Strategic Planning in a Turbulent and Uncertain Context`

Harrison, Philip
Appelbaum, Alexandra
Charlton, Sarah
Rubin, Margot
Todes, Alison
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Uncertainty and turbulence is a perennial feature of the context within which cities must plan but there are time periods in which a sense of uncertainty is heightened. This has been the case in the period since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/08 where the experience of uncertainty has reached levels not known since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Financial Crisis was an ‘uncertainty shock’ but it has left tremors in its aftermath. As one commentator put it, the recovery from the crisis has been “anaemic, brittle and fraught with uncertainty” (Tyson 2015). The combination of economic uncertainty in the contemporary period with political turbulence, global terrorism, and anxieties over climate change has created a ‘perfect storm’ of uncertainty. Wiltbank et al. (2006) write that “unknowability (true unpredictability) can be a disquieting and disruptive phenomenon.” This is especially so for the activity we call ‘planning’ which, almost by definition, requires some degree of confidence in our expectations for the future. The legitimacy of planning depends on the extent to which is can handle radical uncertainty. While the more traditional forms of planning may be helpless in the face of this uncertainty, there are, fortunately, approaches to planning within contexts of uncertainty that have evolved in both corporate and public sector planning practice since at least the late 1960s. In this paper we begin by outlining some of the dimensions of uncertainty, both globally and for the context of Johannesburg, focussing on aspects relating to demography, environmental threats, economy, society and politics, acknowledging, of course, that these are all profoundly interrelated. We then explore the multifaceted literature on planning for uncertainty, using the framework provided by Wiltbank et al. (2006) which distinguishes between approaches which are concerned with the better positioning of an institution within an uncertain environment, and those which actively attempt to shape environments. We apply the useful elements of the varying approaches to a brief analysis of Johannesburg’s current Growth and Development Strategy (GDS) exploring the extent to which the GDS has successfully accommodated uncertainty. We conclude with recommendations on how a new or revised GDS may better respond to uncertainty. Our approach to this study is broadly informed by a key insight offered by Peter Drucker in his seminal piece, ‘Planning for Uncertainty’ published in The Wall Street Journal in 1992. Drucker asked the question “What must we do––in fact, what must we become––if we are to successfully navigate the treacherous waters of unpredictability?” He argues, with reference to corporate planning but with relevance to public sector planning, that traditional approaches to dealing with uncertainty are not helpful: Uncertainty––in the economy, society, politics––has become so great as to render futile, if not counterproductive, the kind of planning most companies still practice: forecasting based on probabilities. (Drucker 1992) Drucker suggests an alternative approach to thinking about the future. Instead of asking “what is most likely to happen?" planning for uncertainty asks, instead, “what has already happened that will create the future?” This is the approach we take below in outlining dimensions of uncertainty. Our analysis is not futuristic and speculative but rather asks what the existing or emergent trends, and identified risks, are and what this may mean for the future. The reality, of course, is that the future is thoroughly unpredictable and we can only present these dimensions as illustrative of the scope of uncertainty and not as the basis of any form of projection. More important, appreciating these sorts of uncertainties, is how we can proceed with non-predictive forms of planning. A critical question that will address further in the text is whether our planning should focus only on adapting to uncertainty, or whether it should actively seek to shape the nature of the uncertainty. We do not assume that uncertainty is necessarily negative. In the corporate literature, at least, there is a strong recognition that uncertainty brings opportunity. This is arguably also the case in planning for the future of large and complex cities. Kaplan (2008) writes that, with uncertainty “often the basic meaning of a situation is up for grabs”. With uncertainty comes the opportunity to rewrite scripts in more desirable ways. However, there are massive risks if trends are misread or ignored.
A report for Group Strategy, Policy Coordination and Relations, City of Johannesburg
uncertainty , City of Johannesburg , GDS