Futurecasting Cape Town: What we learned about building a resilient city through public dialogue

Author: Andrew Boraine, CEO, EDP

The EDP team in 2022. Credit: Chris de Beer-Procter

Andrew Boraine, CEO of the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP) reflects on lessons learned from the Futurecasting Cape Town dialogue series to date – hosted by the City of Cape Town and convened by the EDP – which engages the public on building Cape Town’s resilience

The increased frequency and scale of global shock events, which are increasingly layered on top of each other is having harsh consequences for many communities, particularly the most vulnerable.  The City of Cape Town has become internationally recognized for having developed a robust strategy to increase the City’s resilience against future social, economic and environmental shocks. Key to this strategy is engaging with the wider public to explore how the private sector, communities, civil society and researchers and academics can contribute to collectively ‘futureproofing’ our city, ensuring co-ownership of responses as far as possible.

One way that the City has sought to create public dialogue is by hosting ‘Futurecasting Cape Town’, a series of online conversations on building resilience co-designed by the Economic Development Partnership (EDP) and the City’s newly created Future Planning and Resilience Directorate. Started in 2021, Futurecasting Cape Town has invited local and international thought leaders and practitioners to variously discuss risk and insurance, municipal energy resilience, the link between climate change and mental health, preparing for extreme heat events, the impact of geopolitics at the global and local levels and Cape Town’s response to flooding. Beyond the technical solutions that surfaced, some common themes have emerged as important components for resilience. 

Strengthen social infrastructure: Regardless of the challenge, relationships and strong social cohesion is critical in strengthening resilience. Where residents trust their governments, and each other, they perform well during crises. These collaborative foundations take time to build yet are essential to support emergency responses and collaboration when crisis hits. 

Invest sustainably: The sheer number of recent crises makes its tempting to focus on survival, but while it’s important to address immediate needs, resilience also demands a long-term view. This means investing in sustainable solutions, educating the public about impending crises linked to climate change and quantifying their impact beyond the relatively short terms of political office.

Improve institutional cultures and capabilities: Agility, adaptiveness and responsiveness are key elements of resilience which many large institutions with bureaucratic rules and procedures struggle to incorporate. The importance of building adaptive, reflexive and responsive institutional cultures and capabilities, and creating spaces for experimentation and innovation, cannot be overstated.

Build long term partnerships:  So-called ‘non-state actors’ – which include community and civil society organisations, academia, and the private sector – can complement the functions of government and build the kind of social fabric that helps communities withstand future shocks. Investing in strong relationships is not only worthwhile but essential to build resilience and futureproof our city. This includes embracing informality by engaging with community leaders and supporting emerging community networks.

Embrace innovation: Each Futurecasting Cape Town session has presented practical examples of how people and businesses have responded to various crises: women in Zimbabwe offering counseling sessions in public parks, retrofitting ceilings in RDP housing to minimize heat exposure, and the emergence of community action networks (CANs) during the Covid-19 pandemic. Each example shows the power of being open to new solutions for long-standing problems.

Communicate more: The Futurecasting Cape Town sessions revealed a limited understanding by community and business stakeholders of the level of planning and engagement already underway by the City of Cape Town. It is clear that more communication is needed for city residents to have a better understanding of what is already in place and how they can both make use of these measures and contribute through private and community initiatives. Rapid, accurate and trusted communication is especially necessary in an era of fake news which can spread rapidly on social media.

Ultimately, the Futurecasting Cape Town series has showed that government and non-state entities want to play an active role in our collective future. Each webinar ended by asking what everyone could do to help, and in every case we saw an eagerness to find ways of getting involved. It is important that these new connections are nurtured to deliver the benefits of collaboration.