapters, is one that is increasingly reflexive, collaborative, democratic, and consensual. Both the tools that will facilitate this approach and their use in (predominantly American) case studies are presented and discussed. In chapter 3 Grant discusses the use of visioning to improve participation in the planning process, highlighting both the advantages (democratic inclusion) and drawbacks (potential munipulation) of such an approach. Myers (chapter 4) introduces the idea of narratives to examine how individual choices will influence future communities, and stresses that, if quantitative data about the future are to be used, they must be embedded within a story that describes community transformations through time. Narratives are also discussed as tools by which to engage and generate ‘reflective conversations’ between diverse parts of the public (Cummings, chapter 12) and to highlight multiple views and expectations about the future rather than suppressing them (Zapata, chapter 13).

Chapters 5 (Smith), 6 (Avin), 7 (Harwood), and 11 (Deal and Pallathucheril) all focus on the use of scenarios in planning in business, industrial, regional, and local community contexts. In these contexts, scenarios differ from forecasts as they do not assign any probability or likelihood estimates to their feasibility, and so better able to explore nonstationary processes and their normative implications. By generating scenarios using the input from local stakeholders these authors suggest community concerns, perceptions, and values can be integrated into a formal description of possible futures, helping to build the capacity of a community to plan via education, dialogue, and empowerment.

Isserman, Klosterman, and Hopkins (chapters 9, 10, and 14, respectively) continue the emphasis on the continued need for a shift away from a ‘technocratic, mystified’ approach toward an ‘open, participatory’ one. Such a philosophy is consistent with the attitude of the need to ‘democratise science’ that has been forwarded recently in the United Kingdom, particularly by organisations such as the think tank DEMOS. Echoing those debates about experts and the politics of expertise, Klosterman argues that, despite their technical skills, planners cannot claim any special knowledge about the desirability of given futures, or arguably even their probability of occurring, than ordinary citizens with their lived ‘experience expertise’ about the changing nature of the region. In turn, Hopkins suggests plans should become `living documents’ that are negotiated and support continued deliberation by multiple

This broad message of the book – to accept uncertainty and embrace participatory approaches – resonates with contemporary attitudes across other areas of environmental science and management. Adaptive resource management, for example, is a process of ‘learning by experimenting’, updating policies and management strategies as more is learnt about the system in hand. Likewise, Funtowicz and Ravetz (1993) have argued that a new form of `postnormal’ science that embraces uncertainty, individuals’ personal values, and dialogue amongst multiple stakeholders is required to solve the environmental problems arising from applications of ‘normal’, reductionist science.

However, uncertainty is politically undesirable and participation is not a panacea. Accepting uncertainty is disquieting – embracing it is even more of a challenge. Policy makers are often loathe to accept advice based on uncertainty, and where uncertainty is accepted it is often used to delay (tough) decision making. A pertinent example is political unwillingness to address the suggested causes of potential anthropogenic climate change in certain quarters because of the scientific uncertainty in those processes. Participatory approaches demand both the will and the skill to engage with non-planners. Making the planning process more inclusive is likely to slow it, potentially leading to unforeseen (and unwanted) demands on the planning process and remit. Participatory approaches will demand that planners expand their skill set to learn how to incorporate a variety of perspectives and views into their planning process.

The case studies presented in each chapter show how this might be done, offering practical ways to engage this multiplicity of demands and perspectives. In this light, Engaging the Future will be most useful for, or have most impact upon, students and junior planners. Given the emphasis of the book on wider participation in the planning process it should be read by more than just planners and students however. Well-produced with uncomplicated language, useful figures, and a glossary of planning terms, this book will be accessible and valuable both to the policy makers calling upon the services of planners and to the citizens and stakeholders who will be influenced by the outcomes of their actions.

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