Operative Practices in Complexity:
Thoughts on Plans, Decisions, and Action in the 21st Century

On 26 March 2015, Leah spoke at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation as part of an ongoing forum on the future of urban planning. The talk described an emerging 'operative' approach to analysis, design, planning, and decision making in general within complex environments. The following contains an abridged text of her lecture with annotation (in italics).


Urban Operative | Operative Planning

I was asked to offer a single keyword to describe this talk. But brevity is not my thing. As such, I interpreted this request as asking me to encapsulate—in a single, impossible word—this fascinatingly networked, dangerously difficult, locally lived, globally organized, and somehow seemingly cosmically strategized context in which the planner operates. 

I thought, maybe, that the key to unlocking such a task—and thus to deciding on a keyword for today—might be found in the description of that dangerously difficult context. I thought I might talk about practice by talking about the world in which we practice: that messy, dirty, mean, grotesque condition; that legitimately, thoroughly, and definitively sublime set of processes, transactions, experiences, opportunities, densities, uses, and intensities—the fervor and delight, the order and mayhem—so terrifying it becomes beautiful, so awful that we fetishize it, so defiantly unjust that we're compelled by it, so consistently dysfunctional that we're equally motivated to reinvent and reproduce it. I thought perhaps the key was this context: both (1) the geographic, material, and formal site of planning practice that we so lovingly and devoutly call "the city" and (2) the conceptualized, choreographed, and abstracted site of planning practice that we, with equal devotion, call "urbanism."

But I still didn't have a one-word title. I still didn't know what to call this talk about practice, because urban planning today—the part I love about it, the meaty, gut-wrenching, and embarrassingly fun, work of urban planners today—happens in a context so multifaceted, so multiscalar, so dynamic, and so rich, that it renders the decision of how to describe it in one word almost impossible. Which meant I was left with "VUCA." Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity: an acronym for a context that renders decision making so difficult that the US military needed to name it. 

As it always has, to be an "urban planner" means to practice within the scales and scope of urbanism. Each generation of planners thus engages urbanism as understood at the time. Without a doubt, globalization and urbanization have radically affected the nature of urban planning, in practice and in theory. This change is rooted in the simultaneity of local, regional, national, and global processes factoring into decision making—connecting urban and non-urban areas through complex and networked interdependencies. Alongside the rapidity of urban growth with or without predetermined or overt organization, what was once called "urban planning" now involves the planning of human systems reaching territories and topics far beyond the profession's original scope. Thus, while urban planning itself is changing to engage these questions and maintain its efficacy, the techniques and approaches once reserved for specifically municipal concerns are also finding increased relevance in other disciplines

Context: Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity.

In a VUCA context, not only are conditions dynamic, but the catalysts for change are often unknown or unpredictable. The rates of change are often unknown or unpredictable. The confluence of forces maintaining or disrupting those conditions are often unknown or unpredictable. And the best information you have may or may not represent conditions on the ground with any measurable degree of accuracy—or more likely, we may not yet have invented the means to measure their accuracy.

VUCA is often used to describe conflict areas. Increasingly, it describes crisis areas and complex cities: places vulnerable to disruption— political disruption, economic disruption, social disruption, and environmental disruption. 

Right now is not the time to go into what it is within cities that contributes to this vulnerability and generates VUCA states. Instead I want to talk about how we make decisions when our decision making methods don't work. I want to talk about how we might plan when planning itself is subject to disruption by the very condition it is trying to address. Because, as planners, we have our methods—tested, tried, and true. We rely on data, on input from communities and clients (on their participation), on our collected experiences within the discipline, on precedent and case study, on our body of historical urban research, and on the evidence base. We find confidence in planning's codified foundation and mandate for the public good, and we don't often have to question what is good. We evaluate the efficacy of our facilitations and measure the outcomes of our policies. We conduct cost-benefit analyses based on the premise that we can reasonably distinguish the costs from the benefits. We rely on our calculus which is undone by volatility, and we rely on our statistics which are undone by uncertainty.

When we have to ask "What is good?" we are questioning our ability to assess planning's most basic aims. As private and non-state actors prove ever more influential to spatial practice and process, planning's historical relationship to the state is called into question and along with it, much of our historical ability to effectively plan. In a VUCA state, the planner's toolkit evaporates.

So again, on what basis can we make decisions? On what basis can we make plans for tomorrow and, reasonably, beyond? How do we operate in complexity and uncertainty?

Learning to work in VUCA contexts is among the primary challenge facing practitioners today. With most questions immediately relevant to urban planning specifically, it is complexity (the "C") that carries the greatest weight and difficulty at municipal levels. That said, taken wholly, learning to plan within VUCA conditions offers lessons, techniques, and methods, with applications far beyond municipal concerns.

From the Recent History of How Planners Plan; Toward an Operative Practice in Complexity

We can begin by thinking about how planners have recently operated through a series of new questions:

  • Is the advocate planner efficacious when the parties to whom you'd advocate are themselves effectively powerless to produce system-changing results or when they are simply unidentifiable? 
  • Are you, as a generation of young planners, satisfied with incrementalism and "muddling through" given the speed of change and the urgency of some of the planet's impending urban crises—especially where rapid urbanization overlaps with resource scarcity and the effects of climate change? 
  • Are we confident in saying that communicative or deliberative modes of practice are methods of producing truly meaningful forms of participation? For underserved, low-resource, marginalized, and oppressed populations to effectively contribute to the determination of their places and futures? That these practices—even as they become technologically enabled— are significantly empowering? (And here, by "empowerment" I do not mean the creation of local or localized power from nothing, but the redistribution of power, the diffusion of power like heat from the points of its highest density toward the areas of its lowest.)
  • I'll ask just one more: Regardless of whether we're equipped to realize just outcomes, are we as a discipline equipped to determine what such outcomes would be in an environment of ambiguity beyond pluralism? This is a crucial question because (while it pains me to say it) no amount of data—big or small, open or closed—could fuel a city smart enough to answer that question for us.

I ask these questions, alluding to several important and influential highlights in the last fifty years of planning, not because I think these approaches are now mooted or irrelevant. I ask because I am not prepared or even inclined to abandon these frameworks for practice. Further, I ask because they have a few profound commonalities with continued relevance to how we might plan today.

The first is maybe the least profound, but it is certainly telling: they represent only a small sample of the field's tendency toward defining and describing its activities as urban analogues to other professions. Think about this: the advocate-lawyer (representative, counselor, solicitor), the mediator-facilitator, the community organizer-social worker, the negotiator-adjudicator-arbiter. The muddler is a tactician while the legislator/policy-maker is a strategist. We shouldn't forget the engineer, the broker (of power, of land, or of deals of various sorts), the politician, and the economist. This is telling because, as planning's context changes, its practice historically adapts. Yet two things remain the same: (1) that the focus of the work is always on the spatial organization of the city and its resources, and (2) that the profession's activities are defined relative to both the material context and its organizational context. We planners consistently seem to think of our work relative to that of other actors—knowing that our agency is inextricably tied to that of other agents. And we gain new tools as the organizational context changes.

Secondly, from Davidoff onward, that list of allusions describes methods and tools that intervene into the processes of urbanism and urban decision making, with a focus on means over ends. Because this, of course, is the overall, capital-P Project of planning. We design the plan: the means by which ends are reached, the processes that enable outcomes. If we do that well, then those plans, those means, persist beyond their outcomes, because in urbanism there are no real ends. As long as they are inhabited, our cities are never finished.

The lecture speaks specifically to graduate students, contextualizing the work they will do within the history and theory of urban practice. Thus, this section begins by positioning some of the most influential modes of practice from recent history within complex scenarios. [References for the relevant urban planning theorists invoked are included at the bottom.]

Thirdly, this makes sense because, in each case, these previous frameworks for practice are supported by planning's ability to operationalize its context—converting a shifting urban landscape into an asset, converting that thing we are trying to wrangle into a tool for its wrangling.  The state of our cities is not an immutable given. Nor is how they function. No, our cities and our urbanism are what we make them—and like everything humans make, we can instrumentalize them toward other purposes, make new tools out of them, reappropriate and redirect them. It need not always be a decision to weaponize, but it usually is a decision toward action within a spatialized political sphere. In short, planners operationalize their context into the means for generating the city's next iteration.

And lastly, when taken together these earlier frameworks collectively describe an important and still relevant mode of practice that I want to call "operative." They describe the work of "urban operatives":

  • individuals or small groups working at tactical scales,
  • with an expertise rooted in a deep understanding and appreciation for the relationships between various actors, stakeholders, and processes beyond their immediate control,
  • wielding a highly technical, very specific, and necessarily diverse set of skills,
  • in service to a larger, strategic aim.

Urban operatives muddle through. They get things done. They retool. They negotiate and broker. They analyze and advocate. They organize and plan. They are often supported by larger organizations—and I'll posit here that city planners in municipal agencies are sometimes bureaucrats and policy wonks, but at their very best, they're operatives.

So, I'll rephrase the question: Can  planning today retool to operationalize the complexity it faces? Is there a mode of spatial practice—a self-consciously operative mode of planning—by which we

  • tactically operate at local scales toward achieving outcomes at the local and global, strategic scales of 21st-Century urbanism?
  • build upon the planner's toolkit and adapt our skills?
  • once again, reposition ourselves relative to other urban actors?
  • and leverage the city's volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity in service to planning's standing mandate, effectively instrumentalizing our human geography toward new theories of change?

And, if so, what does that practice look like?

Urbanists do tend to describe the city in metaphoric terms as organisms or as purely self-organizing systems determined by their own logics. These descriptions seem most common, however, only when complexity and ambiguity rise to the level at which we can no longer readily see and comprehend the systems of the city's reproduction.

An Emerging Model of Operative Practice

On paper, we are a strategy and project-design firm, focused on development challenges in complex environments. This means complex urbanism and conflict- and crisis-affected areas. Our clients are private sector, public sector, and NGOs. Our work is doggedly data-driven and human-centric. It is always spatial, and premised not on outcomes we decide but on locally self-determined goals. We design processes, methodologies, and strategies. We design means...which means that we make plans. 

Typically, we are approached with a challenge. Typically, that challenge is inherent in the context of the environment—both concrete and abstract. Typically, that challenge rests somewhere in the intersection of the built or physical terrain, political processes, economic conditions, social stratification, and limited local agency. First, we have to ask: What is the project here? What project would—through its execution—develop capacity, produce opportunity, reveal agency, redistribute power, and generate resilience—not just once the project is complete, but through the process of its creation and execution? Strategizing, conceiving, designing, and implementing that project is operative work.

More importantly, perhaps, designing and implementing that project usually requires operationalizing the complexity of the challenge, turning it toward our advantage. We turn ambiguity into an asset when we comfortably relinquish the want for one single, real answer and acknowledge that our best data probably does not mean what conventional analyses conclude. We develop new methods that exploit this ambiguity to leverage the pluralism of our data, to facilitate deliberation and collaboration, to create networks for verification, and to foster effective decision making.

While VUCA conditions are those which challenge our existing decision-making methods, the takeaway is that these conditions are not a death knell for long-term planning activity. They're a new opportunity for the next generation of operative practitioners. Economic development, infrastructural investment, environmental planning, spatial justice, democratic participation, addressing armed conflict, increasing crisis resilience, shaping land use and redevelopment, engaging globalization and globalized capital flows—these aren't siloed or separate or independent concerns. They are confounding issues in a single complex system. Planning action is paralyzed when attempting to address them one at a time, but their interrelatedness can be an asset, can be operationalized. We don't necessarily have to know which concern is driving the system at any given time. We can exploit their interrelationships and their complexity to conceive and implement projects that act within the whole of their effects rather than attempting to simplify the system in search of a single cause. We can develop methods that are just as VUCA as our cities—wrangling them toward a future we plan in order to avoid being wrangled by our confusion.

The second half of the talk includes a variety of short examples taken from projects completed or underway at Office:MG. Threaded through the discussion of those examples is a commentary on the process of the work, including the internal and reflective questions that must be addressed in order to responsibly and critically engage contexts of complexity and ambiguity for the long-term planning of means that will persist even after reaching their first and most immediate ends.

The examples given in the talk illustrated ways in which volatility can also be repurposed through thoughtful analysis. Conditions of persistent (although seemingly unpatterned) change are, in fact, sustained and reproduced. A constant state of flux may, in fact, be a truly constant state. This acknowledgment implies a foundational premise upon which operative planning can function and the opportunity of a steady platform for intervention. Identifying the persistent usually now suggests focusing on different questions, on underlying structures, and on relational networks. More often than not, these opportunities are found in the relationships between actors, agents, and organizations or in the constancy of the interaction between influential forces—even when we can not readily identify the causal mechanisms behind those interactions. Nonetheless, if those sustained interactions are identified, the present volatility becomes less prohibitive, the uncertainty of the system is reduced, and these one-time limitations can even become advantageous in the design of radical change.

Batty, Michael. Cities and Complexity: Understanding Cities with Cellular Automata, Agent-Based Models, and Fractals. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005.

Davidoff, Paul. "Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning." Journal of the American Institute of Planners. 1965. 31(4): 331-338.

Fainstein, Susan. The Just City. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Forester, John. The Deliberative Practitioner: Encouraging Participatory Planning Processes. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999.

Healey, Patsy. "The Communicative Turn in Planning Theory and its Implications for Spatial Strategy Formation." Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design. 1996. 23:217-234.

Lindblom, Charles E. "The Science of Muddling Through." Public Administration Review. 1959. 19: 79-88.