Eyes to the futures for a better now

Making predictions about the future is a claim more and more referred to with the term ‘forecasting’. Foresight is a more nuanced concept that doesn’t explore a future which is already written and just has to be guessed, but one that will depend on how we manage to help those concerned to engage for their future. Its more policy-oriented version, ‘strategic foresight’ tends to go one step further, considering futures to conceive and evaluate, engaging with a plural view on what is likely to happen.

Foresighting consists in exploring different possible futures, alongside the opportunities and challenges they might present, and in the case of urban development, to “help cities, and all players related to them, act in the present to shape the future they want through embedding foresight in policy-making,” says Gianluca C. Misuraca, Senior Research Associate at Politecnico di Milano.

Use and limitations of simulations

“One of the most important features of foresight is actually ‘backcasting’,” explains Misuraca. “Meaning that we should ‘come back’ from futures we can conceive and try to see what we can do today to make sure that certain actions are developed to create positive impacts.”

When someone has to take a decision, like investing in a certain programme, or trying to solve a given problem, depending on the complexity of the choice and the variables, they can run a more or less accurate simulation of the consequences of that choice. The formal modelling that supports it and the data that are fed into it define what is called a ‘digital twin’ and this can, to a certain extent, allow for simulating options, supporting planning needs, aiding expert decision making in specific domains or issues within a smart city framework.

Simulation and modelling are but two among many possible techniques to create scenarios for strategic foresight. “Scenarios are the easiest and most used way to construct foresight,” says Misuraca. “For example, through a storyboard, you can imagine how the world could look like in 10 or 15 years if a city made certain decisions. Starting with the analysis of the main trends and a series of alternate options stemming from them, scenario-based foresight could highlight positive impacts, as well as the risks linked to these decisions.”

We don’t have data about the future,
— Gianluca C. Misuraca, Senior Research Associate at Politecnico di Milano

However, modelling and simulations are quite complicated because they are based on data. “We don’t have data about the future,” Misuraca points out. “So, all simulation or modelling exercises are prone to mistakes. The idea becomes then to go beyond data and understand the complexity and interactions taking place in society.”

Looking ahead and from above

Credits: cromaconceptovisual

“With foresight in mind, we have to think what is most likely to be on the table next and how to get prepared to it? And, when possible, apply an overarching perspective,” says Pierre Rossel, Founder and President of Inspiring Futures. “For example, there is this idea of ‘One Health’. It theorises that the health of the people and the one of the environment are part of the same continuum of issues and interactions. And we saw that with the pandemic. As humans, we have pushed wild animals out of their natural habitat and, to survive, they got closer to us, which has exposed us to more risks of epidemics through viruses they are carriers of and we haven’t had time to get used to.” Predicting would consist of chasing past series of data to extrapolate how they can suggest further epidemic episodes in the future. Foresighting, as for itself, consists in establishing models and integrating data in a broader perspective, also leaving options for the various stakeholders, actual or still to come. Climate change suggests a similar foresight pattern.

In short, foresight is a step further from simulations and modelling, taking into account the complexity that human behaviour is adding to the picture. “The idea is to construct reflections and a knowledge base to help people consider what the future might hold and how they can enhance their level of readiness, flexibility and planning to cope with it, but also experiment and innovate so as to shape it,” says Rossel.

Getting people on board

People’s engagement is always on cities’ bucket list, but using complex technical tools can be challenging for participation beyond a ‘thumbs up-thumbs down’ approach. “Solutions to engage with citizens don’t have to be sophisticated,” says Misuraca. “I saw someone using science fiction as a visualisation and engagement tool.”

People might also feel like they are too busy to take time for public participation. “Some don’t necessarily want to participate,” notes Misuraca. “It’s a misconception to think you should tell people to participate at all costs. We should rather think about how we can put people in the condition of contributing without necessarily going through dedicated institutional channels.”

People have to feel a sense of belonging to invest in change, otherwise participation won’t work.
— Pierre Rossel, Founder and President of Inspiring Futures

Another challenge is ensuring that people feel concerned by the issues that cities ask them to tackle. “People can feel more or less concerned by or attached to an issue or an objective,” says Rossel, “and they have to feel a sense of belonging to invest in change, otherwise participation won’t work.”

Tools, not replicas

Here’s how Digital Twins can play a role and why cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bologna, Helsinki, Rennes Métropole and Rotterdam are enthusiastic about using them. “If we think of Digital Twins as tools, and not as a closed replica of reality, then the data collected through them can be put together into a story to give people a feeling of belonging,” says Rossel. This would start a collective long learning process to trigger not only decisions, but also behavioural change. People need to understand the impact of their collective choices to make informed decisions consistent with their values and pursue them over time.

“Digital Twins will always be an approximation of the complexity of reality, especially if you take into consideration the impact of human behaviour,” says Rossel. This raises the question of how much and what data should be included in your Digital Twin. “In principle, the more open you are to adding data, the less formal and reliable data you will have,” explains Rossel, “but with more data, you may get closer to representing the complexity of reality. It’s a question of finding a balance between mastered formalisation and human-rich openness.”

It is essential to acknowledge that the debate around the power of data also raises ethical questions. “Technology and data can be used to put our democratic system at risk,” says Misuraca, “but also it could be a change maker through better understanding and acting upon our environment and ecosystems.”

Missing ingredients for foresight

So, do we have all the ingredients for Europe’s Digital Future? The direct answer is: not yet. “Despite all the rhetoric about a vision for the future that looks into 2040 or 2050, in reality, institutions work with a very short term approach,” says Misuraca. With objectives aiming at approving plans for the following year.

“This planning is needed, but there should be a real strategic foresight exercise,” adds Misuraca. “A foresight exercise that should be independent and forward-looking and using the power and potential of technology, not only to simulate urban issues and generate effective forecasts, but also help various stakeholders engage in exploring  and evaluating futures.”

He also points out that for all the EU funding streams that address digital issues, there is no clear direction as to what resources like the Digital Europe package or the Next Generation EU will fund, nor clear expectations regarding their return on investment and particular impact.

What are cities to take from strategic foresight? “We should not just try to solve problems,” summarises Rossel, “but establish a roadmap incorporating broader issues and options that are, to a certain extent, not immediately quantifiable and should be part of the wider story likely to motivate us.”

* Gianluca Misuraca and Pierre Rossel ran a session during the Eurocities Knowledge Society Forum on foresight and Digital Twins. Participating cities showed interest in continuing the conversation around the challenges and advantages of Digital Twins.

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer