Successfully Planning for Uncertainty

Envisioning the future for cities and making decisions to help your city thrive in the face of uncertainty is challenging and painful for some. Planners may wonder, at what rate will sea levels rise? Will there be a recession this year? Will Transportation Network Carriers (TNCs) be a dominant force in transportation? Will millenials stay in cities as they grow up and have families, or move to suburbs like their parents? These uncertainties make it challenging for planning organizations to know where to invest their resources, and for planners to know what skills and knowledge they should gain to grow their careers. Uncertainty can cause fear, anxiety, and doubt, which may lead to organizations and people trying to control as much as possible or give up and say, we will wait until the future happens. However, both strategies are barely handling uncertainty and can cause immense costs financially and socially.

The problem isn’t uncertainty itself. The problem is our rejection of it.

From: 5 Tools for Thriving in Uncertainty

There are two types of uncertainty, internal and external. Internal uncertainty is within yourself, or within an organization. Am I doing the right things and making the right decisions? Am I on the right career path? Does the organization have the right skills and resources to help their cities thrive? Can I reach my goal? Basically, it can be doubt about who you are and what you are doing. External uncertainty is how the world is changing and all the possibilities that exist. For example, whether a Republican or Democrat will be elected, or will a devastating earthquake erupt? Will walkability be a norm, or will we continue our autocentric ways?

So how can urban planning leaders successfully plan cities in uncertainty?

Change your mindset. This is the most important. Change what you think about uncertainty. “The problem isn’t uncertainty itself. The problem is our rejection of it.” Certainty may actually deprives us of developing sustainable and livable communities because it oversimplifies the complexity of the world. A sexy light rail system will not be successful everywhere in every situation. Uncertainty brings challenge and pain in our lives, yet it brings the most growth, fulfillment, and joy. Rather than running from the challenge, embrace it. Know that in those uncertain moments, especially the ones that are the most painful, you are growing the most and great opportunities are forthcoming.

Uncertainty brings challenge and pain in our lives, yet it brings the most growth, fulfillment, and joy.

Focus on Internal Uncertainty. There are many things in this world that are out of our control. That’s why I am a big believer in focusing within myself in situations of uncertainty and challenge. Focusing on what we can control (ourselves), rather than what we cannot (the world), brings better decision-making to better our cities and peace within ourselves. This doesn’t mean to not be aware of the outside world, just don’t dwell on what’s wrong with it or try to control it. Prepare for uncertainties by being adaptive, developing skills, and being emotionally intelligent. Focusing on yourself can be very difficult, especially when everything around you feels like chaos. Kyle Eschenroeder, describes the Triad of Control as a tool to help. Where “you simply distinguish, in any given situation, whether you have total control, no control, or some control. Then, focus on what is in your control with your whole being.”

Experiment. Reflect. LEARN. Repeat. Successful businesses and communities are running more low-cost experiments to gain results for learning, rather than develop elaborate plans that may not work and cost a lot of money. For example, Tactical Urbanism has become an international movement that uses flexible, low-cost, and short-term projects to advance long-term goals related to street safety, public space, and multi-modalism. It’s something you can control directly and see if it functions well with the community. Learning is a key ingredient here to understand what works, what doesn’t, and to adapt to situations efficiently and effectively.

Temporary Bus Platform on Telegraph Ave. in Oakland, CA

Learn Emotional Intelligence. This strategy may not seem relevant, however it has really changed my life in being able to handle uncertainties. I have learned how to pinpoint the anger, fear, and/or vulnerability when uncertainty is present. Learning how to deal with emotions helps the brain focus on solutions, rather than focusing on the uncertainty itself. You can actually use those negative emotions as power to find solutions. Our emotions drive our behavior, and sometimes we don’t even realize it!

Develop Scenarios. Organizations are now using scenarios of the future to drive decision-making and be prepared for what could be ahead. MTC, the transportation planning, financing and coordinating agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, created three scenarios of what the Bay Area future could be. They created regional forecasts in areas of jobs, housing, population, travel needs, and funding for transportation improvements to help drive decision-making for uncertainties.

SPUR, also created a comprehensive future scenarios report that lays out potential futures in the economy, housing, transportation, and physical form. The looked at uncertainties the region does not have control of, and outcomes that will be shaped by choices. “It is a way of understanding choices, chains of events, alternatives and possible outcomes to support better decision-making in the face of a future with great uncertainty.” Check out my links page for more info.

So embrace uncertainty, and see the opportunity it can bring for your city. Prepare for uncertainty by focusing on yourself, experimenting and then learning, gaining emotional intelligence, and using strategic planning scenarios.

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