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Using scenarios to understand the changing face of Europe’s cities and regions

By Matt Finch, Saïd Business School; Marie Mahon, University of Galway; Mike Woods, University of Aberystwyth

The global and the local are deeply entwined; this was driven home to us as Covid-19 swept the planet. We continue to feel the connection this winter, as geopolitics shapes decisions as personal as whether we can afford to turn the heating on tonight.

The landscape of our cities and regions today is characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity – the so-called 'TUNA' conditions. Forces that lie far beyond the places where we live and work influence choices close to home. At the same time, there is an increasing appetite for local authorities to engage with global issues, as demonstrated by initiatives like the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy

In both government policy and commercial strategy, the question of geography comes to the fore. In our search for security and prosperity, where should we be looking when the future of our cities and regions is so uncertain? 

Exploring the future of regional inequality

IMAJINE, a Horizon Europe-funded research programme comprising 16 institutions across 13 countries, was set up to investigate European regional inequality through the lens of 'spatial justice': do citizens have equal rights and opportunities regardless of where they live? Are different places treated fairly? 

Looking at inequality means understanding inequalities and injustices which may only be emerging, and which may become a priority for future generations. 

Looking at inequality doesn’t just mean measuring the difference between 'haves' and 'have-nots' as we understand them today, and projecting whether that gap will narrow or widen. It means understanding inequalities and injustices which may only be emerging, and which may become a priority for future generations. 

To address this challenge, IMAJINE’s Marie Mahon, a graduate of the Oxford Scenarios Programme and senior lecturer at the University of Galway, developed a set of scenarios using the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach. Together with the support of Matt Finch, an Associate Fellow at Oxford Saïd, and colleagues from IMAJINE’s team of researchers, Marie convened a broad network of institutions and experts to develop the scenarios.  

These included representatives of Capgemini Invent, the European Investment Bank, the OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, the European Trade Union Institute, the feminist policy organisation Engender, and the TAFTIE network of innovation agencies. 

This work generated four scenarios for plausible futures, raising awareness of how regional inequality may play out differently across Europe in times to come.  

Set in 2048, these scenarios comprised: 


Silver Citadel

In which a deeply centralised European power bloc uses artificial intelligence (AI) to manage economic prosperity and equity across its members. In this scenario, spatial justice means an equitable distribution of wealth between regions, calculated using AI, and lobbyists must 'whisper in the ear of the algorithm' to achieve their goals. 

Silicon Scaffold

Where social and economic life migrates almost entirely to transnational virtual spaces and corporate city-states are ascendant powers. Spatial justice becomes a question of regions’ right to hold on to wealth they have generated. 

Patchwork Rainbow

In which diverging and hard-to-reconcile cultural and social norms cause Europe to form a mosaic of regions which are increasingly dependent on relationships and alliances elsewhere in the world. Here, spatial justice is a divisive cultural issue: communities’ right to define their own values. 

Green Guardian

Where a postcapitalist order rises in response to the ravages of climate change, leading to a society whose overriding priorities are sustainability, survival and wellbeing. Spatial justice means regions helping each other adapt to change in a time of environmental instability.

Each scenario challenged assumptions around how the future might unfold and what might matter to those inhabiting it. Values around sustainability, confidence in the nation-state, even fundamental definitions of trust and truth, could all radically shift, with significant consequences for localities across the continent.  

IMAJINE’s scenarios allowed for old assumptions to be suspended and new lessons learned from the perspective of contrasting plausible futures – always with the emphasis on benefiting wise decision-making in the here and now. 

From scenarios to strategy 

A wide range of stakeholders have already made use of the IMAJINE work, both publicly and privately. For example, the scenarios created an opportunity for Europe’s innovation agencies to rethink where to 'place their bets' as they invest to support business innovation – but also to re-evaluate their identity in each scenario.  

In different scenarios, innovation agencies saw they might need to serve as the 'conscience of the algorithm', seeking to influence the decisions made by centralised governmental AI systems. They might be spun out from the state, forming blended public-private authorities. They might even shift their focus from boosting GDP to dealing with wicked problems around scarcity and sustainability. 

The four imagined scenarios offer a wonderful way for innovation agencies to discuss longer-term strategies and consider multiple ways they might need to respond.

As Saïd Business School's Trudi Lang explains, what an organisation decides to do (strategy) depends significantly on who it is taken to be (identity). In times of uncertainty, scenarios can reveal who we may need to become in the future, with implications for our role and identity today. 

Nyangala Zolho of Innovation Growth Lab (IGL), who co-convened the TAFTIE work, says: 'The frequency and intensity of change experienced by innovation agencies today, be it technological or political, has made it difficult for agencies to understand shifts occurring in their current roles, yet alone possible futures. As the IGL supports agencies to build strong learning cultures, the four imagined scenarios offer a wonderful way for agencies to discuss longer-term strategies and consider multiple ways they might need to respond.'

Milena Kostadinovic of Innovation Fund Serbia, who led TAFTIE’s task force on the role of innovation agencies, reflected on how things might look in 2048 compared to today: 

  • In SILVER CITADEL, agencies would put more effort into genetic engineering and biotech, combined with AI possibilities. This would affect medicine, agriculture, and other sectors. 
  • In GREEN GUARDIAN, agencies would focus support on technologies to protect against or mitigate the effects of climate change, building on concerns that are current today.  
  • SILICON SCAFFOLD is specifically challenging to agencies’ current roles, as this scenario shows powerful corporations setting the terms and conditions of development.  
  • PATCHWORK RAINBOW also challenges current roles in terms of regional power. Agencies, often linked to national governments, would serve within and across a mosaic of smaller jurisdictions with different values and priorities. 
The scenarios also highlight opportunities for the private sector to drive social change responsibly and get the future we want.

The scenarios also held significance for commercial actors. Annina Lux of Capgemini Invent, a graduate of the Oxford Scenarios Programme and respondent to the IMAJINE scenarios, explains: 

'IMAJINE's scenarios can benefit businesses by providing a glimpse into possible, yet challenging alternative futures of spatial (in)justice in Europe. The scenarios not only provide a basis for future-ready strategies for businesses in Europe and beyond, but also highlight opportunities for the private sector to drive social change responsibly and get the future we want.' 

Twenty years ago, the management scholar Richard Normann – whose work is memorialised in an annual lecture series at Oxford’s Green Templeton College – identified that 'cities and regions are among the most fascinating actors and institutions in today’s world, with enormous opportunities and stakes'. In the decades since Normann wrote those words, the power and significance of cities and regions, encompassing local and global issues, has grown. 

That power is best exercised in concert; we can achieve more when we work together. Graduates of the Oxford Scenarios Programme benefit from a broad network of expertise and experience across a wide range of sectors, which was harnessed as part of IMAJINE’s efforts to build a robust and provocative set of scenarios for European regional inequality. In turn, the scenarios themselves have formed the basis for a yet wider community to collaborate on the common ground of an unwritten future, to find the wisest and most rewarding decisions for all. 

Many thanks to Marie Mahon at the University of Galway and Mike Woods at the University of Aberystwyth for their contributions to this Oxford Answers article.