Astrid Mangnus: ‘Make sustainable cities tangible to provide avenues for action’

PhD research

68% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050. From a sustainability perspective an increasing urban population brings many problems, including biodiversity loss, an increasing divide between rural and urban areas, food insecurity and public health challenges. So how can we imagine sustainable cities that people want to live in, and how do we actually achieve them?

Astrid Mangnus is a PhD researcher at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development and Urban Futures Studio, both at Utrecht University. In this interview she tells us about her research using games and other futures methods to experiment with the governance of urban sustainability transformations, making the future tangible to provide avenues for action.

You experiment with futures methods for sustainable cities. But before we start, what are futures methods?

Futures methods cover a whole range of methods that we can use to look at the future in a systematic way. This includes scenarios or modelling, but there are also new and creative methods like gaming or artistic interventions like art exhibitions. These methods allow people to systematically explore how they want the future to look; what things to work towards and what to avoid. Using these insights you can develop government policy or business or civil society strategies that help to achieve these desired futures.

In my work I apply and experiment with future methods in real city governance settings. My research looks at why and how a given governance process benefits from a particular game, artistic intervention or mapping exercise. I synthesise the outcomes and develop recommendations for how to use futures methods in the development of governance for sustainable urban food and energy systems, for example.

Astrid's work focuses on cities like Kyoto in Japan. Photo: Armin Forster

Why do you work specifically on cities?

More and more people all over the world are living in cities. From a sustainability perspective this brings many problems, including biodiversity loss, an increasing divide between rural and urban areas, food insecurity and public health challenges. At the same time cities are places of innovation and creativity where you can experiment with solutions.

In Japan you worked with an independent group of stakeholders who wanted to start a food policy council in Kyoto. What happened here?

A group made up of citizens, local policymakers and businesses invited us to help them make a strategy for their would-be food policy council. Through a visioning exercise they created a picture of a sustainable and equitable Kyoto food system in 2050. Then, in a backcasting exercise, they worked backwards to the present from their vision of 2050 and came up with a pathway of small concrete steps that would stimulate the change needed to reach this ideal 2050.

Each participant was assigned a role and responsibility in each step. And through a simulation game they could practice and experience what it was like to take on certain responsibilities. Participants reported that this gave them a good idea of what it being in such a council would be like, and that it made them more interested in taking the idea of the council further.

Cities are places of innovation and creativity where you can experiment with solutions

We learned that mixing various futures methods, in this case analytical methods with more creative and experiential ones, can give governance actors a more precise image of their desired future. In the case of Kyoto’s food system, we are currently conducting a study to measure the real-world governance outcomes, in addition to these methodological insights.

You often work together with societal stakeholders. Why do you find this important?

It's easy for academics to stay in the office and work on another literature review. But in the social sciences we’re studying people, behaviour and society and how change can be brought about to these things. It’s essential to keep a constant dialogue with governance actors. These are the people that know, live and experience the situation we’re studying - it’s their daily life and they are the ones who will hopefully use our recommendations in their work.

Presenting the most recent results of the impact study to Japanese research partners. Photo: FEAST project

What challenges do you encounter in this kind of futures research?

I've been noticing the kinds of futures people want and the kinds of governance inventions that work are so context dependent. Like with all social science, it’s becoming really clear that there is no silver bullet. The answers are just as complex as the problems.

And finally, what kind of impact do you hope for your work to have on people's lives?

I started my masters and PhD because I was interested in architecture and urban planning. How can we design a good city? What determines the quality of life and how can we improve it? A lot has been written on the topic, but I hope that with a futures perspective we can bring something new. Making the future more tangible can hopefully also help overcome the paralysis that people experience when thinking about all of our gigantic sustainability challenges at once, and give people avenues for action instead.

Further reading

Mangnus, A. C., Vervoort, J. M., McGreevy, S., Ota, K., Rupprecht, C., Oga, M., & Kobayashi, M. (2019). New pathways for governing food system transformations: a pluralistic practice-based futures approach using visioning, back-casting, and serious gaming. Ecology and Society, 24(4).

Pereira, L., Bennett, E., Biggs, R., Mangnus, A.C., Norstrom, A. V., Peterson, G., ... & Vervoort, J. (2019). Seeding Change by Visioning Good Anthropocenes. Solutions Journal, 10(3).