3 principles for flourishing future cities 

It is safe to say that cities in all Western countries see their futures differently compared to their situations just five years ago. Many  megatrend-level drivers have made cities, their leaders, and ordinary citizens consider the future as something deviating from the steady development of the past decades:

  • A new wave of digital technologies is changing the ways in which people communicate, shop, work and commute.
  • Even more important is how cities are tackling wicked problems, such as  becoming carbon neutral, decreasing resource consumption, avoiding congestion and alleviating segregation.
  • Urban regions keep growing, which creates an increasing demand for affordable housing and puts extra pressure on infrastructures.

For  the past two years, Demos Helsinki has worked with three Nordic cities (Stockholm, Lahti and Oslo) to create scenarios and testbeds that aim to advance human-centric smart city development. This week, we got to test our approach and methods in a  new context and on a new continent. Together with our partners Meeting of the Minds and Nordic Innovation House, we organized a seminar titled ’Backcasting Transformation: Smart + Sustainable Cities in 2040‘ in Palo Alto.

Basically, our thinking on the future of cities aiming to become smart and sustainable comes down to three principles:

  1. We need to think in the long term (over 10 years)
  2. Business and cities need positive goals 
to create positive changes and to flourish
  3. Backcasting helps cities navigate beyond and with disruptive changes

We ran backcasting workshops on the futures of different cities. Usually, these workshops are  connected to a strategy process that aims to implement a plan that would make a city carbon neutral over the next 25 to 35 years. At the moment, the of Palo Alto City Council is discussing a climate action plan that would reduce GHG emissions 80% from the 1990 level. The city’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Gil Friend, was among the participants, and he was pleased with the results of the workshop. Friend hopes the city can soon start implementing many of the ideas proposed (assuming that the city council approves the plan on April 18).

The ideas the Bay Area participants discussed and included  in their scenarios are not far from those we have seen elsewhere. The most exciting initiatives in the four scenarios developed by the participants were the following:

  • Emergence of an ’ownership’ culture
  • Shift towards data-driven precision policies
  • Policy cycles that are on speed with innovation cycles
  • Infrastructure that supports hyper-connectedness and active local communities
  • Low-cost energy storage and solar energy
  • Personalized public transit

What were the lessons learned? Probably that the ’Nordic Urban Foresight’ approach developed in our recent Smart Retro program seems to be easy to implement anywhere discussion on disruptive changes in cities is lively. Our understanding is that backcasting works best when there is an urgent need to expand the scope of what is seen as possible in order to develop a stronger focus on desirable futures. It also can help bring together different stakeholders to provide a wider array of technological and social solutions to combat problems of cities.
This is the presentation we gave on Backcasting Transformation: