Apr 27, 2020



The COVID-19 pandemic threatens the resilience of our urban economic and social institutions, but the long process of recovery will soon have to be jump started. Three possible scenarios are considered to help facilitate strategic conversations in support of that process. 


Today’s urban centres are experiencing profound change that is reminiscent of the urban hygiene revolution of 19th century Europe. As history teaches, large-scale cities are complex adaptive systems in which a vast spectrum of governance risks and innovations can emerge. The security imperative of 21st century urbanism is to secure an open society. 

VSIR Thinking Points 

    • The devastation caused by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetime. But it is not a “black swan” event, notwithstanding the proclamations of a few misinformed journalists, academics, and public officials. Policy researchers and medical researchers have long warned about the threat of a global pandemic. Additionally, open source and classified intelligence reporting provided early warnings about the virus outbreak in Wuhan, China. 
    • Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected 2.5 million people and killed more than 180,000. There is currently no vaccine or cure for the novel coronavirus. Much of what is known about the epidemiological threat is provisional because the coronavirus outbreak started at different times in different places. A public health crisis of this magnitude and velocity places enormous operational pressure on public health institutions like Canada’s Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response (CEPR) which is responsible for providing public health intelligence and early threat detection to city governments. 
    • So far, the coronavirus outbreak has not reached the most world’s most vulnerable population settlements which means the worst of the economic and social harm is still to come. While the near-term trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be predicted, it is possible to cultivate anticipatory thinking and rapid adaptation using evidence-based considerations and future scenarios. By adopting a multiple futures perspective, urbanists in both the public and private sector can test their core assumptions under different conditions of uncertainty. 

Managing the Future

Managing the future has become a shared preoccupation of management consultants, urban innovation labs, and policy think tanks. The competitive pressure to remain resilient and relevant in an increasingly unpredictable world raises the strategic value of foresight analysis. Various forms of foresight methods continue to proliferate in response to the growing demand for agile and intelligent decision-making. 

A Three Horizons Perspective 

The Three Horizons model which first appeared in the 1990s, supports sustainable operations by prioritizing long-term thinking across three “strategic horizons.” Time horizon one (T1) generally comprises the core assumptions and “best practices” which, in a steady-state operating environment, reliably deliver a significant return on investment. Consequently, managers tend to value them and promote their widespread adoption. Second horizon (T2) initiatives are innovative clusters and forward-focused projects within an organization that require considerable investments to build capacity, drive transformation, and create new sources of value. These forward-looking initiatives may face indifference or active opposition where they fail to align with the conventional wisdom. The third horizon (T3) is realm of visionary leaders and paradigm shifts.  The Three Horizons model provides a convenient framework for thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruptive impact from an urban planning perspective. Below are three possible scenarios (ie., T1- Response, T2-Transition, T3-Recovery) for how the COVID-19 pandemic might unfold. Each of the scenario descriptions are merely suggestive. While evidence-based, the scenarios are not intended to be predictive. In this brief, emphasis is given to the transition scenario (T2) to better support strategic conversations which have already started in the public and private spheres (see the diagram for additional details about the process). 

Pandemic City: Averting a Public Health and Economic Catastrophe: T1-Response Scenario  

    • Except for Taiwan (excluded from the World Health Organization), all countries are surprised by the onset and rapid spread of COVID-19. Effective public health responses are delayed by limited virus/antibody testing and data collection (ie., “super” spreaders in retirement homes). 
    • An escalating contagion threat spurs once-in-a-lifetime public emergency measures (ie., operations centres, draconian lockdowns, border closures) to reinforce the public health infrastructure and to mitigate the socio-economic impact. 
    • Amid a cratering global economy, strategic conversations about a recovery process commence in the public and private sphere (ie., Calgary Economic Resilience Task Force).   
    • Mounting business failures spark pockets of resistance to the virus suppression efforts. A premature easing of the lockdown opens a pathway for COVID-19 “wavelets,” forcing subsequent lockdowns, complicating what is already an asymmetric recovery process. 

Strategic Summer: Building a Pandemic Exit Ramp: T2-Transition Scenario           

    • A gradual economic recovery begins with “shovels in the ground projects” (ie., parklets) and a new social ‘playbook” (ie., curfews, physical distancing, mandatory mask-wearing). 
    • Both active transportation (ie., motorized bicycles) and on-demand transit surge with warming temperatures and temporary street closures to autos. Some cash-strapped cities weigh congestion tolls and frugal innovation methods (ie., COVID-19 sniffer dogs) at public places. 
    • Geopolitical tensions force urbanist leaders to adopt a “global” mindset and a strategic rethink of “city we want/need” policy priorities (ie., resilience hubs, knowledge diplomacy, talent recruitment)
    • Mega infrastructure projects (ie., 2030 Olympic Games) and public-private partnerships (ie., Cascadia Innovation Corridor) are used to strengthen a North American “supercontinent.” 
    • Humanitarian agencies and global governance bodies struggle with human insecurity among vulnerable population settlements. New security screening procedures (ie., blood testing, border preclearance) among developed countries spark a medical worker “talent war” and a “brain drain.”  
    • Asian “first movers” leads the global export market for medical intelligence (ie. antibody testing, “immunity passports”) and “smart” city infrastructure. Globally, the prolonged pressure of constant surveillance (ie., invasive technology) generates COVID-19 related pathologies. 
    • “Supercomplexity” enters planning lexicon as urbanists focus on securing an open society though collaborative networking and city-to-city diplomacy (ie., Global Resilience Research Network)

Resilient Urbanism: The New Normal: T3-Recovery Scenario       

    • Achieving the full potential of urban economic innovation (ie., Vancouverism 3.0) requires a fundamental rethink of institutional learning, city-making, and Canadian federalism. 
    • Urban resilience (ie., SDG 11) gains global prominence in a make-or-break decade (2020-30). 
    • A robust economic recovery ensures when a reliable vaccine is deployed globally (ie., 2024). 

Urban Dispatch summarizes and clarifies contemporary city-related trends, strategic management issues, and research questions. It is intended to provide VSIR clients and interested readers with relevant insights for use in making prompt and informed decisions. Vancouver Strategic & Integrated Research is a catalyst for agile thinking and organizational learning. Further research and analysis of the issues discussed in the Urban Dispatch series is available upon request. Please forward any correspondence to  grant@vancouverstrategicresearch.ca.  

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