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Uncertain times for the future of infrastructure
For those tasked with deciding what infrastructure we will require in the future, COVID-19 has added even more of uncertainty to an already uncertain future.
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Future-proof decision-making in an uncertain world

The disruption caused by COVID-19 has made it only too clear that the future will be characterised by volatile change and uncertainty. So how can planners and other infrastructure leaders forge a strategy that has the best chance of providing for society in the years to come? Here we discuss why FUTURES – a six-stage process developed by Mott MacDonald and the University of the West of England, Bristol – is the right approach for these uncertain times.

For planners and others tasked with deciding what infrastructure we will require over the coming decades, COVID-19 has added a new layer of uncertainty to an already uncertain future. For instance, the combination of homeworking, social distancing rules and urban business closures have affected patterns of commuting and leisure travel so much that it is hard to make a confident prediction about the demand for road journeys and public transport over the next few months, let alone over the much longer timescales that are relevant for infrastructure investments.

So far it is unclear whether, and to what extent, people’s lifestyles and preferences will be permanently changed by the pandemic. But deferring decisions until the crisis has passed is not a realistic option: other imperatives, such as the need to adapt our infrastructure in response to climate change and to tackle economic and social inequality, have not gone away and are only becoming more pressing. There is also no guarantee of when the disruption caused by the COVID-19 might lift.

So how can planners proceed with important strategic and tactical decisions amid such uncertainty?

Decide and provide

Part of the answer is to stop giving forecasts of future needs such as predictions of passenger demand. Planning has traditionally involved producing forecasts based on understanding of past trends, and then aiming to provide the right infrastructure to meet this need – a so-called ‘predict and provide’ approach. Predicted needs become the reference point for project proposals and cost-benefit analyses, the focus for business cases, and the subject of debate about whether to take action - or do nothing - and all the associated potential impacts.

Before COVID-19, the world was already becoming characterised by increasingly dynamic and volatile change, which made ‘predict and provide’ problematic. Rather than there being one likely future that we can frame our plans around, it is only too apparent that there is a wide range of plausible future scenarios. We need to come up with solutions that perform robustly in a wide range of these scenarios, rather than just one.

Furthermore, it’s clear that in balancing the competing needs of the economy, society and the environment – and particularly in regard to the climate change emergency – planners cannot afford to be neutral about the type of future they want. Infrastructure systems can influence people’s behaviour and actively shape the future, so we need to be confident that they are working towards the outcomes we desire. Recognising this, planners should work with the community and other stakeholders to define a ‘preferred future’ and then seek to provide infrastructure and systems that will contribute towards its realisation. This alternative philosophy is called ‘decide and provide’ and it is at the heart of the Future Uncertainty Toolkit for Understanding and Responding to an Evolving Society (FUTURES), an approach developed by Mott MacDonald and the University of the West of England, Bristol.

FUTURES was designed to help national agencies and infrastructure operators to inform policies and programmes; regional authorities and asset owners to guide strategies and prioritisation processes; local authorities to support the planning process for infrastructure; and owners, investors and developers to set the vision and delivery mechanisms for strategic sites and assets.

Triple access system

FUTURES describes the ‘triple access system’ by which people access the things they want and need, whether that is goods, services, recreation, or social contact with other people. It is access that creates the basis for economic activity and social wellbeing. The three axes of the triple access system are land use (spatial proximity), telecommunications/digital connectivity and physical connectivity. From the planner’s perspective, it is easy to concentrate on physical connectivity –transport – as the most important way of giving people access to the things they need or want. Yet it is often possible, or even preferable, for people to access these things digitally or to live close enough to walk to them.

“During the COVID-19 lockdown, digital connectivity has grown, as has the importance of local proximity – the old adage of ‘live local, act global’ has really come into its own,” says Glenn Lyons, Mott MacDonald’s professor of future mobility and the leader in creating the FUTURES approach. “People are transacting remotely, but also enjoying their local communities a bit more using their feet and pedals. What this has highlighted is that we live in a triple access system, where many of us have a choice about how we access things, and this has helped make the system resilient against the shock of the pandemic. Where people do not have those alternatives – for example, if they are dependent on the transport system to physically go to work – they are more vulnerable. An important part of rethinking the future is considering how we can use the ‘decide and provide’ approach to maximise access, and not limit ourselves to thinking about mobility.”

Where people enjoy alternatives in their access, it becomes more important for planners to work with them to define preferred futures and develop compatible solutions. For example, cycle lanes will encourage more people to leave their car at home for local journeys; faster broadband will encourage working from home; high- speed rail will make the train more attractive than domestic flights.

“For planners, it’s about how we take advantage of evolving behaviours, and changing them further in ways that we think are helpful to society,” adds Glenn. “And part of that of course is how we change the built environment, including new transport and other types of infrastructure.”

Perfect storm’ on budgets

Pre-COVID, many transport planners would have envisioned a preferred future in which public transport had a strong role and there was less need for a private car. The pandemic may have led many commuters to stay away from buses and trains in favour of their car or homeworking, but this does not necessarily mean planners who have put sustainability at the heart of their vision should go back to the drawing board, according to Glenn. He points out that some of the choices and behaviour changes people have made during this time may be beneficial, while many others represent short-term ‘churn’ that is likely to be reversed as circumstances change. The FUTURES approach calls for a strategy that is under continuous review, but at the same time, it’s important to have a clear and consistent vision about the outcomes you want to achieve. Some of the measures you take to achieve those outcomes may need to evolve as new trends develop.

“Having a vision does not mean that it should be absolutely cast in stone, but you do want some consistency to your vision over time,” says Glenn. "It’s no good if you are forever changing it with every political administration, and every economic crisis – a vision does need to be longer term. If we are looking at what we want things to be like in 2040 or 2050, then we shouldn’t allow COVID-19 to completely derail everything that we were thinking of.”

With most local and transport authorities facing highly constrained budgets before the crisis, there is a risk that these organisations face a “perfect storm”, where the need for costly action has increased at the same time as the ability to take that action has declined. But far from being a luxury, more focused planning for the future can pay off in financial terms.

“It’s self-evidently deeply uncertain out there now. But what I would say on budgets is that it is not necessarily about spending more in terms of the planning process, it’s about spending differently. Traditionally, we’ve tended to devote relatively little resource to the early stages in the appraisal process – the problem definition and the high- level strategic planning – and much more to the later stages of the appraisal process where you are homing in on the business case and the economic case for a scheme,” says Glenn. "But if you are not careful this means you could end up with the wrong answer to the wrong question. By moving perhaps 10% of your spending upstream, I think it’s possible to have the best of both worlds, which is to adopt a FUTURES-orientated approach, while using the traditional ‘toolkit’ of transport planning in a reduced and more focused way.”

The six stages of FUTURES

The FUTURES approach has six modules that can be used individually or together. All are adaptable to the needs of each organisation and situation:

1. Gearing up: The preparatory stage helps you to understand the overall FUTURES approach and its underlying philosophy. It is important that you identify and engage the right external and internal stakeholders so that everyone understands the FUTURES approach and it can be tailored to your needs.

2. Preferred futures: This stage focuses on the purpose, performance and outcomes you want to achieve, weighing social, environmental, economic and technological drivers and considerations in deciding the future you and your stakeholders want. The output is a vision and a high-level strategy that is tested and developed in the following stages.

3. Opening out: Opening out involves testing your vision and high-level strategy against plausible future scenarios. Exposing the extent of possible change, challenge and uncertainty initiates a process of addressing issues to improve the robustness of your forward planning.

4. Options: The opening out phase enables the development of strong, realistic, forward-looking options for realising your vision.

5. Closing down: This stage helps you to examine how your options could perform in different futures. Do they align well across all scenarios in terms of achieving the outcomes you seek, or is alignment poor in some scenarios, suggesting high risk? At the end of the closing down process you should have narrowed your options and have confidence that they will enable you to fulfil your purpose and vision, and should therefore be included in your strategy.

6. Review: This final stage is continuous. Regular performance monitoring and strategic review are essential in light of your changing market and operating environment. Adapting to conditions may involve re-running parts of the approach (perhaps in a lighter touch way). Such re-running may also be helpful as your staff and stakeholders change over time.

For more information on FUTURES read our brochure and interactive guide.

FUTURES is one of the approaches discussed in the Mott MacDonald white paper New Dimensions to Delivery.

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