Advancing New Economic Models by Design



A few weeks ago I had to opportunity to spend a couple days at the Urban Planning Department of Cornell University. I was impressed by the graceful way this group was able to move fluidly between rigorous quantitive analytics and participatory public processes.  Yet for all the brilliance I found among faculty and students, it became clear to me how much urban planning education lacks sufficient focus on design methods.

I am not referring to design as urban design or architecture. I am referring to the ability to translate a series of complex social and technical processes into physical form.  I am referring to the ability to translate ambiguity into action and to oversee the transmission of that action to generate results. This is not the same as project management or the mere practice of the profession.  Rather, given the massive range of assets are available in urban planning for engagement and analysis, the discipline completely lacks a rigorous methodological framework for what actions to implement by consequence of the planning process.  If the discipline of urban planning stops with pitching the plan - then planners deserve to be disappointed when their work does not reach fruition.

This realization explains much about the disappointments of the planning profession - such as the constant repetition of "off the shelf" solutions such as green roofs, walkable streets, and historic main street development initiatives. These tactics are fine - but why such a small range of possible outputs in a world of more than 2.5 million cities, towns, and villages?  Basic statistical intuition suggests that a profession dedicated to building new futures and generating new economic development initiatives would capture a broader range of possible solutions.

To consider the urban planning process is to recognize that it remains rooted in a Waterfall design methodology - which has been proven to drive up costs and reduce stakeholder participation.  Most socio-technical systems have long since discovered that Waterfall methodologies fail to consider the variability of human actors, and thus tend to fail.  While organizations continue to search for replicable solutions utilizing scientific research designs and clinical trial models, the assets of localized place-based development go ignored or fail to scale.

Private sector technical sectors have shifted toward lean frameworks, agile methods, and other systems rooted in rapid feedback to avoid the high risk approach of waterfall planning. Unfortunately this understanding has yet to see the light in American politics where sweeping legislative action is the norm - not iterative improvement and variation. Urban planning, a field long aligned with design, has an opportunity to update to the 21st century - but it needs to start in education.  Design is more than architecture, it is the execution of ambiguity into meaningful consequences.