Crystal Balls, Visions, Master Plans

My recent tour through parts of Downtown Kitchener, leading WLU’s Dr. Jody Decker and her third year Cultural Geography students set me thinking once again about master plans and visions. Seeing just how little of every master plan actually makes it to reality, and posterity, only emphasizes the craziness of our modern reliance on master plans to organize change in our communities.

Each long-term vision we construct is doomed for obsolescence. To paraphrase Colin Powell: “No master plan survives its first contact with the future.” This is not to deny the importance of dreaming, of desiring improvement, or of pursuing achievements large and small. We must be very careful about how we do so, however. The Master Plan is more enemy than friend of real practical improvement.

Let’s look briefly at the prevalent “visioning” process, usually a half-day workshop or some other well-hyped event. Typically, participants in such exercises are forced into a framework where step ! requires a “vision” of how our city, business, neighbourhood, social issue, or whatever topic du jour should look like. The vision is set way into the future, perhaps 10 or 20 years out. What’s more, we are of course to dream this nirvana using our present, and limited knowledge of the issues and solutions that we will have faced in those 20 years.

Following the construction of this perfect and seductive scene, we are galvanized by an army of facilitators into enthusiastic development of a road map: a “plan” for getting there. Starry-eyed, we work backwards to “phases”, “first steps”, and “milestones”.

But first this commercial break.

Imagine the freedom. Today’s Lotto 649 jackpot is $44 million.” Sound familiar? Well, the sad purveyors of that tax on the hopeful and innumerate, Lottario, know exactly how visions work. Imagine the reward, and take the first step. Their process is eerily similar to the daylong visioning conference, or the development of a master plan, with at least the advantage of brevity. In the thirty second commercial we’ve run the gamut, and all that remains is to make the ticket purchase part of our day. Remember: “if you don’t play, you can’t win.”

Seen through the advertiser’s lens, those “visioning” workshops and master plans (so loved by consultants and politicians alike) are just long drawn out commercials, selling tickets to a dream of your own making. Not pretty, but pretty accurate?

So what’s wrong with conjuring up utopia and then selling us the roadmap?

And if we never get there, is partway so bad?

Well, there are some problems to this method.

First and foremost is that we create our vision from what we know, and we know precious little that is really applicable to the future except through random luck. Combining this with our essential belief and human need for a world of cause and effect, of coherence, means that we overestimate our thin sliver of knowledge and grossly underestimate what we don’t know. Put simply, we don’t know (and refuse to confront) that which we don’t know.

Scientific evidence for the real and emotive basis of our decision-making continues to question the objective myth for how we choose. Homo Economicus and other constructs of Rational Man are giving way to a more practical understanding of our mindset in a world of uncertainty. We tend to decide so that we confirm what we know. Our plans and visions are a projection of the story that we have constructed for ourselves to date. Facts are enlisted to support this coherent world-view. Contrary evidence is brushed aside.

The biases and fallacies of our view, and our underestimation of randomness in the face of uncertainty and risk, are well-chronicled by Nobel Prize winners Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Our tendency to project into the future on the basis of past results, no matter how silly this may seem upon rational examination, is the basis of most mutual fund sales pitches.

Why then would we endorse a process for designing our civic future that ignores its one predictable feature, unpredictability? Why substitute a serious study of this risky landscape across which we must navigate with an uninformed projection of our story to date? Perhaps it’s just easier. Perhaps it’s what we did last time. Perhaps it helps make decisions, no matter how inappropriate for the future we face.

A second fundamental problem with visioning (and more particularly the master plans they create) is that the nature of the goal is more important than the quality of decisions taken along the route. Instead of confirming values that can be consistently applied to an uncertain landscape, the process creates a product that is to be attained no matter the means. As a stark and recent example, if our goal is to have quality intelligence to help protect against the risk of terrorist attack, a little waterboarding or extraordinary rendition along the way is a small price to pay!

This elevation of “the vision”, created with enthusiasm from a landscape of ignorance, creates a set of decisions that are questioned once circumstances change. Our civic polity is littered with abandoned master plans and visions, all rendered obsolete by changing times, leaving only decisions that cannot stand scrutiny once the goal is questioned.

There is another way forward, and it starts with seeing our future as a strategic design for decisions that are made in the face of uncertainty, for risks that must be braved. Here are potential aids that should likely supplant any “visioning” exercise you’re about to undertake:

  • Analyse risks first, and their potential impact. Create values that will be touchstones for decisions in the face of these risks (“How will we react when …”) rather than using distant outcomes to inform action decisions.
  • Create decision-trees that maximise positive results early (Make things better and better, with less worry about the eventual “best”). The order in which actions are taken is critically important to success, and to creating robust strategies that “degrade” with dignity, for degrade they surely will.
  • Design strategies for some successes and accept that there will be many failures. Limit the effect of such failures and maximise the potential benefits of those successes.
  • Do not invest heavily in a “right answer” since such a vision gambles too much. In other words, never eat anything bigger than your head!

Take to heart these two sentiments from Lewis Mumford:

“You might say … that the city is a place for multiplying happy chances and making the most of unplannable opportunities.” and “New York is the perfect model of a city, not the model of a perfect city.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s