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Scanning The Foothills Of The Future


By Jemima Jewell

"A fantastic tool for people to lift their eyes from the daily doom and gloom, to the foothills of the future – where the view is breathtaking."

That’s how our recent vision for the West Midlands region was described by Dr Simon Slater, who commissioned the project as Director of Sustainable Development at Advantage West Midlands.

But what exactly is a vision, and why are we so keen on them here at Forum for the Future?

A vision can take many shapes and forms, but essentially describes what an organisation, product or place will look like in the long-term future if it achieves its goals. Even if the exact means of getting there is as yet undetermined, a vision sets out the essential features of success in an evocative, inspiring manner.

It may seem difficult to justify planning for the next 20 years when getting through the next quarter is at the front of everyone’s mind. But setting out a future vision is a productive exercise for a number of reasons. When talking about the long-term future, people are often willing to discuss important or sensitive issues more positively, focusing more on solutions than they otherwise might. Developing a vision can give members of an organisation a common sense of purpose.

It’s not always the case, however, that visions have to be agreed. In the ‘safe space’ that is the future, hopes, fears and ambitions can be discussed more openly, and without recrimination. People’s different underlying assumptions can be brought to light and talked over. Indeed, often the most useful part of having a vision is that it acts as a tool to stimulate debate.

One caveat. A vision cannot be a concrete, immovable thing. As Peter Drucker said: ‘If there is one thing we know about the future, it’s that it will be different’. There are few certainties facing organisations today – the last 12 months has surely taught us that. It’s therefore vital that any vision includes built-in flexibility to enable resilience in the face of a potentially turbulent world. Regular ‘horizon scanning’, looking out for hints of future change, is an important step to build into any long-term planning process.

Forum’s recent vision for the West Midlands region was commissioned by the Regional Development Agency Advantage West Midlands, and explores what the region might look like in 2020 if it is successfully travelling the path to a low-carbon economy. The people, businesses and places described in the vision demonstrate that decarbonising an economy, or a region, isn’t all about cutbacks and sacrifice. Becoming a low-carbon region can and should be a positive journey that genuinely improves quality of life, and works with, rather than against, other policy goals around health, productivity and innovation.

Dr Slater, now Executive Director at Sustainability West Midlands, says: “We will be using this tool to help stimulate debate, about what is possible now, and how to get there. We will challenge our leaders to look at this vision, improve on it, and ultimately use it to help make the birthplace of the industrial revolution a better place for its five million plus residents, forging a new identity based on our low-carbon industrial success”. The ball is rolling and the West Midlands’ Sustainable Housing Action Programme has already used the vision to inform the contribution it can make to reducing carbon emissions by retrofitting housing.

This is exactly what visions are for. If a vision lives and breathes, becomes a focal point for discussion, and is used to influence short-term decisions on investments, strategies and partnerships, then it can be an invaluable tool to help drive the transition to the sort of life we want – and need – in the future, making that ‘breathtaking’ view a reality.

Download the West Midlands vision here – and join the debate.

Related posts in our archive:

Where There Is No Vision, The People Parish

Envisioning The Future Of Ecology, Politics and Consciousness

Envisioning One Planet Schools

My Other Car Is A Bright Green City


To find out more about Forum’s visioning work, please contact Jemima Jewell.

This piece originally appeared in Forum For The Future.

Photo credit: Flickr/Athena's Pix, Creative Commons License.

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