Robert Goodspeed on How Exploratory Scenario Planning Helps Imagine Uncertain Futures

About This Episode

In recent years, the word "unprecedented" has been used so often to describe everything from the weather to public health that the only certainty is uncertainty. This makes the job of urban planners especially difficult as they try to anticipate what their cities will need in the coming decades. In the business world, a type of modeling called exploratory scenario planning (XSP) has been helping companies cope with volatility for decades. Now the idea is gaining traction among planners, thanks to the work of researchers like Robert Goodspeed, AICP.

In this episode, APA Research Manager Joe DeAngelis, AICP. sits down with Goodspeed to talk about how XSP can help planners bring together disparate stakeholders and variables to build robust plans to help cities prepare for whatever comes next — rain, shine, boom, or bust.

Episode Transcript

Robert Goodspeed: The whole idea of scenario planning is that you should prepare plans through the creation of multiple alternative, future scenarios. I don't really think of it as only one method. It's really a family of related methods, and there's quantitative, qualitative, different flavors of it that have been developed by planners and others for different types of planning.


Joe DeAngelis: Welcome to APA Podcasts. I'm your host, Joe DeAngelis, research manager at the American Planning Association. The resilience and adaptability of cities is constantly being put to the test, from weather events and climate change to COVID-19 and artificial intelligence, there is no shortage of pressure pushing cities to evolve. Add to that the unprecedented nature of these forces, and urban planners have their work cut out for them. Our guest today has been studying, writing about and teaching a methodology for facing these uncertainties for more than a decade. Robert Goodspeed is a planner and associate professor at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. His teaching and research are in the areas of geographic information systems, collaborative planning, and scenario planning theory and methods. And he is the author of the 2020 book Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions Managing and Envisioning Uncertain Futures. He has devoted his career to helping planners understand and use scenario planning to imagine their cities through 21st century challenges. This episode we'll talk about what problems scenario planning can help planners solve, how they can overcome any apprehension about these methods and why scenario planning can be a great way to build consensus among stakeholders. Robert, welcome to the podcast.


Robert Goodspeed: Hi, Joe. Thanks for having me.


Joe DeAngelis: I mentioned in the intro that you've been immersed in scenario planning for quite a while. For some planners, this might be a new concept or one that they've heard of but haven't really had a chance to dig into yet. For those of us who are new to scenario planning, can you give a brief description of what it is and maybe why it caught your attention early on in your research?


Robert Goodspeed: Sure. I'll start with, "What is it?" and then loop back around to where it entered my career. The whole idea of scenario planning is that you should prepare plans through the creation of multiple alternative, future scenarios. I don't really think of it as only one method. It's really a family of related methods, and there's quantitative, qualitative, different flavors of it that have been developed by planners and others for different types of planning. When I talk to planning audiences, I think a great thing about planning is we really have this diversity of traditions of practice. And so there's a couple that I think were the jumping-off point that help people kind of get where scenarios come from, how they come into our field.


One is around this idea of visioning. This has obviously been a big thread ever since Burnham's plan of Chicago, 1909. And, you know, in the 1980s and ‘90s, there's a lot of focus on participatory community visioning. But the problem with that methodology is it wasn't very rigorous. It wasn't very specific. Everyone kind of agreed to a vague vision, but they didn't really know what they weren't using. And they also didn't necessarily create a very specific picture of what they wanted. And so the movement towards new urbanism or smart growth scenarios come into the toolkit as a more rigorous way of defining possible futures, including a trend scenario. And often this is done in the context of land use planning.


Often you do your trend scenario. It's sprawling. Everybody hates it. You create alternative land use scenarios, and you get people to look at them, decide which one they like — Is it the nodes? Is it the corridors? — and then use that as a roadmap.

So that normative tradition that comes out of people like John Fregonese and Peter Calthorpe, comes out of Envision Utah. It's such a classic project. Inspired the whole West Coast tradition. I think even today there's a lot of value and merit to that. So that's obviously visioning 2.0, and the scenarios give you a more rigorous framework and help you do that.


There's a totally other kind of perspective or starting point, and so that will resonate for some of your listeners. Many of the land use planners, their hearts are beating right now, but like a lot of other types of planning, they're like, "Well, how does this relate to me?" And so really the planning begins with a forecast, and then it all flows from there. So we have a forecast for population, for traffic, for whatever resource demand it is — water consumption — and we work backwards, and we figure out the infrastructure we need. And so what's the problem with that? No one can forecast. You look at forecast-based plans, they're often kind of wildly inaccurate. And so I think we recognize the limitations of that method. What you should actually do is flesh out all of the needs and impacts of different possible forecasts and then prepare a plan which says, "Yes, we'll need these infrastructure regardless. And these ones, maybe we should hold off on and have a more nuanced, flexible approach to planning. Obviously, both require that you change how you're preparing your plan, but I think both intuitively, like conceptually, it seems like a path to go, and that explains a lot of the interest in the method.


Joe DeAngelis: Let's talk a bit about exploratory scenario planning. I know it might have roots in geopolitical decision making and in the business world, but can you talk a bit more about its history and kind of where it comes from?


Robert Goodspeed: Yeah, absolutely. I'm so glad you asked that because the flavors of planning I was describing, probably for planning audience it feels very comfortable just tweaking our frameworks a little bit. But the obvious weakness of that is you have these amazing land use scenarios, you're picking the one you want, you're building the train, but shouldn't you also think about broader issues? Will there be shifting housing preferences? What about climate change? What about equity and so forth? And so that speaks to this other idea of exploratory scenario planning because of its power of bringing in these outside factors that traditionally have been neglected or aren't really part of the very narrow, domain-specific kind of planning tools. But we realize they're our blind spots; we can't ignore them anymore.


One key kind of source of all this is Herman Kahn and wargaming nuclear war scenarios. He's the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove. But the method is really developed by corporate strategic planners, especially at the Shell Oil Company. So they have to make huge bets that are very sensitive to things they don't control like the price of oil, the price of energy and so forth. And so they really have invested heavily — Pierre Wack, these other executives there develop the methodology, which then became diffused in the corporate world. And those methods have been the inspiration for folks in planning like Uri Avin, a long-time practitioner who I collaborate with on a few of my papers and who read that literature and said, "Hey, this stuff, we need to translate it, you know? We can't just take the textbook and plop it down in planning and it makes sense, but we can be inspired by it." And the methods are based on an open-ended, qualitative exercise of conducting research, brainstorming collectively with the team that's doing the scenarios very broadly. Start with a blank page almost about what are the forces that are going to be shaping the future of whatever it is that we're planning. And for us it's a region or a city, but for them it's, you know, the firm or the business strategy or so forth. And so in the planning field, this has become known as exploratory scenario planning or XSP.


Jeremy Stapleton wrote a wonderful policy focused report for the Lincoln Institute outlining that and showing case studies of where he and his colleagues were involved in some different projects and generally in the West. And then Avin, I've written some papers about different types of more conventional planning, like regional land use scenario planning that has incorporated that exploratory element.


And then just to fast forward — you're getting all the case studies here, — the most recent project that I've been really inspired by is Plan Bay Area 2050. And so that's the regional transportation plan, and previously the MPO had created a more normative-style plan about where do we want growth to go? And for the last update of their long-range transportation plan, they did a full-blown exploratory activity called Horizon, which they used to generate the strategies and ideas that went into their plan. And it's a very sophisticated melding of the more exploratory and the more normative elements.


I feel like there's no one right type of scenario planning. It's very context dependent. I was at a conference years ago, and there's an executive director and he said, "What's wrong with good, old normative scenarios?" You know, there's all this focus on resilience and climate change and exploratory scenarios. Well, absolutely. We still have a terrible sprawl problem, and urban forms still matters. And it doesn't mean we should write the same plans we wrote in, you know, 2002. We shouldn't just move on from that. We might need to have a more robust framework that brings in other dimensions, which were neglected by those older plans. There's other communities, and they're realizing we've got these narrow mandates — create a housing production plan, we've got to do a land use plan — but, like, the bigger picture is the community is changing, and it's really facing a lot of whether it's economic, climate, whatever, and a desire to have a framework to study those, to think about those in a systematic way that makes it manageable and helps different professions, different city departments get on the same page and talk to one another. And so that's where I think there's a lot of exciting cases, and that's exactly the strength of exploratory.


And then if you have enough money, you can do it all — that is, in time. For other projects, it's a little more tactical: Where do we want to spend our effort? Is it more normative and really model things out to a tee, or is it more exploratory and maybe decide this time around, we want to focus our efforts on that more conceptual piece. And you know, let's hold off on too much modeling until we know what it is we want to analyze. Or it's just, we want to do a more strategic-style plan. It's not about the hardcore analytics. Those can follow in more implementation-geared activities.


Joe DeAngelis: So Robert, you were talking a little bit about a robust framework of scenario planning, and I could see some planners getting a little bit overwhelmed by the number of variables they might need to consider or the process that they might need to go through. Could you maybe paint us a picture of what scenario planning might look like as a process at the local level that isn't super complicated and reliant on super in-depth modeling of the future and such?


Robert Goodspeed: Yeah, absolutely. I've got a couple of answers. One is, I decided to try to answer that through research a few years ago where I took the database of all the MPOs in the country, and I zeroed in on small and medium-sized MPOs. So I created a threshold for regional population, and I specifically filtered to find some examples because if you're a smaller MPO, you just have a smaller budget. It makes sense. You have smaller staff, and the way that the planning dollars are allocated is proportional. And I did lo and behold, find some great examples. So the MPO for Monroe County, which is where Bloomington, Indiana, is (IU), they're actually housed in the city. They had done a pretty cool project, very analytical. They'd used a consultant that really was more decision focused about testing a bunch of different policies. And then I found one out in Idaho where they just brought in, like, one consultant on a modest contract. They created more conceptual scenarios about what general direction. You know, want to make their community a great place for business or kind of double down on an amenity growth strategy? And it has been done. You can look it up. But I think those of you who are listening, I feel like they either know they could do it and haven't done it yet, or the conversation's moved along. It's probably at the community or city scale where it hasn't really diffused as much.


And so in that same paper, found an example that I think is kind of inspiring. Madison, Wisconsin, was doing one of these exercises. And so they realized the general pattern of land use, we're happy with it, but what we aren't sure about is where growth is going to go and how we should use our subsidies in our infrastructure investment to create growth nodes. And do we foster redevelopment in our urban core, or do we allow more growth at the fringe, the periphery of the city? And so they used urban footprint as part of their comp plan. The state looked at their checklist, and they checked off what they saw. And then there's a whole chapter about scenarios and they go, "Well, okay, glad they did it." You know, kind of an add-on. And from that, it wasn't picking one of those because which one materializes is a little bit uncertain, but it's about looking at the trade-offs. And then they created a map where they proactively identified some growth nodes, and they try to use that for planning their BRT, for other planning activities across the state, all the stakeholders, not only the city. So I thought that was pretty cool. So there are ways of taking the ideas, and then there's another direction you can go that's more in the normative land use direction.


Another direction you can go is the city of Denver, internally had an exploratory workshop with all of their different functional departments and their consultants because, guess what, everybody's coming from a completely different point of view, and all the engineers see is the concrete, and all the social planner sees is the racial equity. They're talking past each other. And I talked to people involved. They felt it was really helpful to kind of develop some shared perspectives to go into a plan. The plan itself doesn't have scenarios. It's a more normative policy plan, setting out goals and so forth. So hopefully that may be a couple different ideas.


But the final answer here is — I didn't do it, but somebody felt it was a good idea — they surveyed MPOs and they said, "Did you use scenarios? Did it actually cost more?" And I looked at this survey. I mean, the response rate's kind of low. It's not the most rigorous survey you've ever seen, but I thought it was reliable enough. So in my book I have a sidebar where I talk about this issue, and the survey concluded that, yeah, it maybe was a little more expensive. One element is you're doing something totally new. There's just an adoption cost. Number two, it's a little bit more open ended. It's not as clean cut. There's maybe more steps involved. Technocratic planning is very streamlined because, it turns out, not talking to people really simplifies things. You decide what assumptions you want, having stakeholder workshops or trying to incorporate new themes. But like, I got some feedback about this part of the book from a colleague. He goes, "Well, that's not really a fair question because it's different, but we think it's still worth it. And we think maybe the plan it produces has a longer shelf life and has greater impact." And so it's a false choice of do I do the bad, cheap planning I've always done, or do I do something that's more effective? It's a little bit harder. But if that achieves your mission, then maybe you should find a way to do that.


And there's seems to be continued and growing interest. Like, I think a lot of practitioners are really tactical, and so they know about it, they're monitoring things and they wait. Like a lot of planning organizations, it's pretty administrative certain years. But then the mandate comes down. They say, "We need to redo our plan." I would just encourage anyone in that situation to not be afraid, and try to think about how you can be creative with your methods, with your engagement, and draw on all the different cool cases in the scenario world.


Joe DeAngelis: So you've discussed a little bit about MPOs transportation planning, urban growth management. I've seen that there's been a bit of work in scenario planning and things like water resources management as well. Is there something about these particular fields that might make scenario planning a better fit, or is this just a question of history — they've already been adopted into these different planning sectors, and they haven't quite filtered their way out more fully into other planning topics and areas?


Robert Goodspeed: Yeah, absolutely. Another thing to think about when and where to use scenarios is the time horizon of the kind of project. And in the scenario literature, there's an idea if it's really shorter-term, then the current trends are probably going to be dominant. And also just the nature of the plan you're going to write will be different. It's more about, perhaps, ideas from strategic planning. Like, find some key areas to focus and defining priorities, creating concrete proposals and so forth. The long term — 50, 100 years — we can read novels and go see a sci-fi film, and we think about it culturally speaking. But there's so much uncertainty when that's not the zone of planning. So obviously planning is in the middle, and that's the argument for the use of scenarios is that the kind of momentum of current trends becomes more and more uncertain as you roll forward ten, 20 years. A lot of the adoption has been in domains of planning that are trying to do decision making and create plans that speak to the 20-, 30-year horizon. A lot of transportation and land use, that's the kind of horizon of the plan by practice, and just by the logic of the system, water supply, it's the same thing. I think there's growing cases across different areas of planning, and, maybe more importantly, the methods you can flexibly fit them in and adapt them to different situations. But I think there's absolutely lots of opportunity.


Joe : So my main areas of focus and research as a research manager here at APA, it tends to be in hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation. On the surface, I would think that scenario planning has a lot to offer these fields in particular, and I know that there's been quite a bit of work in the climate change adaptation world around scenario planning. Hazard mitigation is different there. It's on a five-year update cycle for your hazard mitigation plans. It is maybe slightly more difficult to have a longer-term outlook, even though the kinds of impacts that you might see from natural hazards are long term. Would you be able to talk about if there is any utility that scenario planning might bring to these areas of practice: hazard mitigation, climate adaptation, that sort of thing?


Robert Goodspeed: Yeah, absolutely. I've been also learning a little bit about the hazard mitigation planning subfield, which I've come to appreciate kind of overlaps the more traditional planning world, but is to a certain extent a little bit its own world. Well, one observation is absolutely that one impetus to be more exploratory in a lot of these plans was due to the desire to look at climate change and bring it into the planning process. But like in the IPCC world, a scenario is about like a degree of atmospheric forcing and warming, you know, like emission scenarios. So some of the early projects, like the degree of warming or the degree of forcing and then the impacts from that model climate scenario is, like, the uncertainty, but then it's like [we've] become clearer which trajectory we're on. And so then there's other projects where the uncertainty is less about the degree of warming, unfortunately, but it's more about uncertainty, about forecasted impacts. So the Central New Mexico Climate Change Project did a really nice job at this, looking at long range precipitation forecasts. And it turns out, even under assuming a certain amount of warming, it produces a lot of uncertainty. And then they tried to use that to create a plan that would be robust to either drier or much wetter and have like flash flood problems, and they looked at flooding risk and things. So that's absolutely been done. And I think you can hear through that example the whole value of scenarios is it's the framework to combine the topics. Climate change people are sitting over there just tearing their hair out, going, "Oh, it's terrible, and I can read to you the list of impacts," but then you're still building in the floodplain and you're engineering assumptions for your roadways [are] not accommodating the rain intensity that the modeler knows about. So the purpose of this scenario is kind of bridge those worlds and to connect them. And it requires connecting traditionally siloed activities. I think we as planners should be aware of and supportive of what limited planning work that's being done. Even if you think it's kind of leaning into narrow tactical stuff, which it often is, send out an invitation and say, "We'd like you to come to our workshop." I think there is so much need for that kind of thing, and I think it's just due to everything that's been going on recently. We're going to see it happening a lot more, and I think there's a great opportunity for planners to really lead for sure.


Joe DeAngelis: So scenario planning is all about the future. Let's maybe look ahead a little bit. What does the future look like for scenario planning as a field in itself? Do you think we'll continue to see wider adoption of these techniques and of these methods to deal with some of the deeper, more underlying uncertainties that we might be dealing with in the world today?


Robert Goodspeed: I don't have the crystal ball, but absolutely. Here's a few things that I'm thinking about personally in my research. Yes, I have the scenario planning work, but I'm deeply involved in a project to map racially restrictive covenants and to create a zoning atlas and to look at both through the lens of racial equity and inclusion. There's a lot of interest over the years, I think, in scenario planning to bring in equity in different ways. Sometimes it's just a kind of lens through more technical indicators, but I think always there's a recognition. It's also about the framing of problems: Who's included, and how the plan can be used to scrutinize and challenge institutions that exist and the assumptions that they're based on? And I decided when I wrote my book to create a whole chapter about racial equity because, clearly, in a lot of cities there's interest in interrogating racial inequity and challenging the different planning-related institutional structures like zoning, like land use, decisions like the siting of transportation infrastructure, like even the priorities of whether we invest in freeways or transit, which have huge equity impacts. So I'm really excited about all of that stuff.


I think there's a lot of interest in the planning field market-based solutions. I think what we're going to discover is zoning is very important, but there's a lot of other factors that shape housing. I think we're going to need to plan for transformation in a more robust way. And I think there's room for scenarios.


Joe DeAngelis: We're thinking about the future. I think it's important to consider all of these different facets of planning in the ways that scenario planning might impact or might not impact them. Robert, thank you again for joining us today. I think this was a pretty fantastic conversation on an emerging and what I think is a really important area of practice that I definitely think more planners are interested in and hopefully can use in a productive way in their plans and in their work.


Robert Goodspeed: Great. Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.


Joe DeAngelis: Thanks for listening to this episode of APA Podcasts. This podcast was supported through a grant provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Cooperating Technical Partnership Program. If you want to hear more great conversations with experts from across the planning landscape, subscribe to APA Podcasts, so you'll never miss an episode. If you like what you're hearing, rate us on iTunes and check out our podcast series, People Behind the Plans, on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find our entire library of episodes at

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