Commonplace 2023: who said you can't do foresight with a startup?
Someone asked me a couple of months ago why startups don’t do foresight or futures work. My response was that new companies are often the product of a particular vision of the future. They don’t need to imagine future scenarios or trends; they are forging the future already.
Since then I have changed my mind. Scenario planning and other strategic foresight tools are traditionally the preserve of governments and large corporates. But I found a particular case where articulating a future scenario helped a startup. By going beyond today's regulatory and technological constraints, they confronted some of the much larger opportunities and worries they have about what they are creating.
Commonplace is an early stage startup: one of the teams that have been working away on Nesta's first floor for the last three months in the social enterprise accelerator Bethnal Green Ventures.
They are developing a digital tool for neighbourhoods and property developers. They'll help residents express their needs, communities to create neighbourhood plans, and developers to reduce their planning risk and costs.
While organising a workshop on future urban innovation, I met Commonplace founders Neil and Mike. We chatted about what Commonplace might look like in the future - which of our emerging urban challenges it could response to, and how new technologies could change what it does. They then thought about this in a much more systematic way, using a light touch scenario planning exercise.
First, they listed trends and drivers of change in London. They've got a pretty good grasp of these, having worked in the area for a while.
They picked two uncertainties that they thought were particularly relevant to Commonplace. They then used these to pick a 2023 urban scenario that relates to the East Shoreditch residents they are working with already.
They imaged how, in 2023, sensor technology could help urban citizens in this scenario engage with decisions about their local environment.
This information is then aggregated.
It is finally fed into a map of local views, and areas where there is a lot of interest are included in local planning processes. This allows planning decisions to be increasingly automated.
Automation of these decisions worried Neil and Mike; they were not so sure they would want to pursue this part of Commonplace 2023. Even with the sophisticated technology likely to be accessible in 2023, they felt there needs to be a balance between human judgement and computerised decision-making.
The imaginary Commonplace 2023 has allowed Neil and Mike to articulate the potential value of Commonplace in a more detailed. But it has also thrown up some questions for them to answer. Do they actually want to enable automated local planning? And does this work against their vision for better local engagement rather than with it?