The Production of Futures: Scenario Planning Platforms (Scale and GIS, Part 1)

While scenario planning is a large facet of GIS work, I want to take the opportunity to discuss some of the platforms that are out there in an attempt to illuminate the range of tools available and the kinds of work they perform. To start, UrbanFootprint is a tool through which one can access “land use, policy, and resource planning tools” from different sectors. Its website describes this data as “powerful,” leading to a “detailed data ‘canvas’ . . . of the built environment” that can serve important policy considerations.

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Particularly, within the following claim on the tool’s website, it is clear how platform designers can treat GPS technologies as agents of policy enabling precision and imagination: “We believe that facts matter – that clear, defensible analysis about the impacts of policy choices enables better, more sustainable decisions. Our RapidFire and UrbanFootprint tools are established and evolving platforms built on this belief.” As is the case with various geospatial platforms, the designers frame objectivity as being built in to the platform. It is as if the designers are saying, “If we have more objective platforms that are publicly accessible, our policies will be better.”

Toward this end, Calthorpe Analytics also describes RapidFire as a tool of evaluation, positing scenarios at different scales to get at the efficacy of standing policy against the unanticipated. To the designers, this tool addresses a need to “quickly inform state, regional, and local agencies and policy makers in evaluating land use, energy, water, transport, and infrastructure investment policies” in such circumstances. Not only does this framing confirm the importance of accounting for different scales (the local, the regional, and the national) within such planning measures, but also the need to reimagine infrastructure in terms of the hyperlocal and transport. All this makes the notion of urban planning – a discipline working with the Cartesian to imagine possibilities and futures – quite Foucauldian. Accordingly, through it, discourse becomes productive anew within a system of ordering.

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Envision Tomorrow is another GIS toolkit built toward anticipation – specifically, for “anticipating future social, economic, physical, and environmental conditions and making decisions about a community’s policy options, community services and other infrastructure investments.” What intrigues me the most from the website description, however, is its articulated drive toward “producing futures.” So much of what GIS planning is about is the production of futures as they relate to policy – anticipating a scale so that actors, actions and terrains may be scaled accordingly. This toolkit’s invocation toward “producing futures,” then, becomes quite telling of the nature of the aforementioned disciplinary knowledge entailed.

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Much of this, of course, extends beyond the practitioners of the discipline itself, as these practices of scaling also get articulated toward the broader citizenry. Consider CommunityViz as an example. CommunityViz is software built out as an ArcGIS extension that “provides an advanced-yet-accessible framework for planners and citizens to learn and make choices about the future of the places they love.” While the software is still about the production of futures in accordance with different scales (the description hints at this in citing that urban planning is ultimately about “the future of cities and regions, large and small”), it also promotes a collaborative framework toward this production, leaving the door open for lay publics and community leaders to claim a stake in such processes alongside GIS planners.

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At this juncture, scholars like Wendy Hui Kyong Chun would point out how neoliberal such an idea can be. The faith espoused in objectivity within the design of several of these platforms implies that the accessibility of more and better information across a range of involved actors would prompt better decision making. Scaling, then, becomes critical here given that the view a scale affords (be it, by way of analogy, the god’s eye view of positivism or the situated knowledge of an STS or ethnographic perspective) becomes a knowledge claim in and of itself, one that, in these cases, emerges in the designers’ framing of each platform.

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