Design Thinking to Optimize Effectiveness of City Planning

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak at Cornell University's Department of Urban Planning. I spent a couple days on campus, speaking with faculty and students about the academic study of urban planning vs the practice of planning, and the future of the discipline. While I appreciated their deep focus on methodological rigor and social justice, I was dismayed by some startling comments such as "planner should be responsible for implementation too, not just the plan?" and "planners should study robotics? How can we teach that?" The other most dominant argument was "how can social groups with limited education participate in such high-tech development?" All of these questions have an answer connected to Design.

The Execution Gap : Bottom Up and Top Down is a False Paradigm

For most of the 100+ year history of urban planning, the cannon of planning theory describes top-down vs bottom-up processes. Various terms are used to describe this such as "centralized vs decentralized" or "rationalist and grass roots." A few other sub-models of planning have emerged, such as Advocacy Planning and Participatory Action models. What has been less dominant is a recognition that our technologies are a big part of the planning process. Consideration of the technology as an equal force throughout the process opens many new directions for exploration.

By technologies, I refer to the material objects, that we use to facilitate communication, decision-making, and implementation. The do not need to be advanced. A book  is a technology, as is a whiteboard, and a map. A critical question that has been consistently absent from planning theory concerns use of the appropriate technology relative to the complexity of the problem and idea. Why spend a million dollars, engage hundreds of people, conduct dozens of technical studies, and then document a robust vision for the future in only a book or a website? How do these technologies advance the implementation of the vision? These technologies increase risk because the translation of a complex vision from written text into built form or economic process is a massive leap.

There are other ways of course. Through small scale pilots, rapid trials, online Wikis, collaborative mapping sessions, partnerships with local technology companies (big and small), one can always find a way to create new experiences.  A classic example is from the Czech Republic; after the fall of communism a process was needed to rapidly educate the public on the history of their nation which had been suppressed under totalitarian rule. Rather than merely release a book, the city of Prague presented a living timeline of Czech history. Maps, photos, documents, and didactic panels lined the main streets so that citizens can walk through the history of their nation and learn how one era informed the next.  Woven into the architecture, the city itself functioned as the core technological platform to engage citizens and enhance thinking on the needs and futures of the nation-state.  As a robust experience, it also created stakeholder buy-in for the next logical step.

Design as a Process of Optimization

To develop a concept and not implement as part of the ideation process is high risk. Working at the EPA, for example, I find it very hard to convince leadership and scientists that a particular organizational or technical change is possible. For many decades, people have made suggestions and introduced new visions, but rarely have these been successful.  In contrast, I find a way to rapidly prototype every idea. Should we create a new division? Lets get some people to volunteer and test how this division might operate. Should we purchase an enterprise solution?  Lets get the 30 day free trial and see how we might need to also change if we buy it. Rapid prototyping any kind of solution will always give more information and reduce risk.

Planning and Design as Synthetic Futures

As Herbert Simon pointed out, the scientific method is an excellent way to understand the natural world that is around us, yet when faced with creating something new in the world - and thus artificial - we turn to design. The more we understand the design process, and how it is similar or different from the scientific method, the better we can design and introduce new things into the the world.

The role of design as an additional demand - to not only stretch and reveal what is possible in the future - but to help us get to what is preferable future. Empowered with the ability to make something new, design is a means to consider multiple future realities, and equipped with the ability to implement them, each idea on a  possible future exists in a state between idea and reality. Consequently, mindfully experimenting with a material process to test implementation measures and reduce the risk, one develop synthetic futures and transform them into new realities.