FutureCitiesJam for Future Cities Summit

Project status: 

How might we engage and focus diverse experts and activists to envision and prepare for challenging urban futures? 

This question was addressed head-on when a team representing OCAD University in Toronto, Canada planned and facilitated a Foresight Scenarios Workshop as part of the inaugural Future Cities Summit, organized and hosted at the Brickworks by Evergreen, a Canadian non-profit dedicated to making cities flourish.


The opportunity was initiated by Evergreen’s founder and CEO, Geoff Cape, who reached out in 2016 to our foresight community at OCAD University. Cape had incubated a body of urban futures infrastructure research at Oxford Futures Forum and other international contexts and wanted to deepen it in a local, Canadian setting. Responding to this, Greg Van Alstyne, Director of sLab, assembled a team with research experience in urban intervention and participatory foresight methods, including Carl Skelton and Patrick Robinson. The Evergreen team of program planners included Robert Plitt (Calgary, AB), Lois Lindsay, and Lyna Saad (Toronto, ON). 

With input from the consulting team led by Van Alstyne, the organizers from Evergreen formulated this introduction: 

In the coming decades, unprecedented public and private-sector investments in urbanization will transform our cities. Meanwhile, potentially disruptive factors such as climate change impacts, demographic and geopolitical shifts, and technological/digital transformation will create both new opportunities and ongoing uncertainty. As we look ahead to this uncertain future, how might we realize a compelling long-term vision for Canada’s cities and towns?  

Our more concrete session objectives were:

  • Explore Canada’s long-term planning urban infrastructure challenge / opportunity

  • Frame opportunity of unprecedented public & private-sector investments, direct investments, and Canadian leadership in city building

  • Engage stakeholders in an exercise of long-term thinking about urban infrastructure development

  • Shift mindsets to understand how long-term planning for visionary infrastructure can direct near-term investments & decision-making.

Event Design

This foresight scenarios segment within Evergreen’s Future Cities Summit was billed as “Future-Planning: Infrastructure & Investment,” and took place November 9, 2018. The session formed a summative foresight workshop for the three-day symposium. We aimed for an attendance of about 40. In the end workshop was attended at maximum capacity with more than 65 people including the facilitators. In the spirit of sLab's DesignJam approach, we began with a set of short “lightning talks” to prime the assembled group with relevant facts, projections and proposed system boundaries. Our design for the workshop sought to compress the kind of key insights of an all-day “charrette” into a 50-minute session. Participants were invited to gravitate toward their subject of interest at one of eight round banquet tables. With roughly eight each table they contemplated a set of four potential foresight scenarios with significant implications for the subject in question. 

The urban subjects we selected were Investment led by Sheila Botting & Beth McMahon, Canadian Institute of Planners; Public Space led by Alex Mirescu, Pontarolo Engineering; Energy led by John Purkis, The Natural Step; Housing, led by Victor Willis, PARC; and Mobility led by Sanathan Kassiedass, Metrolinx, the regional transit authority. The OCAD U team covered event design and foresight facilitation. Key contributions to the event design were made by Patrick Robinson, who honed this role as Operations Lead for sLab’s DesignJam service (https://designjam.ocadu.ca). 

Under Patrick’s and Greg’s leadership, DesignJam events assembled by sLab have intentionally drawn from, and paid tribute to, the Global DesignJams movement organized and led by Adam St. John Lawrence and Markus Edgar Hormeß. 

Foresight methods chosen and developed 

Constraints of time and space were used to generate innovative methodological moves that accelerated connections and insights. The team developed:  

  • A round, foresight scenarios “canvas” with four quadrant spaces, scaled and printed to perfectly fit the 8-person “rounds” -- typical banquet tables that the event had rented. 

  • A set of oversize playing cards, representing four Generic Images of the Future: Growth, Discipline, Collapse, Transform (Dator, 2006). One card was hidden under the canvas on each table; and revealed by the table facilitator at a calculated point in the scenario development work cycle. Each card held two of the Generic Images; one card depicted “Grow/Transform” and the other card depicted “Discipline/Collapse.” 

This approach brought to each table an element of surprise (Toward which of the four scenario types would each table migrate? With a pair of options on each card, which will be ‘drawn’?). At the same time the room was seeded with a mix of the two cards so that all participants had roughly equal chance to be prompted to move toward more “positive” or more “challenging” scenarios. 

Participants worked their way through a set of prompts. These included: 

  • What is changing? What patterns of change can you name?

  • Forecasting: What could like lead to? 

  • Incasting: What could this lead to? 

  • Turning points: What if the unthinkable happens?

  • Tipping points: How does this play out?

  • Name the scenario: What is the story that emerges? 

In assessing the co-creation efforts by this gathering we should note that in foresight, as in many rich, participatory collaborative contexts, the process is as important as the product or outcomes. This group of 60-odd urban planners, policy makers, social innovators, activists, creative professionals, researchers, and students, was given access to “foresight literacy” through “rigorous imagining” (Miller, Poli, & Rossel, 2018) tructured process to envision possible, plausible and preferred futures. By thus cultivating the futures mindset we all came to “pluralize the futures of our cities” (Van Alstyne, 2010) -- and take steps to co-create the futures we want, together. 

UrbanFuturesJam table canvas. Patrick Robinson and Greg Van Alstyne, 2018