The choices a society makes today often have irreversible consequences on a future we can’t yet see. Our values—such as equity, sustainability, freedom, happiness, competition—and how they are prioritized or ignored shape those choices and outcomes. Scenarios, models, prototypes, and even science fiction are all ways people attempt to imagine this uncertain future. Yet whose imagination matters?
While everyone has a stake in the future of our urban environments, only a select few are empowered with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities to make a difference in how a city evolves. This imbalance can result in entities with more authority, knowledge, money, or other power exerting greater influence on the direction a city or community takes, even though that direction may not reflect the interests and concerns of much of the city’s general population.
Forums such as public hearings, city council meetings, school board sessions, and focus groups have traditionally provided the public with opportunities to voice opinions about their cities’ and communities’ development. Often, however, it’s only the most informed, opinionated, or articulate who speak up in these situations. Many voices are drowned out among the din of vocal—and often polarized—factions, and true dialogue and empathy among stakeholders remains rare. While focus groups and hearings, and more recently citizen juries and consensus conferences, attempt to inform and engage a wider range of citizens and to help make sure that more than the squeakiest wheels get heard, these forms of public engagement still cater to the most vocal and articulate among us. Such approaches tend to stick to traditional learning spaces and relegate citizens to passive learner rather than equal contributor.
In an effort to create a more inclusive, sustainable, and integrated public engagement experience, researchers at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU) developed Futurescape City Tours (FCTs). Combining a walking tour, photography, guided deliberation, behind-the-scenes expeditions, and informal conversations with city planners, policymakers, researchers, and civic leaders, FCTs attempt to embed citizens’ values into local systems of innovation. Citizens drive the agenda and participate in conversations as active, experienced, and equal contributors.