Planning February 2020


Learn, Prepare, Act — APA’s Approach to Foresight

From the Desk of APA's Research Director

By Petra Hurtado, PhD

Planners help communities navigate change and prepare for an uncertain future. It's not a simple task, and it gets even more complex in times of accelerating change, requiring ever-faster adaptation to technological innovations, demographic shifts, a changing climate, and other drivers.

Petra Hurtado, PhD

Petra Hurtado, PhD, is APA's Research Director. You can reach her at

At APA, we are asking ourselves: How can we help planners prepare for an uncertain future and adapt to this accelerating pace of change? How can we strategically focus on the right things while creating value for planners and communities both today and in the future? Instead of staring into a crystal ball, in August 2019 we launched a strategic foresight process to answer these questions.

With the practice of foresight, we seek to learn with the future, prepare for uncertainty, and understand when it is time to act. To achieve this, APA's elected leadership, APA members, and APA staff are working together to analyze drivers of change, identify opportunities and challenges, and evaluate the potential implications for the communities we make plans for, the impacts on the planning profession, and what it all means for APA as an organization.

One of our current strategic focus topics is artificial intelligence (AI). While there are a variety of definitions, basically, AI uses algorithms for data-based, automated decision making. Through the practice of foresight, we are identifying AI-related opportunities and solutions for current planning challenges, as well as potential new challenges that will result from using AI in planning and related fields, looking at the following three levels.

First, what does AI mean for communities? The shift toward an automated society has begun. We already use AI in our daily lives; for example, when using a navigation app to reroute us around a traffic or transit delay. Current urban applications of AI range from gunshot locator systems for crime prevention, to machine learning applications that predict public transit arrival, to digital city twins that model future scenarios of entire cities. AI will impact how communities live, work, and play; how they move around (e.g., autonomous vehicles); the construction, operation, and maintenance of infrastructure systems (e.g., constant real-time machine-to-machine communication and adaptation); and ultimately, the points of interventions for our work as planners.

"At APA, we are asking ourselves: How can we help planners prepare for an uncertain future and adapt to the accelerating pace of change?"
—Petra Hurtado

Second, what does AI mean for the planning profession? AI will change the way we planners do our work. Essentially, any decision-making process that is based on rationality can be transferred into an algorithm. So what will be the future role of planners? We will use new tools to analyze and evaluate even bigger sets of data to inform our planning processes in real time. We will have to use new, more agile methodologies to adapt to the pace of change. We will need new skill sets to collaborate with AI, such as digital literacy and soft skills for experience-based decision making. Can public interest be defined by an algorithm? While some planning tasks may become obsolete, we may need to create new jobs for planners such as digital inclusion manager, data privacy officer, planning ethicist, or AI data trainer (ultimately, someone will have to teach the machine how to plan).

And third, what does AI mean for APA? Leadership, members, and staff will have to learn and understand how AI will impact our work as an organization that helps planners tackle these challenges and capitalize on opportunities. What policy implications and impacts on planning ethics will all of this have? And ultimately, what sort of training, education tools, and guides will help you and your community navigate and adapt to these changes?

These are just a few snippets from APA's practice of foresight so far. Stay tuned for more on this and other foresight-related topics in the coming months. We invite you to join us for this journey into the future so that we can learn, prepare, and take action together.