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At South by Southwest, Pragmatist Mayors Learn to Think Like Futurists

The city leaders gathered in Austin engaged in workshops and exercises designed to help them think longer-term.

mayor benjamin
Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin
(David Kidd)
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Mayors pride themselves on being pragmatists who solve their city’s pressing problems of today. So what happens when you ask them to imagine a future well beyond their next election?

At the Civic I/O summit at South by Southwest, mayors from around the country went back to school to learn how to think like a futurist.

“Foresight is a leadership competency,” says Stuart Candy, director of the Situation Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the futurist trainers at the summit. “Every leader in every organization needs to be thinking ahead, but not everybody is trained in that or experienced in it.”

In one training exercise, mayors played a card game called The Thing from the Future, in which they had to imagine artifacts in their city in 2030 that illustrate how the world has changed.

Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin joked that in a future where autonomous vehicles are ubiquitous, public safety signs will warn that some cars on the road are still operated – gasp! – by human drivers. Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf said she envisioned a criminal justice system where sentencing records show people being sentenced to education and work opportunities, rather than jail.

Not all the predictions were optimistic.

Raleigh, N.C., Mayor Nancy McFarlane predicted that with population growth outstripping road capacity in her area, drones would be making air deliveries to cars stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hour.

But one of the lessons of the weekend was that there is no single inevitable future. Mayors need to anticipate different scenarios, says Jake Dunagan, research director at the Institute for the Future, another trainer at the summit. With practice, they can be more intentional about choices they make today that could affect the community long after they leave elected office.

“Mayors are being handed the reins of the future in many ways,” Dunagan says. “If you’re going to have that responsibility – get good at it.”

It’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally to many mayors, says Findlay, Ohio, Mayor Lydia Mihalik.

“It’s hard to think like a futurist,” she says. “Mayors are super focused on doing the best things that we can do for the people we represent now … the solutions that we come up with currently are data driven and they’re based upon known quantities of things. It’s really hard to think about five years down the road, let alone 12.”

Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley plans to introduce some of the futurist exercises to her staff and city council.

“But it’s definitely a muscle that you don’t practice a lot, right?” she says. “As mayor, we’re dealing with challenges every day, and every day is different, so how do you carve out that time to think about what is the future of your city?”

Dustin Haisler contributed to this story.

Zach Patton -- Executive Editor. Zach joined GOVERNING as a staff writer in 2004. He received the 2011 Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Journalism
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