Strategic Foresight for the Built Environment

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Strategic Foresight for the Built Environment

With nearly three decades of experience in project planning, development, and management services, Chris Allen helps guide a wide variety of clients toward their sustainable development goals. He specializes in technology innovation, business analysis and strategy, and organizational development in a number of emerging sectors related to sustainable development: land and buildings, product and process innovation, energy, natural resource utilization, regional economics, tourism, and community development. Chris has collaborated with stok to develop a strategic approach to a regenerative built environment. Here he shares some big picture considerations for tackling shifts in climate, technology, and society with innovative strategic planning.

As humans ponder our shared future on Spaceship Earth, we see and feel unprecedented changes underway: dramatic effects of economic globalization, demographic shifts and rapid urbanization, exponential growth in technological advancements, climate change, and new patterns of disease.

For most of the history of civilization, we had neither the need nor the collective capacity to address such complex, interrelated challenges that require new ways of deep understanding and multi-disciplinary solutions.

Our future has changed – fast. One critical aspect of our evolving future is the Complexity Gap.

Our Evolving Future: The Rise of the Complexity Gap

As defined by social scientists, psychologists, and neuroscientists, the concept of a Complexity Gap is based on a modern world reality check:

Socio-techno-cultural reality, in the current historical era, evolves at a faster rate than do human brain or human institutions. This reality creates a “Complexity Gap” that reduces human and institutional capacities to adapt to the challenges of late modernity.

As urban growth accelerates, a very tangible (and worrisome) example of a complexity gap is the fact that FEMA struggles to keep current flood maps updated and is much less able to accurately assess future conditions:

  • The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General revealed that 58% of all FEMA flood maps are considered inaccurate or out-of-date.
  • Many inland floodplains could expand in size by 45 percent by 2100, which would in turn greatly increase the number of vulnerable properties.

Further examples of complexity gaps are widespread throughout industry, government, and education sectors, posing real risks, but also revealing opportunities ripe for innovative solutions.

Complexity Gaps and the Need for Built Environment Innovation

According to the World Economic Forum, the real estate industry accounts for approximately 6% of global GDP. It is also the largest global consumer of raw materials, accounts for 25-40% of the world’s total carbon emissions, and faces disruptive pressures from megatrends in four categories:

  • Markets and customers
  • Sustainability and resilience
  • Society and workforce
  • Politics and regulation

Each of these four megatrend categories contain myriad complexity gaps.  Examples include the need for new / repaired infrastructure outpacing the availability of public capital, climate change effects outpacing risk and vulnerability modeling capabilities, growing and shifting population patterns outpacing the availability of affordable housing, and technology advancements outpacing permitting and regulatory capacity.

How can real estate companies manage for the risks posed by these megatrends and Complexity Gap phenomenon? And with ingenuity turn them into business opportunities?

One valuable approach is the conscious practice of Strategic Foresight.

Solving the Complexity Gap with Strategic Foresight

Thought leader Richard Slaughter, founder of Foresight International, defines the practice of Strategic Foresight as:

“The ability to create and maintain a high-quality, coherent, and functional forward view and to use the insights arising in organizationally useful ways; for example: to detect adverse conditions, guide policy, shape strategy; to explore new markets, products, and services.”

Without an ability to understand and respond to the aforementioned industry megatrends, many real estate companies face considerable risks in market disruption and/or obsolescence.  Conversely, those companies who can develop and maintain Strategic Foresight capacities have the potential to innovate and capitalize on new markets, products, and services.

Practicing Strategic Foresight at the Company Level

For those bold companies wanting to actively pursue the future for innovation opportunities, there are a number of Strategic Foresight frameworks that can guide a practice at the company level. For example, the Playbook for Strategic Foresight and Innovation, produced by a consortium of innovation-focused organizations, provides the following principles and a methodology:


Principle #1: What You Foresee is What You Get

People who believe they can change the world already possess a long-term vision of change. The individuals who make a difference in the world are proactive at heart, linking thinking and doing.

Principle #2: You Can’t Put Off Tomorrow

Procrastination does not stop the future from happening.


Phase 1: Perspective

Phase 1 gives you a broad frame of reference, holding up a mirror to the past so you may have a better anticipation of the future.

Phase 2: Opportunity

Phase 2 develops an ability to see growth opportunities that exist today and extend into the future by understanding changes in market and customer patterns.

Phase 3: Solution

Phase 3 seeks to define the questions that exist along different paths to innovation which are industry specific and correlate to customer needs and organizational focus.

Phase 4: Team

Phase 4 focuses on finding the talent and leadership your team needs to take an idea forward as a new innovation.

Phase 5: Vision

Phase 5 sharpens the team’s vision so that it may take on a life of its own and guide everyone’s actions forward.

Key to success in practicing Strategic Foresight is for companies to find a methodology best suited for their needs and then internalize and mold it into a regular team endeavor that adds continual insights and opportunities for value creation.

An inspiring quote by Richard Slaughter makes it clear that acquiring and maintaining a skillful perspective towards the future is an important lens for real estate professionals who shape our built environment:

“Strategic Foresight is the world we weave from the confluence of past gifts, present decisions, and future-directed action.”

If you’re interested in exploring Strategic Foresight and innovation opportunities, get in touch.

This post was written by Chris Allen. As Founder of Chris Allen + Associates, Chris helps organizations achieve their mission and goals as they relate to sustainable development.