Welcome to the Future-wise Cities theme at the Manchester Urban Institute:


This is a holding page for the moment, based in this ‘local neighbourhood’ of synergistics@manchester


Cities are the hubs and crucibles of change, both local and global. The notion of a city is also changing – not only physical areas on the map, but many other kinds of reality – peri-urban metro-scapes, regional constellations, or multi-local-global networks.   

There’s also a strong imperative for change and transformation, towards cities of low carbon, social justice and liveable communities. Such changes are generally inter-connected (social, technical, economic, political, cultural). They are complex and dynamic (beyond rational governance or analysis): and they are often controversial (different actors with conflicting agendas).

And at a time of pandemic-induced flux and disruption, there’s a strong case for looking ahead, for exploring the dynamics of complexity and turbulence – so we look for ways to future-proof, or ‘Future-wise the city’.

This ‘urban transition / foresight / futures / innovation’ cross-cutting theme explores such dynamics of change: how to understand and analyse it, how to manage and plan, how to experiment and learn, how to build capacity, and how to look ahead and envision viable futures. 

This theme is a networking, synergistic, inter-connecting program, which involves each of the MUI themes, others around UOM, MMU and Salford. There is also a multiplicity of global networks, adding value, generating insights and exploring frontiers.



This image shows urban development as a dynamic cycle of ‘panarchy’, with four main phases – (from Deeper City Ch 4) 

  • rapid material growth
  • climax condition leading to instability
  • collapse and crisis
  • regeneration for & by the elite…

coudl there be an alternative?  … this would aim to think ahead, grow in a sustainable way, strengthen its resilience, manage the crisis when things change, regenerate around social justice, and then learn from all that, for the next cycle….


Future proofing the pandemic-city

At this moment it’s an open question whether the Covid-19 epidemiology continues to multiply, mutate or re-emerge. It’s also unknown as to how social and economic and political systems interact with this epidemiology.   It’s also a deeper unknown (perhaps ‘unknowable’), whether or not social-economic-political systems could return to the old normal, or transform towards some kind of ‘new normal’, (either positive, negative or mixed).  So on the ‘future-proofing’ track we could map out the combinations, as possible ‘what-if’ scenarios, each with a mix of danger and opportunity – on the right –

  • ‘new panarchy’: (societal transition with pandemic solved). Here we ask, what-if progress is resumed and the pandemic solved, while staying vigilant for the next one? 
  • business as usual’: (societal inertia with pandemic solved).  This looks like the general direction of most official prospectives (OECD, MGI etc)… aiming to reconstruct the familiar game of techno-capitalist production and consumption.
  • ‘real virtuality’: (societal transition with pandemic ongoing): technology is the enabler for hyper-networked- isolationists, a new normal of video-holograms, decontamination suits and sterile pods.
  • ‘lock-down’: (societal inertia with pandemic ongoing) – a techno-dystopia of ‘Blade-runner’ surveillance / disaster capitalism…. where ‘safe zones’ turn into zones of exclusion and oppression.

On such landscapes of possibility, we can overlay other challenges and disruptions – climate change, financial extraction, invasive technology, social divisions, mass psychosis and many others.  The point is here, what can cities do in the face of such challenges, to enhance their resilience and turn crisis into opportunity? 

For a longer story – https://blogs.manchester.ac.uk/mui/2020/05/13/pandemic-3-0-and-the-cities-game-from-crisis-to-transformation/

Similar themes were debated for World Planning Day Nov 5th – http://www.mile.org.za/WTP/Pages/Presentations.aspx




Scoping the future-proof city

Futures and foresight (the science and art of anticipatory intelligence) has many dimensions – these are actively explored in the Foresight 3.0 series of  synergistic  conversations/ 

(including the upcoming Foresight 3.0 event – Dec 10th with the UNESCO Summit on Futures Literacy – https://events.unesco.org/event?id=255234025&lang=1033

The mapping here shows some of these dimensions – on the left side of the diagram there is a tendency towards a rational-techno-economic mindset, where the future is a framed as a projection of the present, with minor variations.  On the right hand side are more disruptive ideas on the social and cultural side, and where the climate-environment nexus is both a scientific agenda, and an existential dilemma…

Then we can explore some cross-cutting agendas and insights –

  • foresight / futures as transformation & post-colonial challenge
  • foresight / futures as community & network
  • foresight / futures as learning & innovation
  • foresight / futures as management systems
  • foresight / futures as ‘collective anticipatory intelligence’….



JPI-Urban Europe & ‘Driving Urban Transitions’


As part of the preparation of the next European Research and Innovation Framework Programme – Horizon Europe – new mechanisms for public-public partnerships are under development. One of the candidates for such a European partnership is Driving Urban Transitions to a Sustainable Future (DUT).  This partnership builds upon the achievements of JPI Urban Europe and aims to strengthen our joint efforts towards sustainable urban development and bringing knowledge and evidence into action.

For MUI this raises some topical questions: how can academic research best fit with policy innovation?  Behind the typical upbeat project webpage is a frequent story –  lost in translation, slipped deadlines, real-world complexities, policies vs personalities and so on. At a recent SUGI-NEXUS meeting we discussed how the typical £1m grant is rarely enough to follow through – so how challenging would it be to coordinate 15 such grants…

There’s also (imho) a strong case for taking a step back.  It’s important to push for clean green cities:  but equally important to understand the typical urban realities, of social dysfunction, urban disarray, failing systems, extractive finance and corrupted institutions (but not to be downbeat..).

And thirdly there’s a universal problem, of embedding policy-facing research – typically the final deliverables are delivered, and then policy continues to fire-fight / muddle through / resist change (depending on the point of view). Here and there is discussion of alternatives – a multi-helix civic university, or indeed a city-wide multi-versity, where everyone can learn from everyone….



This agenda has taken shape over 5 years with a program of symposia around Europe –



The research framework takes an interesting approach to urban ‘dilemmas’ – the JPI Urban Europe Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) 2.0 identified a set of key dilemmas and ‘wicked issues’ that are crucial for urban transformations. This becomes more clear as we move beyond the (relatively) ordered cities of Europe, into the wider world of planetary urban expansion, slums and sprawls, peaks and troughs in the human habitat.

As for the multi-versity…

EC-JRC ‘industrial transitions’ program


The Industrial Transitions project aims to apply state of the art thinking – transition theory, multi-level perspective & discourse analysis – to the growing challenge of industrial decline and transition…. first as a demonstration, and then as embedded in the vast machinery of the European Cohesion Funds.  

So the first question is – how do such transition theories work, in the real world of  extraction and inequality, paranoia and confusion, inter-generational trauma and simple inertia?

No simple answers – but it seems an opportunity to learn & think into new spaces of possibility.  It seems new ideas on ‘collective economic intelligence’ can help with mapping and design of such ‘deeper complexity’. And the ideas on ‘collective anticipatory intelligence’, or Foresight-3.0 – can help to navigate an endless labyrinth of possibilities.

Then we can revisit practical challenges – for instance, the UK2070 project on ‘levelling up’ in one of the most centralized / uneven states – http://uk2070.org.uk/

This is to be debated at the Local-onomics-3.0 Conversation 26th January