Predicting the unpredictable

London Essays – Issue 8: Futures

Predicting the unpredictable

We need a more creative approach to imagining the future.

By Corinne Swain OBE

London has become accustomed to its position towards the top of global city rankings. The city has weathered the shock of the 2007–08 financial crisis better than expected, house prices have rebounded, and jobs have increased rapidly in the centre. But what if the future does not hold more of the same? What if external shocks lead to London losing its place as Europe’s predominant global financial service centre, or it suffers from an anti-capitalism backlash? What if growth brings London to a tipping point where congestion, poor air quality, and sky-high property prices no longer outweigh the benefits of agglomeration economies?

As the UK government’s Future of Cities foresight project found, UK cities are not as adept as they might be in considering the implications of a full range of alternative futures. This could well be the case for London, which often appears to assume that its economic success is guaranteed whatever the circumstances, with virtually no consideration of the implications for the rest of the country.

London’s planning tends to be directed towards the top end of a range of possibilities. Population projections – and, hence, the all-important housing requirements in the London Plan – are largely based on recent trends in mortality, fertility and migration. The economic projections underpinning mayoral strategies are based on extrapolating historic trends in employment.

The use of scenarios to consider alternative levels of growth is surprisingly limited – almost as if it were perceived a weakness to consider risks and uncertainties. The London Infrastructure Plan 2050 was underpinned by alternative forecasts of population and employment, but these received less attention than the five assessments of how growth might be accommodated by different levels of density in various parts of the city. Even where extensive work has been undertaken on economic assumptions, the results have been downplayed in political commentary – hence, in launching work on London’s relationship with the EU in 2014 (work that was informed by alternative economic forecasts from Volterra 1), Mayor Johnson spoke of a win-win situation based on the two most favourable scenarios. In fact, the full spectrum of scenarios was much more uncertain, with annual average jobs ranging from an increase of 50,000 p.a. to a fall of 60,000 jobs p.a. over a 20-year period.

Source: Future of Cities: Foresight for Cities guide, Government Office for Science, 2016.

Rather than starting with factors susceptible to numerical modelling, such as population numbers, ageing profiles, sea levels, and temperature increases, there can be benefits in thinking more fundamentally about the forces shaping the future. This is not about predicting what lies ahead as much as creating imaginary environments in which to think more laterally, so as to identify opportunities and risks not immediately apparent in current ideas of the future.

Thinking more creatively would lead us to explore important aspects of how we live our lives and the demands we place on the city around us. New applications of digital technology, for example, are changing how we navigate our way around the city, how we interface with public and utility services, how we work, shop and spend leisure time, and even how we invest in our local environments through crowdfunding. Smart technology will enable city authorities to use urban assets such as road space more efficiently; reduce service costs (from streetlighting to recycling collections); and help building owners to increase their energy efficiency. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, such as electric vehicles’ potential to reduce air pollution, and the effects of multichannel retail on town centres, technology is rarely considered in the statutory planning process.

Identifying forces of change that could be significant but remain highly uncertain is a well-established basis for creating exploratory scenarios. Take cultural values, for example: there is uncertainty about whether communities in London might move towards a sharing philosophy (swapping consumer goods, renting out spare space at home, communal energy systems, car share schemes) or to more atomised living. When combined with economic uncertainties, or environmental or climate change, scenarios can produce contrasting narratives about how the future might unfold.

One of my own imaginary worlds 2 from 2009, produced by combining different attitudes towards planetary health with alternative economic conditions, gave some inkling about the possible outcome of Brexit. (We called it Fortress Mentality.) As is often the case, the benefit of such work lies less in the content of the scenarios than in the thinking processes. In this instance, we used the work for an interactive workshop with the aim of imagining the implications of changing migration patterns and patterns of urbanisation within and beyond London.

Imagining how the daily lives of different types of people (for example, a single mother, an entrepreneur or a pensioner) might change in different worlds can be a useful way of exploring potential futures. A ready-made set of Future Londoners 3 exists, with the advantage that these 10 imaginary characters illustrate how different technologies might have already affected patterns of work and social interaction.

Exploring the future more creatively also makes planning a more explicable and potentially transparent process. Postcards from the Future, 4 exhibited at the Museum of London in 2010–11, provided highly accessible visualisations, including images of the changing of the guard on camel-back, rice paddies in Parliament Square, a shantytown surrounding Buckingham Palace, and washing hanging in the windows of a residential conversion of The Gherkin. Provoking questions about the circumstances that might have led to such apparent oddities, they helped to raise awareness of risks from food security, flooding, social inequality and housing shortages.

Returning to the key economic uncertainties of the moment, another accessible tool – that of international comparisons – was used by Centre for London Associate Charles Leadbeater in his exploration of the ways in which London could reflect the experience of other cities post-Brexit. 5 He looked at five cities that had suffered various forms of shock: dramatic industrial decline, financial crisis, the effects of the Cold War – and at how they coped.

It was clear that London could learn a good deal. From Detroit, it could learn the importance of a clear sense of direction; from Montreal, the value of different identities and loyalties in the city; from Athens, the importance of civic self-help; and from Singapore, the value of strong city governance and of making a virtue of constraints. Fostering these approaches and capabilities requires a lot more than the statutory planning system. Even so, there are lessons that should influence the new London Plan.

We like to think that London is infinitely adaptable thanks to its huge pool of talent and creativity, as well as a built form that has withstood fire, wars, and transport revolutions. But it is arguable whether London’s spatial structure – with such a dominant central area, fed by radial public transport – is agile enough to accommodate an ever-increasing population and changing patterns of work. As the city faces a probable loss of clerical jobs thanks to automation, and the risks of Brexit and protectionism, is now the time to turn the rhetoric of creating a polycentric city into reality? That would necessitate investing in Outer London’s network of town centres, and in transport – with a greater emphasis on orbital movement, as Toronto 6 is trying to do with its “everywhere to everywhere” public transit program.

London has always considered itself a city of villages. Now, with an ageing population, a time-poor working population, more portfolio working and growing congestion, the neighbourhood may become increasingly important. Older people may increasingly be involved with childcare; they may welcome opportunities for lifelong learning.

The London Plan’s proposal for lifetime neighbourhoods could be widened in scope to comprehend not only accessible housing and facilities for the frail elderly, but also the full participation of active retired people in community life. This would entail reimagining the role of neighbourhood centres as multifunctional community buildings – with space for health, arts, education, civic activities, and business (including provision of co-working and maker spaces alongside 3D print shops). It would also mean putting a much higher value on creating, managing and curating the public realm and green spaces 7 to make high-density living more palatable to a full range of Londoners. All these measures would help to realise the long-held policy objective of encouraging more walking and cycling.

Even a cursory look at the fundamental forces of change suggests that London should explore alternative futures more creatively, particularly scenarios that challenge London’s status quo. The benefits of using a range of city foresight techniques lie not just in new insights, but also in the relationships forged in the process. In particular, city foresight can engage emotionally with citizens in ways that traditional public consultation cannot. Far from implying weakness on the part of London government, it can demonstrate the confidence needed to face an uncertain future.

Postcards from the future, ‘The Gherkin’. © Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones.

  • 1 Volterra (2014). Europe Report: A win-win situation (Appendices A and B). London: Mayor of London. Retrieved from
  • 2 Swain C., & Konvitz E. (2009). Foresight, Planning and Climate Change. Town and Country Planning, 78(6), June 2009.
  • 3 Produced for the x.Future.Innovation.Cities workshop in September 2013 by a collaboration of Arup, Social Life, Re.Work, Commonplace, Tim Maughan and Nesta. See
  • 4 Graves, R., & Madoc-Jones. D. (2010). See
  • 5 Leadbeater, C. (2016, July 22nd). London’s future: a brief guide. The Financial Times.
  • 6 Keesmaat, J. (2017, April 19th). Presentation to Toronto : London NLA international dialogue event. See For further details see Metrolinx (2014). Metrolinx Five-Year Strategy. Retrieved from:
  • 7 Arup (2015). Cities Alive – Rethinking green infrastructure and related publications. Retrieved from: