Preparing for an Uncertain Future: Doing “Scenario Planning” in Boulder

Boulder, a small city in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, is one of many communities already experiencing the harsh reality of climate change—the fact that future weather and climate will diverge from that of the past. In 2010, unusually hot and dry conditions led to fires that torched 162 homes. Three years later, in September 2013, the City experienced massive flooding when a 1000-year storm dropped the entire annual precipitation within in just one week. The only thing absolutely certain about Boulder’s future is that the City will face many more such extreme weather events, even as it deals with social and economic stresses.

So can cities or communities plan for an uncertain future?

To answer this question, Boulder has been exploring a concept known as “scenario planning.” The basic idea: create four to six different stories of what might happen, then devise strategies to make the city more flexible and resilient in the face of each possibility. Taken together, this approach can be a powerful tool for communities.

In Boulder, a series of workshops in 2016 showed that scenario planning “has the potential to be quite a profound change in how we do business,” says Greg Guibert, Chief Resilience Officer (CRO). In moving forward on a pilot project, the City chose to explore the idea in a manageable way—through a process called Resilience Value Realization (RVR), available to cities in the 100 Resilient Cities network to advance implementation of initiatives.

The RVR process brings together the most relevant players and stakeholders, typically in a two-day workshop, to “frame” an opportunity. The primary goal is to forge agreement (or “alignment”) on the opportunity—and the benefits and resilience value to be gained. Because RVR is used at an early stage in project planning, it frontloads collaboration and a shared understanding of success (and challenges) while looking ahead to the entire project life cycle and the key decisions and continued role early collaborators will have to play to realize the project’s full resilience value.

The Boulder RVR workshop, held in March 2017, was led by Leah Flax, Associate Director, City Solutions at 100 Resilient Cities, and Courtney Smith, resilience program associate at the Rockefeller Foundation. Convening leaders from many City departments, including Finance, Transportation, Fire-Rescue, Open Space, and Planning, the workshop first covered a wide range of topics: from Boulder’s resilience strategy and the previous scenario planning work to core community values and current problems like limited affordable housing and growing traffic congestion. Then it addressed the key larger question: Would scenario planning be the right tool for maintaining the values and meeting the challenges—and making the City more resilient?

The answer: perhaps. “Some people thought it would be valuable and wanted to move forward,” recalls Smith. “Others wanted more testing first.”

The 15 participants did agree on an “opportunity statement” that committed the City to move ahead with “an exploration of adopting scenario planning across departments.” Then they created a road map focusing on the steps the City would have to take before deciding how much of a role scenario planning could play.

Perhaps most important, the workshop revealed a larger truth: Changing the traditional methods of planning, which assume that the past offers a guide to the future, is hard. But the RVR process can help communities meet that challenge. In fact, “RVR helped Boulder broaden and deepen the level of support system-wide and achieved a mandate for further action that has allowed us to move forward with confidence and a clear objective in mind,” says Guibert.