Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Planners are No Long Generalists with a Specialty

There’s recent discussion in urban planning journals about the way professional city planners should be educated today.  Almost fifty years ago, Professor Harvey Perloff at UCLA suggested that the way to think about educating urban planners was in terms of training “generalists with a specialty.” He thought all planners should have basic professional skills and theoretical knowledge coupled with more detailed techniques and understandings related to an area of application or specialization, like housing or urban design. When Perloff (who I knew) was thinking about it, the general or shared portion of the curriculum probably equaled about 8 – 10 of the 14 semester long courses students were expected to complete in a two-year curriculum (plus a master’s thesis). So general knowledge constituted 70% of the degree.  The general portion of the curriculum has continued to shrink over the past 50 years. Now it is probably no more than 25% - 30% of the curriculum, and students can choose multiple ways of covering some general requirements by taking different versions of methods or applied social science courses offered in other departments (or by-passing test-out exams). This allows them to satisfy their differing interests.

So, my estimate is that 70% of the curriculum is now keyed to specialized knowledge and skills while the shared portion of the curriculum today represents only 30% of the credits students are required to complete.  While this sometimes makes it difficult for students in the same cohort to understand why they are getting the same degree (since they are mostly studying such different things), it reflects the dramatic explosion of knowledge in adjacent fields that planning specialists know they need to master.  I’ve taught at MIT in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) for almost fifty years. Since the early 1980’s I’ve had responsibility for building DUSP’s Environmental Policy and Planning (EPP) specialization.  Let me offer a quick description of how both the generalized knowledge that planning students are expected to master has changed, even as it has shrunk, and how the specialized knowledge in the environmental planning specialization (and I think it is similar to other specialties like housing, community development, transportation and regional economic development) has evolved as well. 

Most of today’s city planners are not preparing for life-long careers in municipal planning departments or city planning consulting firms the way their predecessors were.  Instead, they are as likely to go to work in the private sector (as a sustainability officer for a major corporation), the public sector (as staff to an elected official) or in the non-for-profit sector (heading an NGO).  And, even if they are aiming for a public sector job, it is very possible they will be working at the metropolitan, state, or national rather than the neighborhood or municipal level.   They might spend part of their time working in the US, but they are almost as likely to spend a portion of their career working in another part of the world (where the growth of cities, especially mega-cities, is relentless). Indeed, a very large portion of the graduate students currently studying in the 60+ urban planning schools in America are from other parts of the world, and likely to return home.  City planners are no longer restricted to gathering the information needed to turn out master plans or sector plans (like transportation investment schemes). They are more likely to be involved in formulating climate adaptation strategies, promoting new downtown arts districts or working to protect critical urban infrastructure from cyberattack. Moreover, their roles and responsibilities will shift many times during their careers as they morph from a design role, to a policy analyst’s role, to an advocacy or community organizing role, to a mediating role, or even a futurist’s role. 

The kinds of practitioners that agencies and organizations want to hire must be multi-talented, tech savvy, committed to taking action in the world, capable negotiators and able to write and speak effectively in contentious public settings.  To survive in these situations, planning graduates must be clear about their ethical obligations and continuously reflective, adapting their personal theories of practice as they encounter and learn from each new situation. 

The New General Curriculum

While the list of required subjects in today’s urban planning departments may look somewhat similar to the class titles of two or three decades ago, I can assure you that the content, and in many schools the pedagogy, are quite different. Today’s course about the planning profession and the basics of planning practice address a which wider range of themes than the old version of those courses. And, the ethical dilemmas (i.e. How can we promote economic growth while maintaining the most important cultural elements of long-standing communities? How can we ensure more efficient transportation and energy production while moving people to healthier lifestyles and a fairer allocation of public resources?) are front and center. The need for collaboration in all kinds of decision-making is highlighted (linked to much less reliance on expert decision-making). This demands a new repertoire of skills and techniques; incorporating knowledge from the social sciences and the natural sciences,but requiring a meta-analysis of whose knowledge this is and how it ought to be shared. The challenges and opportunities posed by social media pose choices that planners never had to make; now they have to learn how to make sure that scientific and technical input are not pushed to the side in the face of efforts to empower more people to participate or buried beneath the partisan debates that dominate our political world.  MIT requires every student to take classes in the history of the planning profession, methods of economic analysis; and tools of data management, data mapping and statistical analysis, but it is increasingly difficult to argue that there is only one way of presenting this material. Students can learn the basics of microeconomic analysis by focusing on land market, housing prices, natural resource management, or energy policy, in the United States or in any other country. They need to learn research methods to write a thesis, but these methods might diverge depending on whether they are going to study the way mangrove forests were being managed in Malaysia or the effectiveness of a particular community development strategy in Detroit.  So, not only does the content of the general portion of the curriculum keep changing, but the best way of learning that content might depend on the substantive or specialized interest of each student. 

This brings me to the changing nature and expansion of the specialized portions of urban planning degree programs in the United States.

The Evolving Specialized Curriculum

The Environmental Policy and Planning specialization at MIT allows students to focus on transboundary water management, renewable energy and energy efficiency, environmental justice, forest management, food systems, post-disaster relief and reconstruction, coastal zone management, ecosystem services, climate change (mitigation and adaptation), healthy communities, mass transit systems, and monitoring efforts aimed at promoting sustainability and resilience. With a relatively small full-time EPP faculty of five or six (some of whom are shared with other specializations), we have to depend on the availability of coursework in the other two dozen departments at MIT and through cross-registration at Harvard.  We expect students to take only half of their course work each semester in our department. We insist that they have a primary thesis advisor from DUSP, but we encourage them to add a reader or additional advisor from another department or from the world of practice.  Almost all students are working 10 -15 hours throughout the two years on a research or community-based project as a way of financing their tuition. They look for projects that allow them to apply what they are learning in class.  In addition to a thesis we require students to take a Practicum – a semester-long problem-focused course with a client. (In the old days these were called Studios and they usually resulted in a design of some sort. Now they are as likely to produce policy advice to the mayor of Mexico City on ways of improving the efficiency and fairness of mass transit operations in that city. Note though, that most Practicums are offered through a specialization.)

In EPP we offer four or five sets of two or three subjects dealing with different natural resource management or environmental problems (i.e., climate change, water management, energy systems, healthy communities, environmental justice).  These are enough to prepare our students so they can participate in classes at the Harvard School of Public Health, MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmosphere and Planetary Sciences, the Sloan School of Management, the Department of Chemical Engineering, or work at one of the many interdisciplinary labs or research projects around the campus. If there is a gap in what’s covered around the campus, we will add a temporary instructor in a field like plant ecology or energy efficiency. 

Almost all of the DUSP faculty teach comparatively.  We have to, since a significant share of our graduate students are not American. While I don’t think there is a “one world” approach to teaching planning that applies equally well everywhere, I do think that an explicitly comparative approach to teaching environmental planning will prepare students (as long as they also develop cross-cultural communication skills and a sense of cross-cultural awareness) to work outside their home country. Also, within their specialties they are learning how the same challenges are being dealt with differently in different countries. 

Each of the four main specializations in DUSP (i.e., EPP, Housing and Community Economic Development, City Design and Development and International Development) offers an introductory graduate course.  Mine is the Introduction to Environmental Policy and Planning.  You can see the curriculum at MIT Open CourseWare ( You can also read all the materials students are assigned, see the exams and the best student responses, and even videos the best short oral presentations in responses to simulated practice scenarios. These are included in our E-book called Environmental Problem-Solvingpublished by Anthem Press and written with two of my doctoral students and a faculty colleague (Bruno Verdini, Jessica Gordon, and Yasmin Zaerpoor). The four segments of the course deal with the dynamics of environmental policy-making, environmental ethics, methods of environmental analysis and forecasting and collaborative problem-solving. Segments from all the assigned readings are included in the book with permission.  While this is an introduction to one of the specializations
in the Department, it covers a version of some of the general problems and themes that all planners need to know about.  It illustrates how material that was once covered in a unified fashion in the general curriculum (that all students had to take) is now covered in an expanding specialization so that students can learn about general planning practice requirements while establishing their identity as a specialist in environmental planning. (MIT even offers a Certificate in Environmental Planning so that students who receive a general MCP degree can convince potential employers that they really are environmental specialists.)

We are still trying to figure out how to support additional specializations (i.e. urban science, smart cities, and cybersecurity; arts, new media and technology-assisted communication; and neuroscience, behavioral economics, entrepreneurship and social innovation). We are also continuing to experiment with new pedagogical forms (i.e. blended courses that combine elaborately designed online elements with face-to-face elements; role play simulations, and real-time video feedback on practice simulations). 

It is no longer relevant to think of planning education as training generalists with a specialty; rather, we are now training specialists with heightened applied social science, action science and reflective practice capabilities who are ready to work anywhere in the world. And, while faculty are still judged (in terms of promotion) on the theoretical/research they publish, they are required to teach analytical methods, applied social science, and planning history in ways that heighten the usefulness of theory for practice. In addition, our faculty includes Professors of Practice and Lecturers who complement the members of our tenured faculty who come out of traditional disciplinary fields.  There is no conflict in our Department between theory and practice.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Three Surprising Leadership Skills

MIT is looking ahead, trying to figure out what skills the next generation of scientists, engineers, applied social scientists, designers and managers will need.  After careful consideration, and a close review of numerous studies of the future of work, MIT believes it will have to complement the depth of the training it currently offers in dozens of technical fields with an equal commitment to developing the breadth of each individual’s leadership capabilities. To build this necessary breadth, it will be necessary to focus on helping learners know themselves (e.g., improve their emotional intelligence, adaptability, resilience, ethnical awareness, reflective capacity, etc.), work with others to get things done (e.g. motivate others, give and receive feedback, build teams and networks, communicate effectively, resolve conflict, and negotiate with difficult people); and build organizational capacity (e.g., manage change, manage crises, help organizations learn, implement user experience design and better marketing, and commit to process improvement).  No one can learn all these things at once; so, we’ll all have to commit to life-long self-improvement. The university’s job will be to make it easy for everyone to acquire both technical depth and leadership breadth as they need it.  In all likelihood, this will involve a range of new teaching and learning formats.

As I listen to successful individuals say what it took for them to achieve their goals (at every level, in every sector), many seem to be stuck on an old-fashioned view of a leader as someone with a strong personal vision who can command others to do what needs to be done.  In my view, this model -- derived mostly from accounts of military, sports, political and business victories -- is not likely to work in the future. More distributed or facilitative models of leadership-- that emphasize knowing how to work in partnership with others and build organizational capacity -- are likely to be more valuable.  When I look at the way ideas about leadership are changing at MIT, shifting from top-down to facilitative models, three specific leadership skills stand out for me: setting a constructive problem-solving tone, facilitating group efforts and negotiating in a value-creating fashion. These are likely to surprise traditionalists, but I think we can already see how these capabilities will define a new generation of leaders.

Setting a constructive problem-solving tone

What do leaders need to be aware of at the outset of a venture?  Not just their own goals and vision, but the way their behavior influences others. Efforts to establish one’s firmness or strength are less important than an ability to model or set a joint problem-solving tone. Whatever the organizational context, technical managers, team leaders and CEOs must be able to motivate and inspire others to work and think creatively. The more everyone is ready to share responsibility for the success of the group, the lighter each person’s load will be, and the greater the collective wisdom available to apply to problem-solving.   Leaders are people who are able to put themselves in the shoes of others.  They are in sufficient control of their ego to be able to share responsibility and applaud the good work of others. Emotional intelligence and self-awareness are crucial to the ongoing success of teams or organizations in an era of flattened hierarchies and distributed leadership. If a leader can’t inspire a problem-solving tone, commanding that everyone perform is likely to backfire.

Facilitating group efforts

The general presumption in the world of management is that technical experts will be able to collaborate with each other; it turns out, though, that collaboration is a learned, not an innate capability. Launching multifaceted high-performance teams is an important leadership responsibility, and it involves being able to facilitate group interactions, not just leaving everything to the team members.  In my view, facilitation is a crucial leadership skill. Those of us who teach facilitation know that it involves selecting the right mix of team members, designing the work plan properly (including parceling out assignments and setting ground rules regarding the way members will interact with each other), holding a mirror up when the group members are not working well together, mediating among contending individuals and serving as a scribe so there is a reliable record of what transpired.  While it is possible to contract out for many of these facilitation services, leaders better understand exactly what the facilitation assistance is that they want and need. And, sometimes, only the leader can resolve internal team disagreements.

Negotiating in a value-creating fashion

The success of many organizations hinges on the ability of their leaders to negotiate effectively with representatives or leaders of other organizations. Supply chains work that way, as do inter-organizational partnerships. Leaders who think that these kinds of negotiations are like traditional win-lose bartering in the market place, do their organizations a terrible disservice. Negotiating when long-term relationships are important, requires a different (i.e., “mutual gains”) approach to deal-making. The Mutual Gains Approach (MGA) to negotiation requires finding trades or ways of reframing disagreements that add to, rather than just divide, value. The most successful leaders know how to do this.

As colleges and universities re-organize to enhance the breadth of the leadership skills they are imparting, I hope they will realize that the learning involved is probably not best presented in traditional semester-long courses, nor delivered in lecture format. Helping students learn from their own experience, and engage as co-learners with others (often online), will require new pedagogical strategies.  And, when this happens, learners are likely to demand certification: not just an indication that they have completed the required work, but a guarantee that they have achieved mastery of the skills involved.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Do colleges and universities in America do more harm than good? Of course not!

I was shocked to learn that a substantial portion of American adults believe that colleges and universities do more harm than good. Really? What leads them to this conclusion? The web and talk radio are filled with people making such assertions (but offering no evidence). You will see and hear that: it costs too much to go to college; there’s no guarantee of a good job after graduation; student loans are destroying every student’s financial future; college faculty are brainwashing their students – biasing them against traditional American values, teaching them Marxist ideas and misleading them about what it takes to succeed in life; university administrators are claiming more and more tuition money for themselves, and amassing gigantic endowments; and there are an increasing number of useless majors and frivolous subjects being taught. Some of these same observers are convinced that most young people should become mechanics, plumbers, and welders, so they can live a good life without wasting time and money getting a college degree. Finally, according to these critics, colleges and universities are coddling students, encouraging them to cave in to political correctness and banning right-thinking speakers. If you read the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly newspaper produced by people who know something about what’s actually happening on campuses in the United States, academic are on the defensive -- obsessed with the most outlandish claims of their online critics. We see story after story about a very small number of high profile campus confrontations. Very little space, though, is devoted to detailed analyses of what is really being taught, the dramatic changes that have taken place in instructional methods (in most fields), the ways that universities are reconfiguring themselves to ensure that their graduates can meet the demands of a changing (global) job market and the actual impact that college and university study has had.

What we rarely see in the Chronicle, hear on the news or read on the web, are accounts of the vast majority of students and faculty in 90% of the colleges and universities in the country, going about the business of teaching, learning, pursuing basic and applied research and providing service (often as part of applied learning programs) to local and distant communities, agencies, and companies. Unless you spend time in a legitimate sample of colleges or universities on a regular basis, sit in on classes, read the materials students are assigned, read the theses and project reports students produce, analyze the research findings of the faculty and talk with their community and industry partners, you would have no way of knowing the startling success that two-year colleges, four year colleges, public and private colleges and research universities are having – often in the face of substantial under-funding. They continue to prepare the next generation of workers, citizens, managers and leaders while amassing new knowledge and innovative technologies that make it possible to improve the quality of our lives, use our resources more wisely, organize ourselves productively and govern ourselves effectively.   It’s a good thing that our higher education system is working as well as it is, and not the way the critics claim. If they were right, America would have long since lost its competitive edge. New jobs wouldn’t be created at unprecedented rates. Investment capital would have migrated to more friendly locations with better prepared workers, more effective managers and more stable and accountable regulatory systems.  But, that’s not the case. More of the brightest people from all over the world are still trying to make their way into our colleges and universities.

Unfounded claims about the diminishing value of higher education in America have nothing to do with what really happens in 90% or more of the classrooms, laboratories and field-based learning settings around the country. On most campuses, students and faculty are too busy to worry about what the latest self-aggrandizing guest speakers has to say. The amount of class time spent debating the latest front in the culture wars is trivial. The vast majority of media-based critics don’t spend nearly enough time inside colleges and universities to understand how students, teachers and administrators go about their day-to-day tasks. One reason for this is that many of the people voicing unfounded criticisms have neither the knowledge or the skill to understand the substance of what’s happening. It takes no knowledge or skill to repeat unsubstantiated claims aimed at attracting attention on the web.

If everyone teaching and every student studying at a college or university in America were to tweet two lines about the most important thing they are learning or doing research about (under the banner #I’m learning what I need to learn or # I’m teaching what I need to teach), we could quickly rectify the built-up mis-impressions.   My tweet would say (#Teaching urban and environmental planners how to lead and support public and private agencies and organizations in the US and around the world).  

There wouldn’t be space in our tweets, but maybe we could also convince the media (of all kinds) to include stories about the new inventions emerging from university laboratories, the start-ups being created in dorm rooms, and the assistance students are providing to a wide range of communities. Most people would be surprised to learn about the new interdisciplinary majors and concentrations that have been created in data science, biotech, applied social science, design science, conflict resolution, user experience design, and a host of other fields at a wide range of colleges and universities. It would be great to see independent documentation of how the requirements in all kinds of degree programs have changed over the past ten years, and how opportunities for hands-on learning and internships have increased in pre-professional studies programs all over the country.

It shouldn’t be hard to create an overwhelming counter-argument showing that all citizens need constant access (throughout their lives) to the learning opportunities that colleges and universities provide, across many fields, for continued skill development and personal fulfillment.  And, our society depends on the constant flow of scholarly insights and research breakthroughs crucial to our continued well-being.