Friday, April 23, 2010

If a Plan is a Document, then Planning must be Writing

Well, its been a bit of a hiatus as I have been pretty busy working on a few projects. I doing so, I started thinking about what our plans actually represent.

If you ask planners, whether city planners, highway planners, or protected area planners, what is meant by plan and planning, you will probably receive as many definitions as there are individuals you ask. Many of the responses will likely focus on planning as the application of science and technical expertise to solving a problem—a definition derived from the early 20th century development of progressive thought in America. In the progressive era, many attempted to separate policy from implementation to reduce graft, corruption and undue influence of politics on problem solving. As a result, solutions were felt to be the domain of scientists and experts, people neutral or disinterested in the outcome of the solution.

This attempt to separate politics from planning gave rise to two fundamental illusions: (1) that problems were primarily technical rather than social and political in character; and (2) scientists and other experts were objective, unbiased and neutral investigators. The former illusion lead to planning being perceived as something totally within the domain of experts—people holding specialized, and often quantitatively derived knowledge, about the subject, whether it was urban development, highways or parks. Normal people, those impacted by plans, were implicitly assumed incapable of understanding the complex equations, technical language, and modeling inherent of many planning projects. Such normal people, could at most, provide some insights into society’s preferences, which were often ignored because the conflicted with the mathematical models planners used.

At the same time, the second illusion gave scientists in particular a pre-eminent and priviledged position in society. By definition, if one held the title of scientist or had the initials Ph. D. after their name, it was assumed that their statements were objective assessments of the situation. The general public was not aware that to become a scientist or hold a Ph.D., that certain paradigms and protocols must be followed. If one followed protocols different than what was suggested by the dominant paradigm, then it would be difficult to attain doctoral status. Thus, scientists, when it comes to indicating a preference for one action over another for a socially important problem are no more qualified than the general public. They are qualified, in their narrow range of specialty to model the relationship between causes and effects.

But the assumption of homogeneity of scientists on social problems is one that is frequently revealed in contested issues, where each side hires scientists to promote a particular perspective, to indicate the evidence suggests one course of action is “better” than another. An example of the lack of objectivity and assumption of homogeneity occurred in the now forgotten EIS for re-establishment of grizzly bears in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness lying astride the Montana-Idaho border. In the EIS process, a group of wildlife scientists became dissatisfied with the various alternatives being proposed and developed a “science” alternative, as if the other alternatives were not based in science. The science alternative made that assumption and the assumption that all scientists agree on this proposed set of actions. Finally, the presence of a science alternative broke all presumptions of neutrality, objectivity and disinterest and demonstrated that science is as vested and exclusive as other interests.

But plans fail, as noted policy analyst Aaron Wildavsky once argued, everywhere they are tried. And one reason for these failures is simply plans that were developed from an emphasis on writing versus an emphasis on understanding.

Well, what has this extensive diversion got to do with plans and planning? If a plan is a technical scientific document then it is written, and the writing becomes paramount. Now this approach to plans and planning dominated, and continues to do so, protected area stewardship in the 20th century. As such, plans reflect science and technical expertise, which are not necessarily consonant with social preferences. There are good and sound reasons for incorporating science and expertise into plans—science does provide useful knowledge, builds awareness of alternative pathways to the future, helps society evaluate which pathways may best suit its needs, and warns of hidden dangers of selecting one pathway or another. But science is not the only form of knowledge useful to society. Personal and social experience is another way of knowing, and often fills the many gaps left by scientific investigation. Spiritual beliefs are another way of knowing, and along with moral and ethical frameworks helps people make choices among competing alternatives.

A plan built solely by technicians and scientists will be devoid of these sources of knowledge yet provides an illusion that the information contained within them is objective and “true”. So planning is more than writing. It involves debate about the future and what it might be like; it involves close and intimate discussion how different futures might affect different people, how alternative pathways might affect varying groups, and which pathway best meets concerns about equity, equality and efficiency. Planning involves constructing a shared vision of the future, building the skills to navigate difficult pathways to that future, assembling the resources—human, natural, social—required for following that pathway, and erecting governance and institutional systems and structures to monitor progress, overcome unanticipated obstacles and pass on messages to the future. So this is what planning involves, and it’s a different question as to what a plan is.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Protected Areas and Dynamic Complexity

Our house remodel is almost done. We have redone the dining room, kitchen and family room as well as the deck outside. Its been a major project, but it has fixed up our long-ignored house. That process has reinforced the notion of dynamic complexity, a characteristic of many systems we deal with on a day to day basis.

An example: the countertop fabricator forgets to drill a hole in the countertop for a code-required vent, a small mistake indeed, one that involves only about 15 minutes of time out of several hundred hours of work involved in the remodel. However, that forgetfulness leads to the plumber not being able to finish his job under the sink, and as a result, the electrician cannot complete the wiring needed for the garbage disposal. So, rather than come out for just the completion of the garbage disposal, the electrician waits, meaning that other electrical needs go unfinished. This in turn leads to further delays in completion of other jobs.

While a house remodel may indeed represent a dynamically complex system, it’s at a scale we can easily relate to. But think about a protected area, potentially comprising tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of hectares, rivers, forests, grasslands, animals, birds, insects, mountains, valleys, cliffs, lakes and swamps. That system most likely includes visitors, in some cases, hundreds of thousands, roads, trails, perhaps visitor centers, accommodation, a restaurant, or several, bathrooms, water supplies, administrative facilities, sewage disposal and so on. Many protected areas may also have farmers, pastoralists, vendors and people living within them. These are indeed complex systems, and changes in any one of these attributes may have tremendous, and unpredictable impacts throughout the system.

My friend and colleague Charles Breen has argued that the complexity of the systems we deal with today have grow dramatically, and non-linearly, from what we had to deal with in the past—the growing interconnectedness represented by geopolitics, economic globalization, international travel, climate change. However, many of our solutions come from the past, solutions that were both socially acceptable and effective in solving problems. These solutions while once working are neither acceptable nor effective for the complexity we live in today. One of the challenges, Charles has noted, is that we may not be willing to tackle the complexity of today with solutions that are effective—that is as complexity grows, so must our willingness to engage it.

So, the simple solutions required in the past to address visitor problems, carrying capacity for example, simply are not going to be effective in a much more complex system, where the relationship between causes and effects, largely unknown, are not linearly related. And, the notion of “solutions” may not be appropriate. Solutions imply answers—but answers only come about if we (1) understand the question and (2) understand the system. Our systems are simply too complex in many cases for a complete understanding.

Perhaps what we come up with are resolutions—which is agreement—on how to address a particular issue. Agreements imply that things can change, indeed will in a complex system, so a problem, as Russell Ackoff argued, never stays solved. So perhaps we engage people with a diversity of backgrounds, expertise, interest and experience in developing the resolutions to complex protected area challenges.