Life is one series of decisions after another. We make decisions for ourselves, with our families, and even on behalf of large groups of people we do not personally know, as many professions require. Decision-making authority on behalf of others is an incredible responsibility, and many professionals are tasked with such decisions each day. What is their process for understanding the scope of the decision and informing themselves with the relevant information? What will be the results of the decision, how will the results be measured, and how will the course be altered as both positive and negative results are demonstrated?
For those of us working to improve cities in the short and long term, the key to decision making is acknowledging the continually changing nature of the city. Day to day, the challenges are changing. The people are changing, moving in and moving out, remaining in place but growing within themselves personally, and that makes establishing what will work best for them a changeable element as well. Given change as an immutable fact, we act while taking into account the following: 1) comprehensiveness, 2) relevant information, and 3) collaboration.
Comprehensiveness can be thought of and understood many different ways. Some resonate with the ideas behind complexity and complexity science, while others think of systems engineering or even the concept of synergy. A more colloquial way to think about it is in silos. Regardless of the degree of specialty within a profession or the narrowly stated scope of work, certain situations call for a look within, around, and between institutional, subject matter, and intellectual silos for sound decision-making. For cities, this is critical, due to their nature as a system of systems. “Synergy means behavior of integral, aggregate, whole systems unpredicted by behaviors of any of their components or subassemblies of their components taken separately from the whole” (R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, 1975).
“Lack of knowledge concerning all the factors and the failure to include them in our integral imposes false conclusions” (R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, 1975). When a comprehensive approach occurs, honing in on relevant information becomes the key task at hand. In this age of information, that has become even more of a challenge. One must be laser focused on the issues of primary, secondary, and tertiary importance, but how can these be established? For cities, information breaks down into two large categories: 1) technical knowledge and 2) human-centered knowledge. The former connects a variety of subject matter areas and expertise. The latter includes understanding what the residents being served struggle with day to day. One type of knowledge can never compensate for the lack of the other, and both are of equal importance. In terms of data connectivity, they must come together to influence decisions.
The more comprehensive an approach, and the more relevant information is required, the more true collaboration comes into play. Collaboration can be obvious or subtle, forced or voluntary – even physical or virtual. Take transportation issues for example. Obvious collaborators would be traffic engineers, public transit planners, and the like. Less obvious collaborators could be senior citizen centers, public school leadership, or housing real estate developers. Of course, when one thinks of transportation as enabling the entire population to make trips for a variety of purposes, these collaborators are as obvious as the engineers. After all, the leadership at a senior citizen center or a public school would be the experts in where the people live and how they are getting to their critical facility. The knowledge they have might not be technical, but it is human-centered. Likewise, some of the more obvious collaborators are informally/formally forced to cooperate by coming together to discuss funding, engineering, and schedule details, for example. Sometimes the richest collaboration is between those for which there is no mandate. These groups come together because of shared interests and mutual stakes in the outcomes. They work to build trust over time and make concessions for the larger picture when necessary. By having honest, and sometimes difficult, conversations, they realize few factors are black and white, and they find a way to meet in the middle on one initiative after another.
Cast of characters
Decision-making for cities involves a long cast of characters in the USA. The public, as the reason for the city, is the central focus. From this center, there are organized communities of various types, advocacy groups, and the elected officials tasked with representing the public. All of these groups represent the public in one way or another. While elected officials are one part of government, there is a great deal of technical staff to assist with decision-making. This is reflected in city-level, metro area-level/regional, state-level, and federal staff representing a host of concerns for the natural environment, built environment, social services, etc. Some examples include Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Association, the Federal Transit Administration, and Department of Health and Human Services. Not for profits/nonprofits/philanthropies provide a wealth of critical needs, as do the business community and private sector. Understanding the individual stakes of various people/groups while combining their interests with technical needs and preparation of cities for the long term is no simple task, as likely anyone who takes part in public meetings on urban planning topics can attest.
Tactics, Measurement, and Adjustments
After the key problems of a given city/metro area have been understood comprehensively, responsibilities between various groups for implementing tactics break down to achieve the needed results (specific solutions to problems). The tactics vary widely, but in general they include policy, law, projects, programs, and services. Some elected officials, for example, may be responsible for enacting laws and policies, but they may also have decision-making authority for funding related to projects, programs, and services. Those responsible for implementing policy, law, projects, programs, and services each have different ways that performance is measured in accordance with anticipated results.
While technical staff plays a critical role, they are generally not the ones held directly accountable for decisions in the urban environment. Oftentimes, the elected officials are the ones who have the most directly accountable relationship with the public. Therefore, it is critical they have the tools and means to understand how complex issues are connected as related to their constituencies.
The changeable nature of cities means the need to change course is a fact, not a possibility. When precise indicators are monitored to understand if results are met, both good and bad news will be delivered. When trying our best to understand a multitude of factors, we speculate, we guesstimate, and we make the best technical response we know. However, no one has absolutely perfect, infallible information about the situation and the people affected. For that reason, from the moment implementation begins, measurement begins. Decision makers must be prepared to adjust the implementation in the short and long term as new information comes in. Structures should allow for pivoting and making incremental adjustments – the popularity of seed funding and pilot projects indicates our quest to put a toe in the water first.
Interestingly, even though decision makers and technical staff are all serving the same function, improving life in the short and long term for people, they often don’t strategize, collaborate, and act as the system they are. Policy, law, projects, programs, and services for the public often have entirely separate processes for consideration and implementation. And yet, they are often tactics working towards the same goals, for the same people, and paid for with the same taxpayer funding.
Power, Incentives, and Accountability
As Buckminster Fuller stated, “Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it” (R. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1963). Looking at all these players as a system with a variety of power types and levels, personal and professional incentives, and accountability levels can help clarify a more ideal situation for relationships. Technology-enabled solutions can play a significant role in designing and building cities with 1) comprehensiveness, 2) relevant information, and 3) collaboration.
“There’s a built-in resistance to letting humanity be a success. Each one claims that their system is the best one for coping with inadequacy. We have to make them all obsolete. We need to find within technology that there is something we can do which is capable of taking care of everybody, and to demonstrate that this is so” (R. Buckminster Fuller, Norie Huddle interview, 1981).