By Robert Hickson 01/08/2018

Auckland Council’s long term spatial plan to 2050 is out. There seems to be lots of good data released with it that is worth exploring. But the thing getting the most attention at the moment is one of five scenarios in the brief Possible futures part that was released along with the plan.

The “Two speed Auckland” scenario has been described as dystopian, with a highly deprived western side of the city and an affluent east. Sort of like Palo Alto vs East Palo Alto in Silicon Valley. Some, like the Salvation Army, say that rather than being a vision of the future it describes what parts of South Auckland already look like, as well as failing to understand that it isn’t the affluent that experience the most crime, but those living in the poor neighbourhoods. So, not really fitting the “plausible” label that the Council gives the scenario.

The other scenarios are more optimistic. “Living with nature” imagines a reasonably successful adaptation to a changing climate (at least in 2050), although leasing rather than buying houses is more common.

“Safe haven” is a future where there has been very high levels of migration, and repatriation, to Auckland to get away from more dangerous parts of the world.

“The people’s network” describes an Auckland with better mobility and social connections. While “Whose food bowl?” imagines Auckland as a significant food producer (from the land and water, as well as from vertical farms and rooftops) and exporter.

It is good to see some futures thinking has been employed. Shame about it being so superficial. A lot of effort has gone into the rest of the plan. Not so much for the scenarios. I’d say they were cheap add ons, though I suspect that a management consultancy may have been involved, so not so cheap.

How to create better scenarios

I’ve written several times before about scenarios (here and here). Wilkinson and Kuper also provide a great overview of  how to create scenarios that have impact. There are several things I find wanting about the Auckland ones.

  1. They are very simplistic and largely optimistic. They don’t really go beyond trivial descriptions of what is already expected, and don’t provide any insights. A really good set of scenarios about urban futures that stimulate thinking, and go for shades of grey rather than black and white, are these about the future of transportation in the US.
  2. Where’s the distinctive choice? An important part of using scenarios is to provide alternative futures. These ones are not mutually exclusive. Its hard to see how all of the scenarios couldn’t be part of the same future.
  3. They seem very much the result of a few isolated individuals looked in a dark and airless room. Scenarios are better viewed as a process rather than a product. You need to involve a range of different perspectives, key decision makers and influencers in their creation so that they come up with something of depth, weight, and utility. Good scenarios are ones that both enlighten and help the decision making processes.
  4. They are very narrow. The rest of New Zealand doesn’t appear to have any connection to or influence on the future of Auckland. Is that prescient or wishful thinking, or just a reflection of the points above?
  5. Its unclear how the scenarios have informed the plan, or how they’ll be used.  This is the most significant weakness. They don’t seem to add any value, apart from helping generate some media interest. They lack detail to help inform decisions about what needs to happen (or not happen) to get to a desirable state (or avoid a dystopian one).

Scenarios are worth doing well, particularly where planning for the most populous part of New Zealand is concerned. I’m happy to help.


Featured photo by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash