Territorial Foresight

Why Territorial Foresight Matters for Policy-Makers

A new approach to make public policy future-proof

June 9, 2018, Frank Holstein

A better understanding of possible future territorial balances or imbalances can support policy-making processes to better adapt to future developments and needs. Territorial Foresight supports gaining better insights on territorial consequences of policy choices with broad ownership among different stakeholders.

A new approach to territorial foresight has been developed for the ESPON project “Possible European Territorial Futures”. This territorial foresight approach combines different future-oriented methods and approaches, offering possibilities to support policy-makers when developing future-proof policies.

Territorial Foresight is a future-oriented approach characterised by (a) critical, lateral thinking concerning long-term developments, (b) broad discussions creating wider engagement (ranging from expert panels to crowd intelligence), and (c) shaping the future, especially by influencing public policy.

The project “Possible European Territorial Futures” developed a new approach to territorial foresight among academics, planning practitioners and policy-makers. During the ESPON project, the approach has been tested and has been proven effective for discussing European policies. The approach has been tested for three future situations that can be illustrated by the following three questions:

  • Which regions will prosper in a 100% renewable energy system scenario?
  • Which cities will be disadvantaged if we were to experience a European housing market collapse?
  • How does a fully circular economy impact mountain regions?

The following provides arguments to adopting a territorial dimension in foresight approaches. The three topics are used to illustrate the applicability of the approach.



The Main Characteristics of a Foresight Program

The developed approach entails the collection of quantitative and qualitative data as well as participatory approaches, with an emphasis on the latter. The final outcomes of participatory approaches include:

  • a better understanding of the future;
  • the main factors relevant for territorial changes in the future;
  • a general understanding of cause-effect relations between these factors; and
  • a first sketch of the territorial impact of the future territorial balances and imbalances (on, for example, a map supported by a narrative).

The final result is a mapping of territorial impact by different types of territories (e.g., urban, rural, coastal, ageing, rich, poor, industrial, agricultural, and so on). This mapping in the form of sketches is supported by a storyline detailing the main factors and their relations impacting these territories (see an example of a mind mapping defining these factors and relations below).

On top of that, the approach allows to discuss possible future developments in different contexts and comparing future territorial impact to current trends and developments. The outcome illustrates which territories are potentially gaining an advantage in the new situation and which territories are at risk of losing the comparative advantage.

For example, the focus on repair, reuse and recycling in a fully circular economy may generate new jobs in labour-intensive sectors. Currently, these sectors are more present in economically weaker areas, offering these types of regions to increase job opportunities. At the same time, economically stronger areas may be able to find innovative solutions for repair, reuse and recycling. So, in a place-based circular economy, this increase of job opportunities will be throughout Europe.

Hence, a better understanding of the territorial impact of future situations supports the work of policy-makers in different ways.


Identifying the territorial impact of future situations

As mentioned, a territorial foresight allows policy-makers to assess different territorial impacts of future situations. The impact of trends or policies differs across territories, depending on the socio-economic, demographic, geographic and environmental structures. So this foresight approach is particularly good in supporting the identification of the main underlying factors that may cause changes in territorial balance. The more concrete the factors are, the easier it becomes to identify the policy changes that are needed to adapt to the new situation in a timely manner. It’s therefore especially important for policy-makers to get down to the sub-factor level when carrying out their analyses.

Territorial Foresight
Example of mind-mapping to define concrete factors relevant for policy changes















Dealing with uncertainty on trend developments

Planning for future developments invariably implies dealing with uncertainty, and territorial foresight helps in dealing with that uncertainty.

There are different ways to deal with uncertainties, but one method is worth pointing out. It entails collecting views from a large variety of players, as is done in the territorial foresight approach. What matters with this method is to enable the cross-fertilisation of insights and offer a platform for common learning on possible territorial impacts. This is best done when players from diverse backgrounds are involved in the process.

The players to be included in the participatory approaches of a territorial foresight differ on the topic being analysed, but may include, among others:

  • Academia;
  • Planning practitioners;
  • Inhabitants;
  • Societal groups/interest groups;
  • Enterprises.

The results of the territorial foresight may highlight the different players’ views and show a wider range of different territorial futures. That way, uncertain factors are better framed and are backed by a broader population. In addition, including a wide range of players also paves the way for commitment to possible policies based on the outcome of the process.


Developing a sound policy fit for future developments

The project “Possible European Territorial Futures” illustrated the applicability of the territorial foresight approach at a European level for three diverse topics: the circular economy, renewable energy and the housing market. The approach also shows that the future territorial impact is not always as expected. Even for visions generally thought of as positive, such as the circular economy and renewable energy, some regions will nevertheless be at a disadvantage. The opposite holds true as well—a negative scenario, such as the collapse of the housing market, can result in some regions quickly recovering and becoming more prosperous than before.

Given all of this, one can easily see why territorial foresight as an approach works. It helps policy-makers identify the territorial impact of different trends or developments and allows them to cope with uncertainty.

The ESPON “Possible Territorial Futures” has developed an approach to territorial foresight which can be used at various geographical scales (from local to global) and for many different topics. The report (see here) contains also a step by step guide on how to go about. The next step is to further develop this approach outside the research fields and test the approach among policy-makers to improve public policy that is fit for the future.

Territorial Foresight 2
Example map as the possible outcome of a territorial foresight
















Frank Holstein is a consultant at Spatial Foresight, a private consultancy and independent think tank in the area of European territorial policies and research, with team members located in Luxembourg, Germany, France and Spain. Frank specialises in European regional and territorial research and policies, international comparative studies in the fields of regional development policies, territorial cooperation and territorial governance, and in the territorial impacts of sector policies. Frank played an active role in testing and refining the approach to territorial foresight developed in the ESPON project. http://www.spatialforesight.eu/frank-holstein.html

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