Enter Real Time Planning, which brings elements of contingency planning into rural, urban, city, and regional plans and clarifies the underlying structure of the analysis and its connection to the plan results, the strategy recommendations and/or project list, allowing for continual updating as the reality changes."
Real Time Planning relates to integrating elements into an existing planning process, or designing a new planning process, that allows for flexibility and responsiveness to change. Think of it as contingency planning for the planning field. Historically and today, rural, urban, city, and regional planning is characterized by a planning cycle of 4-10 years typically, and plans are created or updated on this periodic cycle.
Change, unknowns, and uncertainty of today
The world today is moving faster and with more impact than in decades past, prompting the need for a new model and way of planning our places. Natural disasters are more frequent and more destructive. Climate change has had tangible repercussions in many parts of the world, and water shortages and drought are becoming increasingly common. Technology is rapidly evolving and changing the nature of how many services are provided, making even basic budgeting a challenge.
Need for transparent structure and logic for urban plans
After a plan is delivered, a lot may have happened by years 2 and 3. Nonetheless, there is typically no defined process to “rerun” or “reprocess” the analysis within the plan. Professionals are often forced to move ahead with implementation of the plan, knowing certain elements are outdated, but lacking little recourse. The idea of rerunning or reprocessing the analysis brings up another critical point, the lack of a defined, transparent structure behind plans. Most plans begin with goals and objectives, shift into analyses, and then close with general direction and recommendations, if strategic in nature, or programs, projects, and initiatives, if its purpose is to end with such results. The process and its results are often encapsulated within a document. Plan documents typically have text, photos, tables/charts for data, and maps to communicate the points. Oftentimes, the result or product of the plan aligns in general with the analysis, but there is little specific detail provided regarding which elements of the analysis combined to generate the various results. It can be unclear what precise analytical factors combined to result in the strategic recommendations or projects, and why other directions were eliminated. Simply put, there is a lack of transparent structure behind the plan results and direction. Without this, even if you did want to update it mid-cycle, the logic of the plan would not be clear enough to allow for such an update.
Enter real time plans
Due to this lack of defined, transparent structure, it is difficult, if not impossible, to rerun or reprocess the plan according to new insights. If a baker wants to share a new cake with others, they share the recipe containing the ingredients. In planning, there is rarely an ingredient list. It is far from the idea of reproducible research with its focus on an objective process and product. Enter Real Time Planning, which brings elements of contingency planning into rural, urban, city, and regional plans and clarifies the underlying structure of the analysis and its connection to the plan results, the strategy recommendations and/or project list, allowing for continual updating as the reality changes.
To get started practicing Real Time Planning, see How to apply a 10-point checklist for future-proofing your plan and How to identify tipping points and triggers.
I do, however, believe in preparation for the future, the events it brings, the uncertainty it fosters, and avoiding the feeling of regret when steps were not taken to be ready for something that seems obvious after the fact."
I use the phrase “future-proofing” to be illustrative, not literal. I don’t believe it’s possible to keep the future out much like a well-worn raincoat keeps me dry. Nor do I believe that the future is something that requires protection. I do, however, believe in preparation for the future, the events it brings, the uncertainty it fosters, and avoiding the feeling of regret when steps were not taken to be ready for something that seems obvious after the fact. Take a look at your planning process and see if it has these elements built in, and if not, design a process to integrate them before taking your planning process forward.
1. Defined, transparent structure connecting analysis to plan results - I’ll share a key method to tackle this. Diagrams are a great addition to plan documents. A conceptual diagram can help lay out the structure of the idea, in this case, which analytical factors pertain to a certain strategic recommendation or project. A diagram showing the elements that went into a certain result would show all these components and how they combined.
2. Identification of fixed and flexible factors within the structure - Let’s take a certain diagram. It will likely show some “fixed” factors such as the current population, but it will also have some “flexible” factors, the variables, which are subject to change. By identifying these factors, you can do a periodic check on the variables to see if they did change, while leaving the fixed factors in place. In addition to other benefits, this can show when assumptions were made, subjective factors, so that new assumptions can be put in place as thinking evolves. Between the transparent structure and factors identified as fixed or flexible, you have a solid approach in place for periodic updating.
3. Plan opening with demonstration of interconnected issues - Plans often have goals and objectives at the beginning, and they tend to focus on a specific area of work, such as economic development or transportation. These goals and objectives are often entirely based only on writing as a medium. Early on in a plan, take economic development for example, it should be made clear what issues are interconnected, and even interdependent, for the economic development issues the plan will address. Economic development often relates to housing, transportation, education, and other factors for a local area, but it is up to that area to define the interconnected issues for themselves. Then, when the goals and objectives are written, it will be clear the conceptual, and previously unstated, basis these rest upon. Many times, an economic development plan will have some mention of transportation, for instance, assuming every reader “gets it.” The catch is, they don’t. The relationship between these issues should be stated for the purposes of the plan, even if it seems obvious to the creators, for the sake of transparency. See the Educational Article Series: Getting Started with 360 Degree Planning for more details.
4. Foresight focus - A big part of integrating a contingency component is adding in foresight. This deals with trends analysis, forecasting, horizon scanning, and other methods to gain insights into what the future might bring. This can take many directions, but a resulting list of “future forces of change” is common. This could be climate change, technology, natural disasters, or countless others. It could also be more near or short term, taking into account factors such as a major company relocation. While these are external, for the most part, they could also be internal to your organization, such as a budget cut, departure of a large number of employees, or other factors. You may even begin to sketch out the various ways each force could take shape, such as listing 3 possible paths for each.
5. Foresight likelihood - Once you have the foresight elements refined and focused on your needs, long after the initial brainstorm, you should consider the likelihood of each force and its paths, based on your current knowledge. You may not be correct, but it is a way to begin to give them deeper meaning.
6. Controllability and influence - Some of the factors you identify as interconnected issues and future forces of change may be entirely out of your organization’s control, but another organization in the same area may have some control or influence. By identifying these organizations early and checking in periodically along with the planning process, you can find out if there is the potential to inform them on your work and discuss potential paths of collaboration. Furthermore, they’ll have their own plans and ways of processing decision-making, and you may need to understand how their processes work so that you can influence it. This can be critical when your organization’s success is somehow dependent on that organization’s sphere of control and influence.
7. Scenario development - One way that planners can illustrate foresight elements, or future forces of change, is by developing scenarios. A scenario is a plausible future state; let’s say 10 years in the future. After you sketch out the various ways each “future force of change” could take shape, such as listing 3 possible paths for each, a scenario can be created that combines 1 path from each force and weaves them into a story for what that future state might look and feel like. The purpose is to give professionals, and in some cases the public, a view into how the future might shape in such a way that it feels possible and real, which inspires action. Generally 3-4 scenarios are created, but many scenarios can be developed depending on the project needs.
8. Outcomes as compass - When “future-proofing,” it is key to clearly understand the “why” for the strategy and projects that will result from the plan. The “why” tends to include key outcomes across all strategies and projects that serve as a sort of guiding light or compass. Outcomes to consider may include economic development, equity, environment, and health, but there are many others. For more insights into what constitutes an outcome, see How to Combine Mapping and Results for Holistic Organizations. To leverage systems thinking and mind mapping to connect your work with outcomes, see How to Map for Outcomes. When navigating the future as a part of future proofing, the “outcomes as compass” approach is even more critical than it would be otherwise, because the plan is quite literally being reoriented as the surrounding situation changes over time. The key question then is, reoriented according to what? The outcomes.
9. Strategy and projects as responses - Typically, plans end with recommended strategic directions, initiatives to serve specific needs, and/or a list of projects that will improve the situation. When future-proofing, you are not only thinking of these strategies and projects as a response to the current day needs, but also needs likely to come in the future. But with the future being its unpredictable self, you are forced to make decisions with limited information. There are a few ways to approach this and feel confident you’ve done your best. The first is to consider which projects are going to improve the local area no matter what the future brings. These are “no-brainers” of sorts with obvious need and wide support. Some of the other projects may only be appropriate if certain future events come to pass. For these, think in terms of “if-then” statements. If this certain future force of change takes this path, then we react with that (enter strategy or project here). This is essentially building in a contingency planning element that not only makes the planning process much more effective and successful, but it keeps professionals from feeling that their reactions are inadequate. The fact is, we can only do the best we can do. This type of thinking, planning, doing, and acting, given that the future remains unknowable, is the best we can do. That brings with it confidence and comfort in the knowledge of performing well as a professional. For more about “if-then” planning, specifically how to set up “trigger points” to help indicate when the “if” is really happening, or how far along it is, see How to identify tipping points and triggers.
10. Organizational co-creation - Last, but not least, no professional creates plans in a vacuum. It is always a team effort. In the case of real-time planning, it could be that there is a leader or champion in the organization that is convinced there is better way to run the planning process in order to remain responsive and flexible as the future unfolds. They may think that the typically accepted planning processes widely in use today are woefully outdated. This person, who might be you, becomes the champion of seeding options and ways forward for this critical planning need, which may end up influencing the organization in an impactful and productive way.
If you set up tipping points during your planning process, you’ll have a system of indicators that essentially provide an alert to put a certain set of responsive actions in place. Think of this as your contingency planning real-time alert system."
What tipping points are and how to use them
“Tipping points” (also called “triggers”) are indicators showing that what was previously understood as a future possibility is now in the process of occurring, or is on the cusp of occurring. If you set up tipping points during your planning process, you’ll have a system of indicators that essentially provide an alert to put a certain set of responsive actions in place. Think of this as your contingency planning real-time alert system. Understanding what a tipping point might be, since it can take on a wide range of forms depending on your subject area, works best through illustrations with a logic you can apply to your own situation.
Tipping point examples
Let’s take climate change impacts as a thematic area, and sea level rise (SLR) in particular. Suppose a local area has a coast in danger of SLR. Perhaps there has not been any documented sea level rise yet, but some find it very likely. Let’s say the local area has a set of projects in mind already to counteract the SLR, but the funding support is difficult to gain until there is actual evidence that SLR is occurring. In this case, the professionals would need to first understand what the level at which flooding would occur actually is, 3” from current levels, for example. They would need to have conceptual project ideas ready, which could include environmental and restorative solutions for the coast, engineering projects for protection, and/or zoning changes for coastal building and gradual government purchase and acquisition of coastal properties to transform the area. It could be that at .5”, it is clear that the SLR is occurring, and estimates indicate that the time it would take to go from .5” to 3” would allow adequate time to get key projects in place. In such a situation, the SLR hitting .5” would be the tipping point and verify that what was previously an “if” is, in fact, happening. That means the “then,” the projects needed to counteract the impact, are ready for implementation.
Tipping points applied to pilot projects
The concept of “if-then” thinking can be applicable to pilot projects and scaling up as well. Let’s say a local transit agency is trying out on-demand microtransit for the first time in a limited set of areas. They are excited to try this new approach in areas that have always been underserved, but understandably cautious about how it will work. It could be that a tipping point is established defining a level of adequate adoption by the local population to warrant scaling up. In this case, a certain ridership level or number of repeat passengers for a certain period could demonstrate this adoption. But adoption rates like this don’t exist in a vacuum; they are dependent on many other factors. Shifting from a pilot to scaling up has a grey area in the middle where there should be experimentation between the dependencies on ridership for due diligence on getting the ridership to meet its highest potential. For instance, in the case of on-demand microtransit, marketing is huge. Transit agencies tend to provide information about its transit service, but they may not fancy themselves a marketing engine.
For new on-demand services, failed marketing can end the project before it ever gets off the ground. People can’t use a service of which they are unaware. In addition, the situation is even trickier in the cases of people who tried the transit service a few years ago and decided it was not for them. These people, even if the marketing message reaches them, may not absorb it, because they think of the transit agency is providing the service it always did. This message about a totally new type of service offering will need to get to these people as well. Let’s say the ridership figures are not where they need to be to scale up yet. Ensure that the project has an experimentation period built in precisely for this likely roadblock.
Allow a few or several months to play with the marketing messages, review the service feedback, and try new things with a monitoring process to see what sticks. Sometimes a bit of trial and error is required. The worst thing would be to start and finish a project that was doomed from Day 1 for not building in such an experimentation period for an emerging service with associated technology. In this case, the tipping point is far from a black and white concept. It is a notion of when adoption, expressed as ridership, has reached a level that demonstrates it is worthy of scaling up. Reaching this level will more than likely take some elbow grease. It is not a one and done type of thing, but an iterative experimentation process that should be designed into the project from the get-go. In this case, the tipping point determines if the effort is worthy of scaling up, and the project should have a fair shot of reaching this level of success.
A real time alert system
Now that I’ve shared a few examples, imagine your planning effort has 10 tipping points. All of these would need to be monitored, probably in different ways. As a byproduct of the plan, you could have a real time alert system established to track these data. This approach takes on a life of its own, existing both within and outside of the plan itself. It can be a “living” plan component that fosters ongoing responsiveness and adaptability in the face of many unknowns and a high level of uncertainty. Further, it aids professionals in no longer operating in the dark. The situation is changing every day in some cases, and no professional should have to keep moving ahead without gaining incoming information that could change the very nature of the improvements they deploy in their local area. Read all the articles in the Educational Article Series: Getting Started with Real Time Planning to make sure you are prepared.