Foreign Land Owners, Shoe-Repair Shops and Other Visions of Bangkok in 2040

Bangkok | 04/17/2013 10:06am
Witchaya Pruecksamars | Informal City Dialogues

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Informal City Dialogues project recently completed its first series of workshops in all six of the cities participating. In these initial workshops, attendees were asked to participate in developing “futures” for their city. Please click here to learn more about the process, and find out what will take place in upcoming workshops.

In a low-ceilinged, windowless conference room, a crowd is sitting almost shoulder-to-shoulder around several large tables. They are listening to a man with a microphone, who earlier introduced himself as a university lecturer, and looking at the pull-down projector screen behind him. One bold, simple word — “INNOVATION” — appears on the screen in Thai.

“[Our] purpose is to come up with innovations that help the poor and the disadvantaged in the city,” Dr. Apiwat Ratanawaraha from Chulalongkorn University explains to his audience.

In February and March, in the basement of a Novotel in Bangkok’s Siam Square, Thai people from all walks of life imagined their future. Or rather, their futures. With the urban realm growing at a mind-boggling clip, cities and communities need to be prepared for what tomorrow might bring. As business icon Peter Drucker once said: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Which is exactly what this workshop was all about.

Including a team from the university, around 50 people—most of them representatives of the informal city—took part in the Informal City Dialogues Scenario Planning workshop. The aim was to collectively look toward the year 2040 and construct a set of possible alternative futures for the city of Bangkok, so that its informal citizens could work with their formal counterparts to develop social innovations that would move together towards the most preferred outcomes while considering possible challenges and opportunities that may emerge.

“This is pretty cutting edge,” says Jacob Park, an expert from Forum for the Future, which coordinated the workshop. He explains to me that the scenarios methodology was traditionally used in boardroom meetings, by executives and managers of the world’s biggest corporations. (Shell, for instance, published their scenario report called Signals & Signposts in 2011). But the people at The Rockefeller Foundation and their partners are engaged here in the emerging field of transformative scenario planning, an attempt to repurpose the methodology to help ordinary citizens creatively imagine their possible futures in order to collaboratively create a better one. This approach benefits from diverse perspectives when it comes to imagining future worlds in all their interconnected complexity. The reality is that experts and technocrats do not always know best.

Day One: Uncovering Drivers of Change

It was a Thursday morning. Opposite the stairs, a flat-screen TV showed the university’s distinctive pink emblem and announced that the workshop was being held in the meeting rooms “Baudelaire” and “Moliere.” I later found out that the rooms were named after a French poet and playwright, apparently part of the hotel’s effort to enhance its level of sophistication.

Inside the venue, neatly arranged sets of sharpened pencils, crisp A4 paper, water bottles and tall glasses filled the tables. The air-con was shivering cold, and I wished I had worn another layer. But to my surprise, many of the participants came prepared. I thought they must have known about the climate inside Bangkok’s hotels, for they brought their own jackets.

But their jackets, it turned out, were somewhat special. The people wearing them were veterans, and each jacket had a sewn-on logo and slogan of the association the wearer represented. Once poor and vulnerable, scattered and informal, these vets have made it to the other side, now formal and recognized. Many of them lead alliances of informal workers, mediating between the workers and the formal institutions that are often accused of arrogance and injustice.

Mixed among the tables were government officials, scholars and development practitioners in white-collar clothing. Community leaders arrived in floral-print blouses, tees and polo shirts. Also scattered around the room were facilitators and notetakers — current and former students of Dr. Apiwat. Unfortunately, youth leaders couldn’t make it because of exams.

After the brief introduction, Dr Apiwat kicked off the first session. “Let us suppose that there is a godly fortuneteller who could foresee anything in 20 to 30 years time,” he announced over the microphone. “What question would you ask him/her?” Of course, for this exercise, personal questions about love lives or career successes were out of bounds. The question served to set the tone of the exercise and to encourage the participants to get into a future mindset.

They then brainstormed potential issues Bangkok might face, with particular emphasis on the poor and disadvantaged. The participants drew from their wealth of personal experience to contribute with confidence and certainty. Not fazed by the formality of the place nor by the other participants (some of whom had distinguished titles or high formal positions), they were unafraid to speak their minds. The conversations were honest and respectful.

After lunch (a nice buffet) the participants were asked to discuss how big shifts in society, economics, politics and technology might affect the informal sector in the future. They then moved onto a voting exercise to prioritize the critical drivers: Those they agreed were both most important to the future of Bangkok, but also the most uncertain. The participants decided that the most important factors were politics, housing and land tenure, and education and social awareness (whereas in the West, technology is often among the factors considered most important to the future, said Jacob). These priorities were then synthesized by Dr. Apiwat and Jacob to form the basis for the exercise on Day Two.

Day Two: “For Our Children and Grandchildren”

We were given two days to “sleep on it” and then reconvened that Saturday. Based on the voting exercise on Day One, a matrix with two axes was drawn up, juxtaposing the two most critical (i.e. both important and uncertain) factors:

On the y-axis, “formally organized” vs. “informally organized” (i.e. in terms of political activism).

On the x-axis “segregated” vs. “integrated” (i.e. in terms of physical and spatial built environment).

The permutations of these factors provided the skeletal logic for four different scenarios — stories of how Bangkok might be in the future. By the end of the day, the four quadrants of Bangkok’s future were roughly sketched out by the participants, with good and bad aspects in each. No simple feat for a single day.

On Day One the participants could rely on their personal experience, but for the exercise on Day Two, their biggest strength was also their biggest weakness. These are people for whom defending their positions is the norm – they aren’t used to setting the agenda. Initially, some of them were defending their own predictions of the future against the others’ versions, using their own anecdotes and first-hand experiences to lecture their fellow participants.

But eventually they got the hang of the idea that there’s no right or wrong. The exercise was only to help them think more broadly about their daily circumstances. Although many of them have little formal education and had no numbers to back up what they wanted to say, that didn’t stop them from daring to dream. “Shoe-repair shops will be very prosperous,” predicted one woman, “because we will be walking a lot!” “Rich foreigners will take all the land, while poor immigrants take all the jobs,” said another. If a picture says a thousand words, then a good scenario is worth a thousand stories.

The discussion was full of flavor – almost literally, as dishes of Thai food were served. The facilitators used food analogies to summarize and narrate how the city of Bangkok and its informal citizens will create, consume and connect. The analogies proved useful because they simplified highly complex circumstances, translating them into more comprehendible terms.

At first, the analogies didn’t quite make sense to me, but it soon became clear that they made it easier for the participants to come to terms with the exercise because the metaphors were familiar to them. Massaman curry, Thai northern sausage, lunch trays, etc. — to the people sitting around the tables, these points of reference were real. (One group also came up with the idea of using different forms of marriages as analogies). The resulting synthesis of thoughts, as well as the process of synthesizing, was fun and unique.

The Scenario Planning workshop will be followed by an Innovation Workshop, which will take place in late April and use the scenarios as the basis for generating ideas for how to make the future of Bangkok more resilient and inclusive. Thanks to The Rockefeller Foundation, seed money will be distributed to implement the best ideas for social innovations resulting from these workshops. But it’s important to note that this is not about comparing Scenario A with Scenario B, nor is it about discovering a Holy Grail that will save the world from crisis and poverty.

Given the enormity of poverty-related challenges, these innovations could turn out to be drops in the ocean. But one must bear in mind that the exercise isn’t about simply churning out innovations. It’s a proactive method that allows people to meaningfully participate in the development of their city. It allows them to “own” the scenarios and to strive towards the preferred outcome together. Everyone has a part to play. And it’s not hard to imagine, at least for me, that the drops from this workshop will coalesce into a larger stream that might move the sea of uncertainty slightly, eroding the stone beneath — the stone of status quo.