Category: Community planning

The Irony of the Predicament of Detroit

In a recent blog titled “Detroit and the Temptation of Ruin,” Tufts University civics scholar Peter Levine speaks of art, poverty and hopes for renewal. The story, as Levine notes, is tragic in the Aristotelian sense – local art and architecture documents a rise to power, a celebrated era, and a collapse to “700,000 people who live amid the empty shells of its industrial past, while the nation looks away.”

There is a rather contemporary irony in the decline of Detroit, for its uncertain future was foreshadowed in the minds of its local champions a half century prior to its demise. Human artifacts persist as statements made in powerful moments – they are aspects of an extracorporeal memory that is interpreted anew by each generation if not by each new observer. When the wind blows from the right direction, whispers from history breathe depth into the newfound meaning.

In 1965 a decision had been made to conduct a 5-year study of the Detroit area with the objective of anticipating needs for sustainable growth and a high quality of life. The research was intended to link perspectives on the economic, social, cultural and physical problems facing man in communities like the Urban Detroit Area.  The effort was championed by the Chairman of the Board of The Detroit Edison Company.

To lead the research efforts, Constantinos Doxiadis – a then world renowned philosophical architect and urban planner who had served as Minister of Housing and Reconstruction during the challenging post-war recovery in Greece – was engaged to apply the emerging science of complex human settlements (“ekistics”).  Doxiadis worked alongside researchers at Wayne State University, and for generations the implemented designs were celebrated.

The back story is that during this period even within Doxiadis’ close circle of researchers a gnawing truth was cutting its teeth.  Design which is catalyzed, led and owned by the elite layer of a society – regardless of how well intentioned – will be unbalanced unless specific provisions are made to include all distinct community perspectives in authentic participation with the designers.

Doxiadis Detroit Plan

I am not making the point that greater citizen input might have foreseen the way with which Detroit collapsed, but rather that greater representation of the future from those of us who live life upon the sidewalks that we travel may have called for greater resiliency in the plan. It is, of course, unfair to kick or criticize a man or a community when it is down. All of the then understood precautions were taken to assure that the best of available thinking was drawn into the design of the urban area.

In the short term, good things happened in Detroit, and from within Doxiadis’ team at that time emerged one of the founding members of the Club of Rome who subsequently developed and validated an approach that now does allow individuals of all levels of skill to participate equitably and fully in complex civic planning. This individual —- Dr. Alexander (Aleco) Christakis, left the Club of Rome when it found itself unwilling to deal with the challenge of broad-scale citizen engagement in its newly adopted design practice. Aleco subsequently founded the Institute for 21st Century Agoras.

The Greeks today may still glorify some of the ruins of the past – however, like citizens of Detroit, they also are obliged to take up the struggle to discover new futures. As a statement of hope for the human condition, we might recognize that the experiences gathered during the golden age of Detroit do continue to influence the future even as the city struggles to rediscover itself.

Detroit’s artifacts might well be seen as glorified ruins in a poet’s maudlin and peripatetic eyes, yet in at least this one case the wisdom that flowed through and beyond those specific artifacts is alive and evolving.




US EPA Taking Democratic Steps Toward Community Involvement

The Institute for 21st Century Agoras presented a technology poster at the EPA’s 13th Community Involvement Training Conference in Boston on July 30 – August 1.

EPA Community Involvement Training Conference 2013Our poster is entitled A Democratic Approach for Sustainable Futures, with a more lengthy sub-title “Framing Consensus Views for Collective Action: The Sociotechnology of Interpretive Structural Modeling Embedded within Structured Dialogic Design.”

The technology of Structured Dialogic Design is well placed among other topics in the poster session assembled for this year’s theme … “The Next Generation of Community Involvement.” Dozens of conference attendees stopped by our table to check out our approach.

Among fellow presenters, several topics stood our for us. First is “Crowdsourcing for Better Communities.” Crowdbrite could act as a gathering tool for observations as a front end into the CogniSystem.   Their presenter was very, very interested to hear of the mobile SDD application that the Cyprus group is developing.

The second technology of interest is DASEES: Decision Analysis for a Sustainable Environment, Economy and Society. This is an experimental system being developed by the EPA in conjunction with Neptune and Company. DASEES integrates guidance and decision support tools to implement a five step Bayesian decision process: 1) Understand the Context, 2) Define Objectives, 3) Develop Options, 4) Evaluate Options, and 5) Take Action (Implement and monitor). The opportunity for SDD is as a front end to Steps 1-3.

The third opportunity exists in the model that is provided by the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes in St.Paul, Minnesota who engage rural communities in building resilience for climate change. This relates to ongoing interests we have for coastal communities in New England.

Beyond posters, participants were offered seminars, workshops, demonstrations, tours, and the essential mixing bowl of networking opportunities.  As is true of all such conferences, considerable energy is invested in rediscovering friendships and in affirming that that what is being done is being done well.  In any community, and perhaps even more so in academic and scientific communities, opening paths for learning something truly new is challenging.  Most innovations in life are incremental improvements.  Enhancements extend along trajectories that have been in place for years.  Every now and then, a long-sought “game changer” comes along and opens up new trajectories.

The best ways of sensing the early presence of game changers is through the reactions that they evoke.  When a game changing idea is presented, players will be surprised, concerned, defensive for the status quo, or supportive of the shift – which is to say that players will be anything except unmoved by the prospect of a radical innovation.  This is as it should be.  Alberto Rodríguez makes this point with the title of his seminar: “Is Meaningful Community Involvement Radical?”  In the civic arena, the community involvement “game” evolves through incremental innovation and takes a quantum leap only through radical (and frequently disruptive) change.  What struck us, as a team providing a demonstration of a sociotechnology for managing large-group collaborative design, is that participants at the 13th Community Involvement Training Conference who did tour the demonstration sessions seemed hungry for a game changer.

Folks with whom we discussed Structured Dialogic Design were quick to acknowledge problems with sustaining iterative deliberations in the face of rising “dialogue fatigue.”  Where citizen participation was an important element of community involvement, folks felt it was important to have a some means of explicitly considering cognition along with intuition about complex situations and uncertain outcomes.  And people who we spoke to appreciated practices which provided real-time documents of citizens’ statements and clarifications to help sustain focus and momentum when dealing with complex understandings.  The idea of using “an engineering” approach based on an exhaustive (but not exhausting) exploration of interdependencies across a matrix of citizen concerns and understandings was well received by technical audiences.  And everyone we spoke to seemed to value graphic representations of complex deliberation that can help communities grasp the essence of strong community agreement, and then also provide a language tool for extending the deliberations.

We feel that those searching for a game changer seriously considered the impact that might come from an integrated package that transparently combines focused input of cognitive and intuitive understandings, and that presents those understandings to citizens who then collaboratively fashion them in to a systems view of their situation with an easily communicated and easily updated graphic output.  Rode mapping, as a product, is indeed part of planning traditions, but putting the mapping activity itself in the collective hands of diversified group citizens, regulators, and developers can result in a planning model with game changing power.