There has been a pause in the blog article posting for the past month (August 2015) due to preparation of a book chapter manuscript. The book, to be published by Routledge, is tentatively titled The Smart Cities Guidebook. The chapter I have been working on is called “Decision-making for Urban Management: Open Source Options.” Once the book is available, I’ll post details on the blog.
The research process for the book yielded some interesting results I’d like to share with readers. Of course, I cannot go into the level of detail contained in the book chapter, but I’ll provide a summary in case it is useful for others working in urban management. I started out asking the following questions:
1. What are the leading edge methods for decision-making throughout the urban management process?
2. What is the so-called “urban management process”? What exactly does it entail, and who is involved?
3. What are the current and future needs for high quality urban management decision-making?
4. What are some difficulties urban management professionals encounter during the decision-making process?
I’ll describe what was uncovered one question at a time, but you’ll notice that they intersect with each other.
What are the leading edge methods for decision-making throughout the urban management process?
I’ve experienced, heard about, and read about a wide variety of methods, but I opted to focus on one area - Open Source software (OSS) tools. After speaking and emailing with various professionals, I realized some had created/used a particular Open Source software but they were not necessarily aware of all the other tools they could also be using. More details on what OSS entails is in the book chapter, but I’ll cover two big benefits.
First, the software is released at zero cost for anyone interested in using it. For urban management professionals who want to improve decision-making processes but realize there could be a hefty price tag, OSS is a great option. By bringing the cost of making high quality decisions down significantly, we enable more cities of all sizes around the world to better serve their people. After all, urban management is about making places for people that meet their needs and wants, even as needs and wants change over time. It is also important to point out that OSS does have a learning curve for most. Tasks such as getting a new instance of an OSS established for a new user, training new users on inputting data, and maintaining the OSS over a period of time do require either a) an urban management professional with this applicable set of skills or b) other staff/third party support to help in the initial phases to establish the OSS with a new user.
Second, OSS is generally able to be added onto by the user community. Many of us have experienced a useful tool that seemed to be missing a key feature. With OSS, if the user has the coding skills necessary, the user can build in that feature. The user then has the option to keep the feature as their own or share with the user community, and the latter option is generally preferred to allow others to also leverage it. Chances are, someone else will appreciate the new feature and use it as well. One of the reasons why OSS is attractive to some users is this flexibility.
Of course, proprietary software can sometimes be quite affordable or able to leverage plug-ins, extensions, etc., but these concepts are more foundational to OSS in general. Here is a list of the OSS tools referenced in the book chapter:
What is the so-called “urban management process”? What exactly does it entail, and who is involved?
There are solid resources that clarify the steps of the process. According to Edward Leman (and I think many would agree in general), the urban management cycle includes nine steps that fall within the larger work categories of (A) strategic planning (step 1: definition of problems and opportunities, step 2: objectives), (B) tactical planning (step 3: policies, step 4: institutional mechanisms, step 5: programs, step 6: project plans), (C) operations (step 7: implementation, step 8: operations), and (D) evaluation (step 9). The image below illustrates the cyclical nature of urban management. The original article containing additional details was published in 1994 and can be accessed online. Tactics generally include, but are not limited to, infrastructure (both traditional built infrastructure and evolving technological infrastructure), services, and policy.
An extremely broad range of actors is involved, and they would change depending on the step in the process. The stakeholders span private, public, and nonprofit sectors. There are those working largely in work categories ‘A’ and ‘B’ in city/urban planning functions. There are those working largely in work category ‘C’ in implementation and operational functions, such as public works or social services staff. Work category ‘D’ may coincide with aforementioned professionals or be separate staff such as monitoring and evaluation specialists. In any event, these professionals tend to have strong relationships with each other in the urban management cycle. The business/economic community and philanthropic community would have a role. The public as individuals are stakeholders, as are their representatives both non-elected and elected. I’ve created a sketch to illustrate actors/stakeholders below (certainly not exhaustive of all stakeholders to consider).
What are the current and future needs for high quality urban management decision-making?
I’ve referred to “high quality” urban management decision-making above. You may be wondering, what does that mean exactly? I have an understanding of what it means, but I realize the concept of anything being “high quality” is highly subjective. For me, high quality urban management requires the following:
1. Taking complexity and system interaction into account
2. Addressing the components of sustainable development
3. Structuring top-down and bottom-up processes
4. Integrating computational analytics
Previous blog posts provide some background on the concepts. “The Promise of the City: Connecting the Built, Natural, and Unseen” includes some information on urban complexity and system interaction. “Complex Decision-Making: Cities, Systems, and Data” references the “three pillars of sustainable development.” I am using the term “bottom-up” in the sense of integrating needs of the public into more formal, top-down processes. Computational analytics, though not necessarily required for the other three to be successful, can simplify work to a great extent.
What are some difficulties urban management professionals encounter during the decision-making process?
From various processionals, I’ve heard challenges related to the previous items 1-3: taking complexity and system interaction into account, addressing the components of sustainable development, and structuring top-down and bottom-up processes. Even though many professionals would agree these concepts are important, clear methods for factoring them in are not widely available and/or utilized. While there is certainly a place for personal experience and instincts in the decision-making process, many urban issues have a great deal of intricacy. It is rare that one professional would have all the knowledge needed to understand the full impacts of the decision on the various interrelated systems and sustainable development factors, for example.
There also seems to be a theme that clear communication with the actors/stakeholders listed above remains a struggle. When communicating with the public and a wide variety of professionals, vocabulary issues tend to come into play. It can also be difficult to hone a message down to its key points, explaining some complexities while also communicating in plain terms everyone can understand.
Feel free to post comments below about OSS tools you have heard of or used personally!
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Structuring urban change while taking into account complexity, communication, and transparency
All views, posts, and opinions shared are my own.