Governing bodies take decisions for the future all the time. However, they may not be aware of possible future in their daily business. The municipality of Haarlemmermeer, home of Schiphol Amsterdam Airport, realised that they needed to enhance their imagination of the future and take this into account in their policy related to physical, social and institutional infrastructures. For two years they have extensively explored the future, fostering powerful dreaming and exploring modes of participative democracy. Their aim was to remove all mental boundaries in order to think beyond what people know.
Roel in ‘t Veld, in charge of the project Recapturing the future, strengthening strategic capacities, has previously been project leader of the National Horizon scan of 2007. One of his lessons of that project was that most of the weak signals have already happened a few years after the publication. Therefore the current horizon scan has a strong focus on discovering unknown unknowns. In the same way, the project in Haarlemmermeer has a strong emphasis on enhancing our imagination. Powerful dreaming has become a key phrase in the project. They challenged everyone in the municipality to write an essay about the Haarlemmermeer in 20 years time. For many of civil servants, this was quite a challenge. Only then, they realized the limitations of their thinking. Winner of the competition was designer Bas Pruyser for his dream of an energy delivering apartment building for a mixed population, young and old, born and raised or newly arriving.
Haarlemmermeer was once a big lake and a major flooding threat to the city of Amsterdam, now it is a true polder. Edged by dikes with pumping stations to keep dry feet, water governance is still a top priority of the Haarlemmermeer. With many stakeholders on board, not only the Amsterdam Airport, but also farmers and the many governmental bodies in charge, network governance seems the only way to go. It takes a network to serve networks, but in the end a network organisation is much more resilient than a hierarchic organization. This transition does not happen in a day but is a learning process for almost all governmental bodies.
Participation and cohesion
A municipality is the governmental structure that is closest to citizens. Therefore, a municipality is highly focused on people’s needs, wants and wishes. The project has explored futures in which social cohesion was either high or low and the level of participation was either high or low. That revealed the impact that both levels of participation and social cohesion have on the type of governance in each of these scenarios. The most effective and resilient type of governance takes place in a world with high levels of both social cohesion and participation. In my opinion, these scenarios are a plea to shape a future in that way.
The third study focused on social arena and the shifting responsibilities of municipalities (which means, more social welfare tasks are shifted from the national level to the local level). Two futures were explored. In one world, citizens turned out to be very self reliant, while the state and the municipalities provide less and less welfare tasks. In the other world, some citizens showed strong opposition, but there was simply no money to pay for social welfare any longer. As these scenarios may happen side by side, it appear to be an enriching strategy to think about the consequences.
Strengthening our imaginative capacities
Without doubt, the thinking exercises of this foresight studies have an impact on the policy making in the municipality. Maybe not so much in a formal way, say by checks and balances with reference to the foresight studies, but by influencing the informal culture of considering uncertainties about the future in policy processes. The people at city hall have been structurally challenged to stretch their imagination of what may happen in the future in their municipality. They were encouraged to discuss weak signals, dissident opinions and to be curious about uncertainties. This must have lightened a spark of public pioneers that will still spread after the project, everywhere where policy makers have to think about the impact that their plans hold for the future.