The innovative practice of “futures studies” offers a new vision for urban development in Armenia
We live in a world full of seemingly endless possibilities. Technology is developing rapidly, business opportunities are increasing, and there is more money to invest in sustainable and inclusive development solutions.
However, people's mindsets often are not changing as fast as the possibilities around them. Enter futures studies, an effective tool to change mindsets and make new opportunities visible in times of uncertainty. Futures studies – plural because there is more than one possible vision for the future –allow us to leapfrog ahead. Take for example, the future of urban development in Armenia.
Armenia is a small landlocked country in the South Caucasus region. With limited resources, economic growth is expected to slow from 5.2% in 2018 to 4.3% in 2019. About a third of the population lives below the poverty line with the economy highly concentrated in the capital, Yerevan, which provides 58% of gross domestic product.
Yerevan is the industrial, construction, services, and retail trade center of the country. There are pronounced demographic, economic, and social disparities and inequalities amongst the marzes (regions) and municipalities.
The current administration, which was elected following a popular revolution a year ago, faces high expectations to improve the lives and wellbeing of the population in urban areas. To do so, it must address a major challenge: a limited capacity to coordinate across—and even within—agencies.
A more participatory approach, supported by a neutral convener, could help line agencies agree on a common vision and jointly develop strategies to prioritize policies and investments. We discussed this approach over two days of futures workshops with government officials, governors, and mayors.
In our discussions, government leaders in Armenia embraced the vision that the present reality is not too difficult to change. They were convinced that transformation was not only possible, but inevitable. They wanted radical, yet adaptive, change and this created a fertile ground for a common vision.
Asked what their ideal future city would look like, they suggested it should be clean and green (with good public transport, urban environmental infrastructure, and access to urban services): smart (using the full range of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies): inclusive (walkable, with greenways and other public spaces, friendly for the disabled); connected to other regions; and designed for citizens' work-life balance.
This new city could be possible if supported by new technologies such as data analytics, enabling artificial intelligence applications and early warning systems to manage congestion, crime, and pollution.
The next step was to figure out what type of cultural and behavioral change is required to realize the preferred future. We used the "metaphor methodology" to pick the right narrative to ensure that "culture does not eat strategy for breakfast."
They chose a transformative narrative, moving from an “island” to an “interconnected oasis” whereby Armenia attracted neighboring countries to collaborate in areas like business.
If you travel the countryside in Armenia, you will realize how critical this narrative is to ensure a sustainable future. Most cities and towns are sparsely populated and isolated, with poor road infrastructure dating from the Soviet era. Outside of Yerevan, the regions desperately need to retain their youth by creating jobs for them.
Next, to come up with concrete actions to create the preferred future, the groups did a “backcasting” exercise. Participants thought holistically across sectors, starting with the national digitalization program and the education sector reform to drive innovations throughout policy, human capital, and business development.
Participants focused not just on technology to transform cities but also on the societal and inner change that is required to transform conservative mindsets. Futures studies interventions become possible when leadership is committed, and the need for inner change is well recognized.
Participants agreed that Armenia must follow four key principles to create an enabling environment for change:
- Ensure zero tolerance for corruption to create a culture of trust, an enviable investment climate, and a virtuous cycle of prosperity.
- Focus on green, sustainable investments to reduce energy costs, increase the wellbeing and health of citizens, and spur innovation.
- Invest in technology. Technological disruption may create some short-term unemployment, but in the long run it will help support clean, green, and smart industries that create jobs.
- Think of ways Yerevan can support the development of other regions.
Armenian officials are keen to engage in a future-oriented interactive dialogue. They clearly understand emerging issues and trends that may determine the future of the country. They have embraced futures studies to build a common vision for change.