“Scenarios are thus the most powerful vehicles I know for challenging our ‘mental models’ about the world and lifting the ‘blinders’ that limit our creativity and resourcefulness…” Peter Schwartz, The Art of the Long View
In a world where change is the only constant, scenario planning emerges as a crucial tool for Irish placemaking. Scenario planning describes the process of creating the story of an imagined future for a place. Critically, that future must be plausible and ideally raise awareness about possible future challenges in order to enable advance/preemptive planning. It is an opportunity to challenge assumptions and contemplate more radical possibilities that might come to pass. This strategic approach, which contemplates multiple future outcomes, allows citizens, spatial planners, policymakers,developers/project owners and community leaders to navigate the uncertainties of social, economic, and environmental change with greater confidence.
The Irish Context: A Landscape of Possibilities
Ireland’s unique blend of urban and rural, traditional and modern, provides a rich canvas for scenario planning. The country’s rapid but unbalanced economic growth, changing demographics, and the post-Covid affordability-driven, technology-enabled move/return to the regions, requires a forward-looking approach to placemaking that respects tradition while embracing innovation.
Scenario Planning: Charting the Course of Change
Scenario planning in placemaking starts with broad stakeholder-mapping, and collating of shared interests, impacts and place desires. The next step is to create a series of structured narratives about the future, each based on different assumptions about how current trends in demographics, technology, and climate might evolve. In Ireland, where coastal erosion, rural depopulation or possible repopulation post-Covid, and urban sprawl pose significant challenges, scenarios could range from the resurgence of maritime communities to the high-tech greenification of town and village centres.
From Scenarios to Strategy: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach
The power of scenario planning lies in its capacity to inform and inspire comprehensive strategies that are robust enough to withstand a variety of future states. For Ireland, this means developing plans that are adaptable to shifts in climate patterns, economic flux, or demographic changes. It invites placemakers and planners to consider, for instance, how a rise in remote working might transform rural towns or how advances in renewable energy could redefine urban infrastructure.
Engaging Communities: Meaningful Participation
Crucially, scenario planning in the Irish placemaking context must be democratised in a truly participatory way. By involving communities in imagining and crafting scenarios, not only are diverse perspectives included, but a sense of shared ownership is fostered. Engaging the public in this scenario planning exercise ensures that the places created are reflective of the community’s hopes and resilient against their grounded fears.
The PLACEengage.com team have been exploring this as tool and recently hypothsised a future for the West of Ireland across two seeming extremes:
Firstly, defining sustainability on one end of the spectrum as ‘protecting and preserving the status quo’, with policies predicated on the notion that the ‘purpose of people is to save the planet’, and secondly
Defining sustainability as ’innovating new ways to encourage human flourishing and planet flourishing’, supported by a Governmental approach that supposes the ‘purpose of the planet is for hosting people/human life’.
Scenario 1 prioritises the planet over people, while scenario 2 flips that. To be clear, neither of the above extremes are likely to lead to the ideal future place; however, imagining both scenarios in their fullest expression will provide insights – and perhaps a cautionary tale – that could inform decision-making at a community level.
It is fair to say that, as a tool, scenario planning arms Irish placemakers with the foresight to anticipate change and the agility to respond to it. It encourages a shift from reactive to proactive planning, where risks are managed collaboratively with creativity and opportunities are seized with boldness, which is particularly relevant for rural and coastal communities.