Dutch New Worlds: A Review

photo: http://www.010.nl/

We’re at an important moment in the world of scenario planning. Planners are increasingly pulling and tugging on familiar techniques, asking whether we can better include topics like equity and demographic shifts (like aging), looking beyond land use/transportation planning for inspiration, and expanding the ways that participants interact with scenarios. In short, many of us are becoming as interested in how scenarios are used as we are the modeling techniques and tools that produce them (although certainly the two issues are related).

It’s well known that scenarios originated in strategic planning, first for military and then for business purposes. However, few (Uri Avin’s work is a notable exception) have truly mined that history for lessons to practicing planners. It’s with this in mind that I picked up Dutch New Worlds: Scenarios in Physical Planning and Design in the Netherlands, 1970-2000 by Christian Salewski. The title is misleading; Dutch New Worlds reaches far beyond the Netherlands, to the history of military scenarios in the US to the application of scenarios in French research circles to the rise of scenarios as a design technique. This eclecticism allows Salewski to do what few have done before: he manages to convincingly connect the dots between all the disparate uses of scenarios.

The book begins with this sort of intellectual history of scenario planning, which history nerds like myself will enjoy but might prove tedious for general practitioners.  But it quickly turns to concrete examples of scenario planning exercises carried out in the Netherlands over the last 40 years. This is where the book’s brilliance is truly on display. Salewski provides the necessary context to clarify not only the structure of each scenario exercise, but how political factors, key decision points, and project needs influenced that structure. These are the driving forces that are often left out of planning case studies, and their inclusion here makes the book incredibly useful.

One piece of the book that deserves special mention is the section on how designers like OMA and West 8 (familiar names to urbanists) have used scenarios in ways that are different, but often complementary, to planning or business derived scenarios.

The use of the term ‘scenario’ by physical designers was different from its use by physical planners. For one, designers often blurred the distinction between options, models, plans, scenarios, morphological studies, and forecasts…[Designers] understood scenarios as a representational form for describing a course of action in cinema, and therefore [stayed] much closer to the original meaning of the term…Just as in planners’ scenarios, it was not the image of the future, extreme or not, that would lead to new understandings, but the underlying questions, the data used, the set-up, and the transparency of the process of the process by which these images were produced.

Perhaps the most enlightening section of the book is the final one on scenarios as tools. Of particular note for planners is a breakdown of six different ways that scenarios can be used. They demonstrate both the breadth and depth of scenario planning as a method and the many untapped opportunities for innovation.

As a final note, Dutch New Worlds brings home a central theme: scenario planning is not a silver bullet for one of the thorniest issues in planning: making decisions about the future with limited information. As Salewski puts it, “planning and designing with uncertainty means planning and designing with persistent uncertainty…Scenarios cannot be proof of any inevitability for decision-making, but serve as a way of making assumptions, models, information, and expectations transparent”.

Dutch New Worlds doesn’t provide an easy answer to the question of uncertainty. Nor does it provide copy and paste strategies for your next project. It’s as much an indictment of the scenario method as it is laudatory. But like The Death and Life of Great American Cities or “A City Is Not A Tree”, it reframes the issues with the kind of clarity and critical eye needed to give practitioners new paths forward.

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