Monday, November 12, 2018

Anticipatory Governance: Do You Know What It Is?

I finally found the right phrase to describe what city planning is, and what city planners do. Planners provide ideas, analyses and organized settings in which governance (i.e. collaborative problem-solving) can take place.  And, unlike many
other professionals they focus on normative concerns (i.e. what ought to be done?) regarding the future (not just an analysis of what is happening at present). Planners are the facilitators of anticipatory governance. 

This doesn’t mean that certain planners don’t do other things as well, but as a profession as a whole, planners are primarily focused on problem-solving and informed decision-making that spotlight the needs and interests of future residents (to say nothing of future generations). This includes the needs and interests of current residents and stakeholders as they imagine themselves and their community in the future.

Why Governance Not Government?

In a democratic setting, elected governments have final decision-making authority (along with the courts). Yet, representatives of non-elected stakeholders (i.e., interest groups) also have important roles to play in democratic decision-making. Governance networks can help set the public policy agenda and tee up policy or programmatic options for consideration by officials, along with arguments to support them.  

To the extent that governance can produce informed consensus proposals, it is not clear why elected and appointed officials would disregard them. If you were an elected official, and I could tell you which action on a policy question would win you unanimous support from all sides, wouldn’t you be inclined to go along?  The only reason not to accept a well thought out proposal that all groups publicly support is if a particular political donor or backer secretly disagree with it. I say secretly because as a stakeholder that individual, company or group would be included in the public consensus building effort that generated the proposal in the first place. But, they might want to be seen as supporting common efforts (and so involve themselves in a consensus building effort) while privately trying to sabotage wat the group produces. Other than that, though, elected and appointed officials know that continuing to ignore informed consensus recommendations would be political suicide. 

In the public realm, the focus is on collective decision-making rather than individual priorities. When we rely on majority rule or raw political discourse, it is easy for elected and appointment officials to disregard competing policy proposals, and do what they want.  They can just say that the public was divided, so they had to do what they thought was best.  That’s not possible, though, if all interested stakeholders get together to generate a policy proposal that all of them support.  If all the relevant groups were consulted, and they all support what is being proposed, it is almost impossible for officials to disregard their suggestions.  

In the current political climate, with a clear divide between liberals and conservatives, no action is often the only outcome. But if governance networks take responsibility for working out their differences, whatever larger political divide might exist wouldn’t stop officials from taking action. The product of governance should be informed (i.e. science and other technical considerations must be in the story) policy proposals. Such proposals can only emerge if stakeholders are able to resolve whatever differences they have.  While this may sound difficult, it is much easier than many people suspect.  Groups take extreme positions when they are in a majority rule situations and they want to ensure their views get attention. They are much more reasonable if they know that everyone’s goal is an informed consensus.  
Most, but not all, political action focuses on short-term concerns or commitments.  Those in power at any point in time know that a swing in the majority might well lead to a shift in policy down the road. But, if society needs to take action on issues or problems that require consistent support over a longer-term (i.e. such policies won’t succeed unless they remain in place for a much longer timeframe than the normal electoral cycle), bi—partisan or multi-partisan support is required. Governance aims to generate support for actions that requires long-term, multi-partisan support, like efforts to address the possible effects of climate change. 

Who is the Client?

Meaningful governance requires ad hoc representation of all relevant (and self-
identified) stakeholder groups.  While it may be difficult at first to identify spokespeople for some unorganized or hard-to-represent interests, it is almost always possible to find acceptable proxies to represent them. Anticipatory governance is client-oriented.  That is, it doesn't authorize a select few to propose action in the name of a vague public interest. Instead, representatives of the full range of relevant stakeholders have to do the hard work of sorting out their differences and generating proposals that they all think are better (for them)  than taking no action at all. New online technologies, when used by skilled facilitators, can engage large numbers of people in such collaborative deliberations. And the more this happens, the more skilled and efficient groups will become in identifying spokespeople, and the spokespeople will become in reaching an informed consensus on a pressing issue or question that a government body must address.  

The clients for the planners who seek to facilitate anticipatory governance cut across all strata and categories of interested stakeholders. However, this is the opposite of advocacy planning -- which involves spokespeople who are trying to maximize the interests of only a few stakeholder groups, often at the expense of others. Spokespeople in the context I am describing, must be able to pursue their group’s interests while simultaneously taking account of the interests of others. (This is not a win-lose situation.) This involves crafting agreements through a search for mutual gains, and trading across sub-issues or linked issues the parties value differently. This is what happens in a global context when the sovereignty of nations ensures they can not be bound by an international law or requirements they don’t voluntary accept. 

Finding the right participants for each policy dialogue requires careful stakeholder assessment. It also means the number of participants in facilitated anticipatory governance is likely to be pretty large. To begin, a team of neutral facilitators needs to reach out to potential participants, talk with them confidentially and generate a list of possible participants that all stakeholder groups (and elected officials) accept as legitimate. The techniques of stakeholder assessment have been codified and professionalized over the past few decades. 

Trades or packages (not single issue deliberation) are usually required to build 
a consensus on a controversial issue.  This can only work if all the relevant stakeholder groups are represented and the process of collaboration is facilitated by skilled neutrals (acceptable to all parties, including the elected officials who will receive whatever recommendations the ad hoc process generates).  So, 
“blue ribbon” participant selection by officials is not acceptable. 

The Need for Collaboration and Consensus Building

Once the right stakeholder representatives are assembled (and they might meet in person at the beginning and end of a collaborative process while all the work in between might be done online or by sub-committees), the task of generating an informed agreement can begin. Usually, this requires a period of joint fact finding involving a range of technical experts acceptable to all the participants. The planners, or neutral facilitators, can bring possible names (and credentials) to the attention of the participants. The experts they choose agree (and are paid) to share what they know, in terms that everyone can understand, with all the participants. This avoids advocacy science where each party seeks expert advisors who will say what they want them to say. 

The most useful tool for this kind of collaborative problems solving is scenario planning. This is a technique that imagines a range of possible futures (in which different policies or programs could be pursued even though there is substantial uncertainty about what the future hold. The governance network doesn’t have to agree on how to frame a single version of the issue or problem it has come together to address. It can work simultaneously with multiple futures in mind, looking for policies or actions that will bring about results that are attractive to the participants regardless of which “version of the future” they think is correct.
Scenario planning sometimes requires the stakeholder participants to attach probabilities to highly uncertain futures.  So, if I want the government to take action to avoid the effects of something that has a small chance of occurring, while you prefer a policy aimed at a future that is more likely, we can agree on a proposal that addresses both of our concerns.  We can say to our elected officials, those of us who are most concerned about something that has a 10% chance of occurring (but if it does occur will have impacts that are likely to be devasting), support Policy A.  Those of us who define the issue in terms of a future that has a 90% chance of occurring prefer policy B. Our elected officials will have to choose between A and B, but in so doing, they will reveal which version of the future they expect. By involving all of the stakeholders, and engaging in joint fact finding and scenario planning, the participants will be able to narrow the policy choices to two, contingent on which of two futures one selects. The officials involved might choose to adopt policy B in the short-run with a commitment to monitor events and results over time, and agree ahead of time to switch to Policy A if the monitoring shows that a certain threshold has been crossed. This formulation of what needs to be done is one that all parties can endorse, and that officials can feel comfortable supporting.  It is also an adaptive approach to policy-making that best accounts for the increasing uncertainty surrounding a great many of the systems at the heart of public policy-making. 

Anticipatory governance does not operate on the basis of majority rule. Nor does it require unanimity among all the stakeholder participants. A unanimity rule would allow one holdout to blackmail everyone else. Typically, consensus in these circumstances requires overwhelming agreement, as long as the concerns of outlier participants are clearly addressed by everyone, and all the participants have tried to think of a way of incorporating the outlier’s concerns into the final agreement. Holdouts who disagree, can count on their views and arguments being included as a footnote or appendix to the consensus proposal submitted to the officials who must make the final decision. 

Obviously the product of an anticipatory governance effort needs to take the form of a written agreement that all the participants sign on behalf of their organizations or constituencies.  While it is not legally binding, it should have an impact, especially when it is widely distributed via social media.  It needs to be delivered and explained to the relevant public officials by the planners who facilitated the joint problem-solving effort. 
How Should We Educate the Facilitators of Anticipatory Governance?

Some of the skills that planners must master to facilitate anticipatory governance should now be clear. They need to know how to complete a stakeholder assessment. This might require technical background on the issue or question that is the focus of the collaborative effort, so that the interviews they do with potential stakeholders can be completed efficiently.  They need to be able to help the group draft and enforce ground rules regarding how they will interact. They also need to know how to organize and manage a joint fact-finding process and a scenario planning effort that lead to the drafting of a written proposal.  They have to be able to organize in-person and online dialogues involving quite a few people, and to keep a clear written summary of what groups and sub-groups have agreed. Finally, they need to be able to communicate with public officials, clearly and efficiently, and answer whatever questions might come upo about the group’s proposal and the process by which it was developed. 

All of this needs to be done in a way that does not betray a personal bias for or against what any of the participants prefer.  Any sign of bias is sufficient reason for one or more participants to ask that the planner/facilitator to be replaced. Sometime the facilitator needs to organize preparatory efforts for participants who have never participated in such collaborative efforts. This might take the form of a short training course or coaching session. 

Many college and university departments that train professional planners might have to augment their faculty and curriculum to ensure that students graduate with the skills I have listed. It is difficult to impart this kind of knowledge and capability if you have never tried to do this work yourself.  Graduate students should be encouraged to serve as interns or apprentices to professional planners and facilitators who can tutor them in the relevant techniques. 

Finally, planners who hope to facilitate anticipatory governance efforts need to learn how to ensure that organizational or public learning happens. Every process of the kind I am describing offers an opportunity for the participants to “get better” at this form of interaction (while advancing their own organization’s interests). It is important to stop at several points during each process, and certainly at the end, to give the participants time to reflect on what has transpired and to modify their personal theories of practice if necessary.  

As I said at the outset, anticipatory governance can occur at any scale. The skills required to facilitate collaborative problem-solving are generally transferable from one scale to another. It is my hope that the requirements of organizational leadership in the private sector, public sector and non-profit sector will soon include the ability to participate effectively in the kind of process I have described.  The better prepared the participants are, the more likely it is that they will generate informed agreements that all of them can support. And, when they do, elected and appointed officials should be eager to implement their proposals. 

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.