The Future of Planning Is Agile, People-centric, and Technologically Advanced

The future is more unknowable than ever before. And the seemingly unstoppable acceleration of change (technological innovation, societal shifts, climate change) makes it more and more difficult to prepare for disruption. The COVID-19 pandemic has quickened the pace further, speeding up trends such as automation and digitalization. It has also increased the awareness of social inequalities and restarted the discussion on climate change from a new perspective (e.g., shifts in transportation behavior).

As the world around us changes, the planning profession must adjust and maybe even reinvent itself to ensure that planners can continue to help communities navigate change and plan for an uncertain future.

Preparing Planners for Future Challenges

As part of APA's foresight practice and in partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, we have been peeking into the future of planning to understand the critical trends — both emerging issues and longstanding challenges — that will impact our profession, and identify the key competencies planners will need to create great communities for all in the future. The list of trends is comprised of five categories — environmental, societal, technological, economic, and political trends — and ranges from artificial intelligence, digitalization, and urban air mobility to rising homelessness and gentrification to climate migration and the increasing prevalence of natural disasters.

Next, we rated and prioritized these trends based on the preparedness of planners, the extent and severity of the expected impact and potential disruption, and the estimated certainty. The findings provided us with insights on what trends planners will need to learn about and prepare for to be ready to act before disruption happens.

Three trends emerged with very high impact and very low preparedness. Artificial intelligence is one, and it involves numerous subareas, including automation and workforce displacement; the use of AI in infrastructure systems and planning tools; ethical standards; and issues regarding algorithmic bias and data gaps. Smart city technologies — and their equitable and sustainable implementation — and the digitalization of almost every aspect in life were the other topics where planners and communities will experience significant impacts but are underprepared.

In addition to the list of individual trends and their ratings, the findings showed clear trend patterns related to the rankings, interconnections between trends, and the nature of the identified trends.

These outcomes will inform the work APA and the Lincoln Institute do to support planners as we prepare for the future, acquire critical new skills, and engage in policy discussions around these trends. This article will summarize the findings and offer suggestions on how planners can adjust and upskill.

Pandemic Accelerated Trends, Requires Future Agility

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has played a key role. Almost all trends were either accelerated or disrupted by the pandemic. Take the trend toward digitalization, which has been evolving for decades. The digitalization of pretty much everything happened overnight, and resulted in changes in transportation behavior, empty business districts, and increased inequalities regarding access to jobs, school, healthcare, and social life due to the lack of equitable broadband distribution.

No one was prepared for these disruptions, let alone for the pandemic itself. COVID-19 has forced everyone to learn as we go, but some industries and individual entities were able to react and adjust better than others. We now know that agility and the ability to quickly adapt or change directions when disruption happens is key to surviving and thriving. Planning is currently not considered agile. Our traditional, largely linear processes will not be up to the task of preparing for an unknown future.

Trends such as artificial intelligence and climate change, coupled with the accelerated pace of change, indicate that more disruption is awaiting us on the horizon. Future literacy and the practice of foresight will be indispensable for planners to help our communities navigate these changes. To create resilient plans and provide more agility in their implementation, planners must combine visioning (creating a future vision for the community) with strategic foresight (making sense of forces that are outside of our control) and exploratory scenario planning (creating alternative future scenarios).

Agile adjustments are almost impossible with current planning procedures. Many of the ad-hoc planning solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., pop-up bike lanes, shared streets, or on-street dining) were made possible by emergency orders and not by the usual planning procedures. Agile processes such as design thinking and a "fail fast, fail small" approach have not been part of the planner's repertoire so far.

Experimentation, prototyping, pilots, and feedback loops are important elements of agile processes and have multiple benefits beyond agility: For instance, improved integration of the community, their ideas, and their feedback in a planning process; increased innovation and outside-the-box thinking; and monetary savings and risk reduction.

People-centric, Equitable, and Technologically Advanced

Our foresight work revealed a troubling trend pattern: Most planners are not well prepared for the majority of the technology-related trends. COVID-19 was a wake-up call when it comes to digitalization and its impacts on communities. Additionally, trends such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and urban air mobility will bring significant change and disruption.

Planners are communicators, facilitators, and consensus builders. However, planners are also tasked with preparing communities for the future and helping them navigate change. The future will be digital, automated, and technologically more advanced than today. The pace of technological innovation has been accelerating for decades, and it is getting increasingly difficult to keep up with it. Planners need to understand technological developments and how they will affect their communities.

This is especially important when looking at the pace of technological innovation and the unresolved issue of social inequality, a dangerous combination that bears the risk of repeating past mistakes from the analog world in a digitalized world.

While many trends related to social inequality have finally risen to the top of the planner's priority list in recent years (e.g., gentrification and displacement, homelessness, income inequality), planners have not yet calculated the risk of additional inequalities in a digitalized society. We are aware of the digital divide caused by the inequitable distribution of broadband internet across the U.S. However, the digital divide does not stop there. There is a high risk that inequalities in our current hybrid analog/digital society may unintentionally spill over to a future where digitalization and automation play bigger roles in decision-making and daily life. Planners need to understand new technologies and participate in discussions related to their development to ensure an equitable and sustainable implementation.

Planners plan for the common good, and planning processes need to be people-centric. Technology should not be implemented for technology's sake, but to resolve challenges and improve community wellbeing. Planners need to make sure technology helps resolve challenges instead of creating new ones. Only then can we repair historical and present conditions of disadvantage (which the planning profession has helped create) and prevent them from worsening or repeating.

Diverse, Fact-based, and Inclusive

Other patterns showed that planners have long been aware of many of the identified trends and their potential for disruption (e.g., climate change, social inequality, increased lack of affordable housing, and lack of integration of emerging transportation alternatives). While we identified myriad useful guidebooks, policy guides, and toolkits to tackle these trends and related challenges, these trends have either not been addressed adequately or the needed actions were outside the planner's authority. That gap contributes to disruption, both today and in the future.

For the work of planners to be effective, planners need the authority to make decisions and ensure that what was planned can be implemented. To do that, we cannot rely on merely the same processes, tools, and ways of thinking that created current conditions. New approaches are needed to resolve the disruptive challenges resulting from these persistent trends, and they will require outside-the-box thinking and a clear understanding of the true needs of the community's individuals.

Increasing the diversity of planning teams, integrating interdisciplinary perspectives (including professions other than the usual suspects, such as psychologists, social workers, and others), and making sure everyone is heard are important steps toward understanding all community narratives and histories needed to be able to make sense out of the future.

In what some have described as a "post-factual environment," where social media creates echo chambers and allows the proliferation of fake news, it is important for planning to be based on facts. The true story about a community can only be told with facts, and in an environment where individuals are heard and included in the process.

Interconnected Trends Shape Future Planning Strategies

Most trends, their root causes, and their paths toward disruption are interconnected and can therefore not be addressed in isolation. Planners need to look at plausible connections between trends and their systems, even if they seem unrelated at first glance. Sometimes a trend can seem irrelevant to planning when looked at in isolation. The classic example is the invention of the iPhone and its connection to transportation planning — who would have thought 15 years ago that a telephone would disrupt our cities and how we get around town?

Being creative and ideating different connections can help to imagine a wide range of plausible futures and ways to prepare for them.

Planning is an interdisciplinary field. Planners are aware that the different systems in our communities are interconnected, but planning is still done in very isolated ways. For instance, planners create transportation plans, land-use plans, resilience plans, hazard mitigation plans, smart city plans, and others, while missing out on the integration of all these different components and related plans. To capture the complexity of our communities and to prepare for an accelerating and changing world, systems thinking and the analysis of interdependence and interconnectivity between systems and their trends are imperative.

An important aspect of planning is the rejection of "one size fits all" approaches. Solutions need to be tailored to community needs and local context. However, this does not mean that planners should dismiss trends as completely irrelevant to their community if the connection is not obvious.

Writing off trends as solely applying to "urban" or "rural" communities or ignoring a new technology because its connection to planning is not immediately clear can limit the planner's understanding of their community's role in larger systems. Planners need to avoid the trap of believing some trends could never impact their community. Additionally, we all must consider how actions in our communities may have consequences for other places, perhaps becoming the root cause of new challenges.


Planners help communities navigate change and prepare for an uncertain future. The multidisciplinary nature of planning and the mix of skills planners bring to the table (covering all five trend categories) provide an incredible opportunity for planners to continue to spearhead these processes in the future.

But the path forward requires adjusting, adapting, and even reinventing planning processes and skills to meet the needs of a changing world. Through APA's foresight practice, and in partnership with the Lincoln Institute, we will support planners in the process of upskilling and making sense of the future.

Top photo: Getty Images photo.

Lincoln Institute of Land Policy logo

This research was developed in partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The Lincoln Institute runs the Consortium for Scenario Planning, which provides technical assistance, educational resources, and access to a network of fellow innovators.

About the Author
Petra Hurtado, PhD, is APA's research director.

February 10, 2021

By Petra Hurtado, PhD