As predictions from the middle of last century attest – that flying cars and robot servants would be commonplace by now – imagining a future even a few decades away isn’t easy.

Despite that challenge, Port Metro Vancouver has undertaken an ambitious exercise to envision what shape the global economy might assume over the next four decades and how that will affect the flow of goods through the port. The results of that two-year process – called Port 2050 and involving about 100 stakeholders, from terminal operators and railways to First Nations leaders and community activists – have been distilled into a summary report released in late 2011.

The report envisions four possible futures for the port, two of them considered desirable, and one of those more desirable than the other. The remaining two are not so desirable.

Prepare for The Great Transition

The most desirable future is one the report calls “The Great Transition.” It envisions “a rapid transition to a post-industrial, post-carbon model.” The Great Transition would kick in after the other desired scenario, labelled “Rising Tide,” which reflects continued economic growth but in a volatile world economy. Together, the report classifies these two scenarios as “our Anticipated Future.”

The report’s undesirable scenarios are “Local Fortress” and “Missed the Boat.” In the Local Fortress scenario, the world economy contracts, and the Vancouver region responds by turning inward and focusing on the regional economy, such as cottage industries. Think of the 100 Mile Diet feasting on the homeopathic equivalent of human growth hormone. Missed the Boat is just as it sounds: the world economy keeps growing but Vancouver misses out on the ensuing prosperity for such reasons as an inadequate supply chain, loss of industry support, and “lack of community buy-in.”

Peter Xotta, Port Metro Van­cou­ver’s Vice-President of Planning and Operations, said the port took a scenario-planning approach “because we recognized that a single-point forecasting is fraught with a number of challenges in the infrastructure business.” Not the least of those challenges are the pace and variability of changes in the world. Notwithstanding that, the analysis of the scenarios is informing the port as it plans for the near future, such as installing shore power at Canada Place, Mr. Xotta said.

In a similar way, the Anticipated Future scenarios also fit the port’s current plans for another container terminal at Deltaport. “Both the Rising Tide and the Great Transition assume increasing, and adapting to, greater capacity,” Mr. Xotta said.

The summary report, however, doesn’t delve into specific details. Instead, it examines trends over the coming decades without offering prescriptions about how to address those trends or take advantage of them.

The Great Transition scenario foresees a “rocky and risky transition” during the next two decades “as the shift to a post-carbon economy happens much faster and more profoundly than anyone had expected,” the report states. This creates “confusion and uncertainty” as many traditional business models are disrupted. Food security crises, eco-terrorism and a waning U.S. dollar conspire to engender a global systemic collapse. Fortunately, the scenario posits, a new generation of global leaders, many non-Western, come to the rescue. By 2030, this leads to structural global reforms such as a carbon tax and a “triple bottom line” approach to measuring prosperity.

In the meantime, the Vancouver region proves resilient during that period of upheaval. Aiding that are invaluable “investments in fast public transportation,” and that B.C. is blessed with “valuable commodities and resources.” A wake-up call occurs, however, when oil prices spike. That leads the logistics and port industries to “create a consortium to explore carbon neutral breakthroughs in supply chain technologies.”

The scenario anticipates a world in 2050 that is “far better off than anyone had expected” and where “poverty levels are in sharp decline.” And much of that is credited to the carbon tax and triple-bottom-line metrics, which have a positive impact on marine trade in the Lower Mainland, “since shipping and the supply chain through Vancouver are more carbon-friendly than other gateways and modalities.”

The Vancouver port of this future scenario is also exporting more value-added goods produced in B.C. “as part of the new energy economy.”

Despite the report’s references to carbon-friendly methods, a critic of the report said one of its shortcomings is that it pays little attention to the environment and the effects of the port on Lower Mainland communities.

Criticisms and kudos for Port 2050

“I feel with that document and the way that they’re progressing that they’re proceeding down a path that is ignoring some of the new realities,” said Roger Emsley, Executive Director of Against Port Expansion, a non-profit community organization. “And that is that globalization is changing, the supply chains are getting shorter, and that the rapid expansion that we saw in many acts of both inbound and outbound trade are in fact changing.”

Mr. Emsley did, however, praise Port Metro Vancouver for involving him in the visioning process, even knowing his opposition. “To give them their credit, they aren’t just stacking their committee with supporters,” Mr. Emsley said.

In fact, everyone interviewed for this article offered high praise for the 2050 visioning process, which entailed a series of expert panels in October 2010, stakeholder dialogues in November 2010, and a two-day scenario-building workshop in February 2011.

“I think it’s a meaningful exercise and it was well done with significant involvement from all stakeholders,” said Jim Belsheim, president of North Vancouver’s Neptune Terminals.

Kinder Morgan has two terminals in Port Metro Van­couver and was also pleased to take part, said spokesperson Lexa Hobenshield. “Our business is an important part of the national economy,” Ms. Hobenshield said in an email message. “We rely on a safe, efficient and competitive port that enables us to deliver many goods such as sulphur, mineral concentrates and petroleum products to the rest of the world. A long term view of the port’s future is important as we advance our future plans and contribute to the overall growth and prosperity of the Pacific Gateway.”

Kevin Hyrsak, a spokesperson for Canadian Pacific Railway, said in an email: “Port Metro Vancouver is a critical partner in the Pacific Gateway and CP values our strong working relationship with them. CP has collaborated with Port Metro Vancouver on a number of initiatives that focused on strengthening performance, productivity and service reliability.”

Leading thinkers primed visioning exercises

Helping Port Metro Vancouver shape the 2050 vision were “leading thinkers and specialists” who made presentations at an expert panel series in October 2010. Among the experts was Dr. Garland Chow, an associate professor at the University of B.C.’s Sauder School of Business and director of the school’s Bureau of Intelligent Transportation Systems and Freight Security. In the outline of his presentation, which is posted on the PMV website, Dr. Chow envisions the world recovering from recession by 2015 and China continuing “to be the main source of imports to North America.”

However, from 2016 to 2030, he sees China’s growth in exports to North America slowing down, even as China maintains its status as a “low cost country.” Meanwhile, in that period, the total landed cost of products from Mexico becomes cheaper than products from China. Expanded ­capacity of the Panama Canal also causes West Coast gateways to lose traffic. Nevertheless, Chow foresees Vancouver maintaining “its share of a slower growing traffic base from North Asia to central and south central U.S.”

From 2031 to 2045, though, China loses its low-cost advantage to India and other countries in South Asia, Chow predicts. And that results in exports to North America increasingly arriving via the Suez Canal, a more direct route from those countries. This results in Port Metro Vancouver traffic growth slowing to low single digits after 2040.

In an interview, Dr. Chow said that he and the other experts were brought in “to prime up” the port stakeholders, who then convened in focus groups to discuss the presentations before the experts and stakeholders reconvened in February 2011 to start shaping the 2050 strategy.

“We all went in to separate break-out groups and each group developed a scenario,” Dr. Chow recalled. “When these scenarios were developed, there was a lot of discussion and voting, where they kind of narrowed it down to certain scenarios, certain alternatives. And with that, the staff went back and they did call me again, I’m sure they called other people as well, to follow up.”

Dr. Chow said the port undertook the exercise “smartly” by involving people of many backgrounds and interests. “In fact, I think some of the parties did contribute some thoughts that perhaps the port never thought about,” he added.

While Dr. Chow acknowledged that the 2050 vision isn’t a blueprint, he said that it really attempts to look at issues long term. “What was unique about it was that the long run is not something you simply accept. The long run is something that you also have a role in shaping,” Dr. Chow said.

Wishful thinking sometimes comes true

Even in his presentation, though, Dr. Chow acknowledged that some of what he envisioned was “wishful thinking.” Yet, in a Möbius-strip-like twist of how difficult predictions are, one of the wishful thoughts he expressed in 2010 now looks like it will come true sooner than expected.

A key to the strategy’s success “is a new treaty guaranteeing free and unfettered movement across the Canada-U.S. border,” Dr. Chow noted at the time, adding “we need to work on it now!” In December 2011, that wish showed signs of becoming a reality as U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a new border action plan to remove those barriers.

“This is a very important and significant initiative by both countries,” Dr. Chow said.

That was tame compared the wishful thoughts expressed by Simon Fraser University Urban Studies professor Anthony Perl in his expert brief. He mentions “A very high probability of disruptive changes in the world’s transportation systems … triggered by a limit on the world’s production of oil.” Among the strategies Dr. Perl foresees to address that are “super slow steaming” of 12 knots for ocean vessels, a return to wind sail for those voyages, and “electrifying mainline railway infrastructure.”

Dr. Perl, who coauthored the 2010 book Transport Revolutions, wasn’t available for comment for this article. However, in his brief, he noted that the Trans-Siberian Railway, the world’s largest, is already “fully electrified.” Electrifying mainlines would be costly – an estimated $2 trillion in the U.S. alone – “But well within the range of contemporary transport spending,” Mr. Perl wrote. Since railways in North America are privately owned, that would require “considerable reorganization of administrative and fiscal capacities,” he noted. One solution would be an “infrastructure condominium” arrangement that would exist atop privately owned rights-of-way.

Another expert who primed the discussion was consultant Tewanee Joseph, a former councillor on the Squamish Nation Council, who coordinated the involvement of the Four Host First Nations in the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Mr. Joseph said what impressed him most about the Port 2050 exercise was its long-range perspective.

First Nations contribute to port discussions

“We’re taught in our culture to think seven generations ahead,” said Mr. Joseph, who is of Maori and Squamish ancestry. “I think that kind of vision is what is required in order to be able to move forward in a positive way. If it’s always kind of looking at it from tomorrow or next year, then you put yourself into a very challenging situation because you get in to more crisis management than anything.”

He said he was pleased to see First Nations mentioned in the document and they have taken an active role in shaping it “whereas maybe 10 or 15 or 20 years ago that really didn’t happen.” Mr. Joseph also sees the Port 2050 initiative as opening up opportunities for First Nations beyond their own reserve lands. “Because First Nations need to move beyond the boundaries of the reserves and think bigger in terms of not only regionally but internationally and globally,” he said.

The Tsawwassen First Nation is also pleased with the initiative and the process that spawned it, said Chris Hartman, CEO of the Tsawwassen First Nation Dev­el­opment Corporation.

“I think the real magic will be in implementing documents,” Mr. Hartman said. “What is the land use? What do the subsequent land-use plans look like? What do the subsequent port annual budgets look like? Where does the money get spent? How, where are the priorities? All those sorts of implementation questions, which still need to fall out.”

In a referendum in January 2012, members of the Tsawwassen First Nation voted an overwhelming 97 per cent in favour of developing two shopping malls on Tsawwassen lands. While the development of those lands and other industrial properties isn’t tied to the port, “Clearly, it’s an important consideration in terms of attracting tenants and developers on our land,” Mr. Hartman said.

Critic says ports visions ignores “realities”

Still, not everyone is happy with the direction the 2050 document proposes. Mr. Emsley said “they’re gung-ho on expansion and they’re ignoring some of the realities,” such as that the port already has excess capacity.

“The other huge issue is the truck traffic,” Mr. Emsley added. “Like it or not, the George Massey tunnel is the constraining factor, and we have traffic gridlock now. And there are no plans to do anything about it.”

He also criticized the summary report for failing to endorse a province-wide approach to port development. “That vision pretty well ignored, and certainly Port Metro Vancouver tends to ignore what is going on in Prince Rupert,” Mr. Emsley said, in proposing a provincial port authority.

Port Metro Vancouver’s Peter Xotta, however, said the 2050 vision doesn’t preclude Prince Rupert. “In other words, we believe that to serve Canada’s needs going forward, as the population grows and as the economy grows, that there’s probably a requirement for facilities in both locations,” Mr. Xotta said.

While disagreeing with much of what Mr. Emsley said, Mr. Xotta called him “an articulate voice that the port needs to listen to as it considers its long-term future and that’s precisely what the 2050 exercise was intended to do.”

Shift in trade patterns anticipated

One thing that critics and defenders of the 2050 vision can agree on is that trade patterns are changing. For example, Mr. Chow noted that a shift in low-cost manufacturing to India would remove Vancouver’s advantage in handling those imports. But even that could be upset by political upheaval in the Middle East blocking the Suez route. The escalating drug war in Mexico also has Dr. Chow wondering about the future of low-cost manufacturing in that country.

On another hand, the bulk of trade from Vancouver is in exports of commodities like coal and logs to China. If China continues its transition to a wealthier economy, the demand for those goods should remain steady or increase, with B.C. ports being a preferred route. That was underemphasized in the strategy, Mr. Chow said.

“But every indicator points to the growth of the outbound gateway as being even stronger,” Mr. Chow said. “Because everybody has to eat and we produce food. Everybody wants to grow food and we produce fertilizer. Everybody needs energy and we have coal. So when you think about it, the exports on the bulk side are going to be one of the backbones for this port.”

Meanwhile, as China’s middle class becomes wealthier, they might demand luxury items made in North America, which would conceivably shift the balance of container traffic in the other direction.

Preparing for game-changers

Technological innovations also have the potential to shift that balance, in even more radical ways. The 2050 document even envisions 3D printing becoming a reliable way to produce a range of goods, which “disrupts entire global supply chains.” While that prospect is mentioned only in the “Local Fortress” scenario, Mr. Xotta conceded that it, and other variables, “could happen under any one of the scenarios to a greater or lesser degree.”

While 3D printing is already used to make rapid prototypes and even custom devices such as medical prosthetics, Mr. Chow for one says that Star Trek-style manufacturing is still a long away.

“That would the same thing as saying, ‘Oh, we don’t need oil, we can use water for energy,’“ Mr. Chow said. “That’s a complete game-changer.”

While Port Metro Vancouver won’t always be able to figure out what those game-changers might be, the visioning process provided 100 sets of eyes and ears to watch and listen. The port found the exercise so valuable, Mr. Xotta said, that it is likely to do it all over again in another three to five years.