Systems thinking and the simple plan

Building Castles in the Sky

Building Castles in the Sky, But Not Wheels on the Ground


Planning is something that is done all the time, but the shape in which these plans unfold is often complex in hidden ways. Without the same resources to evaluate those plans (and make different ones should they change) many organizations are left with great expectations that don’t match the reality of what they do (and can do). 

In my neighbourhood in Toronto there are no fewer than 10 building projects underway that involve development of a high-rise apartment/university residence/condominium on it of more than 20 stories in a 5 block radius from my home. Most are expected to be about 40 stories in height.

As a resident and citizen I was thinking one day: How does one even engage with this? I could attend a building planning meeting, but that would be looking at a single development on a single site, not a neighbourhood. There is a patchwork of plans for neighbourhoods, but they are guidelines, not embedded in specific codes. I was (and am) stuck with how to have a conversation of influence that might help shape decisions about how this was all going to unfold.

At the risk of being pegged as a NIMBY, let me state that I am fully able to accept that downtown living in a fast-growing, large urban centre means that empty lots or parking pads are a target for development and buildings will go up. I get to live here and so should others so I can’t complain about a development here and there. But when we are talking about development of that magnitude so quickly it gets quickly problematic for things like sidewalks, transit, parking, traffic, and even things like getting a seat at my favourite cafe that are all going to change in a matter of months, not years. There’s no evolution here, just revolution.

Adding a few hundred people to the neighbourhood in a year is one thing. Adding many thousand in that same time is something quite different. The problem is that city planning is done on a block-by-block basis when we live in an interconnected space. An example of this is transit. Anyone who takes a bus, streetcar or subway knows that the likelihood of getting a seat depends greatly on when you travel and where you get on. Your experience will radically change when you’re at the beginning of the line or near the end of it. Residents of one neighbourhood in Toronto were so tired of never being able to get on packed streetcars because they were in the middle of the line they crowdfunded a private bus service, which was ultimately shut down a few months later.

Planning for scale: bounding systems using foresight

On a piece-by-piece basis, planning impact is easier to assess. Buildings go through proposals for the lots — a boundary — and have to meet specific codes, which act as constraints on a system. Yet, next to these boundaries are boundaries for other systems; other lots and developments. They, too are given the same treatment and usually that produces a plan perfectly suited to that individual development, but something that might falter when matched with what’s next to it. Building plans are approved and weighed largely on their merits independent of the context and certainly not as a collective set of proposals. Why? Because there are different stakeholders with separate needs, timelines, investments and desires.

One of the keys is to have a vision for what the city will look like as a system.  Does your city have one? I’m not talking about something esoteric like “Be the greatest city in the world”, but generating some evidence-supported form of vision for what the city will look like in 5, 10, 25 years. This requires foresight, a structured, methodical means of drawing evidence-informed speculations about the future that combines design, data, and some imagination. In fact, my colleague Peg Lahn and I did this for the city of Toronto and what we envisioned the future ‘neighbourscapes’ of the city might look like using foresight methods.  We forecast out to 2030, drawing on trends and drivers of social activities and looking at current patterns of migration, development, policy and political activity.

That report focused on the city itself and its neighbourhoods in general, but didn’t look at specific neighbourhoods. Yet, strategic foresight can help create a bounded set of conditions where one can start to imagine the potential impact of decisions in advance and develop scenarios to amplify or mitigate against certain challenges or uncertainties. Foresight allows for better assessment of the landscape of knowns and unknowns within a complex system.

From cities to organizations

The same principles to civic planning through foresight can be applied to organizations. If you are assessing operations and plans for programs independent of one another and not as a whole, yet are operating an organization as a system with all its interdependencies, then without strategic foresight plans may just arbitrary statements of intent. Consider the “5-year plan“. Why is it five years? What is special about 5 years that makes us do that? How about four years? Ten? 18?

As former US President and general Dwight D. Einsenhower once said:

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

The planning process, no matter what the time scale, works best when it allows for engagement of ideas about what the future might look like, how to create it, and how to tell when you’ve been successful. This is part of what developmental evaluation does when blended with strategic foresight and design. This creates conversations about what future we want, what we see coming and how we might get to shape it. The plan itself is secondary, but the planning — informed by data and design — is what is the most powerful part of the process.

To draw on another US President, Abraham Lincoln:

The best way to predict your future is to create it.

By focusing on the here and now, independent of what is to come and might be, organizations risk designing perfectly suited programs, policies and strategies that are ideal for the current context, but jeopardize the larger system that is the organization itself.

Do you have a plan? Do you know where you’re going? Can you envision where things are going to be? How will you know when you get there or when to change course?


For resources on these topics check out the Censemaking library tab on this blog, which has a lot of references to tools and products that can help advance your thinking on strategic foresight, evaluation, design and systems thinking. For those interested in how developmental evaluation can contribute to program development, check out Michael Quinn Patton’s lastest book (with Kate McKegg and Nan Wehipeihana) on Developmental Evaluation Exemplars.

Lastly, if you need strategic help in this work, contact Cense Research + Design as this is what they (we) do.






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