Bit-coin technology, parallel existences, telemedicine and instant trillion-bites-based correlations may all change virtually every aspect of urban and rural settlements. The speed of change is accelerating, and the impact on the ways that people live their lives and meet their needs will be part of these transformations. And, for the humanitarian sector, what sorts of vulnerabilities may these create, and how will those responsible for dealing with such vulnerabilities meet future challenges?

These issues and concerns underpin HFP’s 2012-2013 involvement with Save the Children International on Urban Futures Project. In light of potentially transformative change, humanitarian organisations are and increasingly will have to think about the extent to which urban populations and environments present new and distinct forms of vulnerability and risk, which in turn might require new types of strategies, tools and approaches to meet them. Fundamental to this initiative is the assumption that strategic approaches for addressing major threats and opportunities will require a willingness to explore “what might be;” and towards that end “horizon scanning,” or means to anticipate plausible alternative scenarios, is essential in the armoury of the strategist.

A major step towards developing a more futures-oriented strategy was launched at the end of April 2013 in a joint workshop between Save the Children staff, a horizon-scanning consultancy called SAMI and HFP. SAMI introduced a methodology – the “3 horizons” framework — that endeavoured to have workshop participants think about the urban landscape in 2050. The first step was to think about what might have been the characteristics of cities 37 years before the present as a means to capture the dynamics of change, and then to see to what extent potentially new dynamics might change the urban landscape in 37 years’ time in the future.

As evidenced in these and subsequent discussions, even the sharp distinction between urban and rural needs to be challenged as one begins “to morph” into the other, defined not in terms of “space” and rigid geographically boundaries, but rather in terms of “flows and processes.” Those “urban areas,” too, may be sources of food, as agricultural produce could well be grown in sky-scrapper-type buildings, and energy becomes localised through small solar powered generators that eliminate the needs for conventional electricity grids.

And, while infrastructure and the sources of staple supplies all might change in the foreseeable future, so, too, might the very structures of the “urban economy.” For example, future economies may find that, while urban areas remain a centre for trade, they may be shaped and redefined by new forms of commerce. The development and greater flexibility of cyber-currency based on present “bit-coin” technology may remove the need for conventional currencies, while 3-D printing might begin to replace standard, labour intensive manufacturing practices for many basic goods; and, education may become more universally accessible and more virtual.

Save the Children, with its particular concern for the young, will also have to think about the ways that fundamental changes will affect its clientele. Education, as previously noted, is one area that inevitably will change as standard concepts of “schools,” “lessons” and learning undergo transformations through virtual technologies. “Tactile technologies” as part of that virtual world will enable traditional approaches to education to interact in ways that give full educational experience without costly and space-consuming infrastructures. The education of the future can be “customised,” as will be the ways that assistance is provided when it comes to health, psychological support and nutrition.

In 37 years’ time, so many of the assumptions that one makes about social systems and networks, livelihoods and life styles, urban and rural may well be fundamentally challenged. The question for Save the Children and for all those with related roles and responsibilities is whether they are already beginning to prepare for horizons that are becoming more and more plausible?

Dr. Alice Obrecht, HFP