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.






A Flood of Complexity

Flooded Expressway

Flooded Expressway

Yesterday Toronto was hit with a massive rainstorm that dumped more than 120mm of rain on parts of the city within the span of five hours knocking out power to more than 300,000 people, stranding thousands more, and even prompting a rescue of hundreds trapped on a commuter train out of the city by the police marine unit. Yes, a train rescued by officials in boats.

For those commuting in cars they were almost like boats as the video above demonstrates.

To put this into perspective, when Hurricane Hazel hit the city in 1954 – a storm that killed 80 people and left thousands more homeless — it dropped just over 100mm of rain in 12 hours. This is the second time in a little more than a year that a massive surge of rain has flooded widespread parts of this city, the fourth largest in North America, in the Great Lakes Region of the continent.

Less than three weeks ago Calgary’s downtown was submerged by unprecedented flooding caused by combinations of high-levels of melting snow, a full water table, and more-than-usual spring precipitation. The Southern Alberta (and ironically named) town of High River is still largely under water. This part of Canada is grassland and largely dry, home to cattle ranches and some light agriculture. It is not a flood plain and this is not a normal occurrence, at least not at this level.

Earlier this year we witnessed Hurricane Sandy overwhelm New York City and the east coast of the United States and Canada.

New York City Flooding

New York City Flooding

Climate change is shifting weather patterns and making these extreme storms, floods, and other events more likely. It also will expand the consequences of these storms like rats moving to higher ground in cities like New York and Toronto. What are the health implications of this?

Transit plans are changing and the impact on insurance rates (if insurance will be offered at all) may be enormous. In Calgary, there is speculation that it could take a decade to fully recover from what happened.

Entire cities might even disappear altogether. Reporting in the latest Rolling Stone magazine, Jeff Goodell explores the very likely scenario that the city of Miami will disappear within the next century and be virtually unliveable within decades. Using a bit of foresight scenario development, Goodell begins the article with a hypothetical description of Hurricane Milo in 2030 that provides a chilling possibility based on the current threat assessment.

All of these scenarios point to increasing complexity in not just weather patterns, but the human systems that work to respond to and prepare for such weather systems. Speaking on CBC’s Metro Morning radio program, Peter Halsall from the Canadian Urban Institute points to the need for us to see things as interconnected — basically as systems – if we are to develop the appropriate policy response to deal with the treatment and prevention of excess damage caused by the kind of storm we had in Toronto last night.

Without linking issues like infrastructure, weather, housing and social policy together there is little sense that people will act to prevent problems before they occur or address the problems that form in ways that account for their complex nature and structure.

Seeing systems is critical. Acting through foresight methods, system dynamic models, and complexity-oriented scenario planning exercises are ways to prepare for the uncertainties that come with floods like we’ve seen or other storm-related phenomena. This means more than planning for the things you can see, but those things you can barely conceive of. Using creativity-based scenario plans allows us to envision futures that might seem outlandish at the extreme, but pulled back a little can yield insight when real extreme events occur.

Using foresight methods and complexity allows us to design for emergence (PDF), rather than design systems for what is expected and usually happens, because those days might be fewer and farther between. Using systems approaches to planning and responding allows us to take account for the interconnections between things, simultaneously allotting cognitive energy to contemplate flooded transit lines, insurance payouts, rat infestations, and backed-up sewers as a system and not independent events. While not easy and certainly complex, this kind of approach allows us to treat problems as systems and not falsely act on parts while ignoring the whole.

The usual is likely to be unusual in an age of complexity and it is becoming time to embrace that lest we literally and figuratively drown in the flood of changes to come.

Photos: @FirstNewsGTA ,  National Geographic Photoblog

Amazing Stuff

What a busy week (it seems I say that a lot). Akin to Sergio’s White Hot Top 5 on Current TV’s Infomania, here are the five things that I found amazing (or at least really interesting) over the past week:

1. The NY Times Freakonomics Blog featured a guest post from James McWilliams on the question of locavores and their true environmental impact. Like the Freakonomics guys, I am attracted to contrarian perspectives on received wisdom. McWilliams post suggests that we question claims that eating locally is necessarily better for the planet. He doesn’t dismiss the many reasons why people like farmers markets and getting to know who produces your food, but he does question if that isn’t used to inflate the economic and environmental benefits of eating locally. Something to think about and question on both sides.

2. The Future of Healthcare is Social. I love this slideshow on Fast Company’s website. It describes a wired future where handheld devices and (I’m reading into this — maybe projecting??) interoperable databases and tools will allow health practitioners and patients to learn from one another and create a truly social health system based on the best knowledge from the whole system. Dare to dream.

3. Imagine Leadership. This short YouTube video also adds some contrarian and received wisdom on leadership and what it takes to truly lead. It’s short and provocative. Developed by Nitin Nohria and Amanda Pepper of Harvard Business School’s Leadership Initiative and the XPLANE visual information consultancy group.

4. I love WorldChanging. They always post some innovative and provocative material. This week, the post that caught my eye was corresponding to International Walk to School Day and got me thinking about how design thinking can contribute to a much healthier, better and safer setting for our children by giving them back what I had as a child: a walk to school.

5. Wired Science has profiled the best microscope photos from the past 35 years. Once you get your head around the fact that these are REAL pictures taken of microscopic things you can enjoy some of the most beautiful images that nature produces for us every day.

Have a great week everyone!

The Launch of Amazing Stuff

Today I am launching a new feature on my blog: Amazing Stuff. It is a way for me to share the neat ideas, hot innovations, challenging ideas and random bits of ‘stuff’ that I find quite compelling, inspiring or just fun that somehow touches on the myriad issues related to making ‘CENSE’ of the world around me. Yes, you can always follow my Delicious social bookmarks, or what I Stumbleupon, but I’m not always good at social bookmarking great ideas, particularly after a busy day away from my desk when I’m staring at 200 updates on my Google Reader feed.

My choice of the term amazing is inspired by comedian Louis C.K. from his appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show a few months back. Watching this, I think you’ll agree that we are living in amazing times and this is a sample of the amazing things I’ve found over the past week:

1. The Design Thinkers Reading List. This is a summary of the must-have books and documents for those interested in design thinking (like systems thinking, only for how we shape the human activities and environments we live in).

2. How to Turn Urban Spaces Into Food Spaces. Taking unused land and using it more efficiently to help feed the poor and create a more sustainable food system for urban centres.

3. How Our Moral Roots Damage Our Thinking. A blog post and interview at TED with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt who discusses how the U.S. Healthcare debate is being shaped by forces that are not likely to lead that country into a good place.

4. Interview with Paul Hawken on Our Environmental Future. Environmental economist and leader Paul Hawken discusses his views on the future of the planet and the reason he still has some hope.

5. The Dark Side of Political Discourse on the Internet. Tim Bevins from Wikinomics shows us what happens when democracy meets the unbridled opportunity of having everyone speak their mind and its not pretty.

Cohesion vs. Diversity

I just watched (yet another!) great TED talk that solidified something that’s been on my mind all week: diversity.

The talk by Cary Fowler, the leader of the global seed bank, a remarkable initiative aimed at saving the world’s seed for future use should that day (or many days) come when we need to draw upon the diversity on our planet to support life. Even though we think we live in a world of apparent dietary diversity (after all the average supermarket literally carries thousands of products — just look at the number of types of yogurt you can buy at a typical store), the truth is that we are in deep trouble when it comes to the diversity of natural food choices available to us. It is estimated that there are about 7500 different types of apples alone. But we rarely see that expressed in food choices. Shop your local supermarket and you’ll find that variety sharply drops down to about a dozen or less. And this dozen or less is the same at most of the other shops. The truth is, we are limiting our diversity in food dramatically and are potentially harming our potential survival in the process.

In Canada, we praise ourselves for being an accepting society and our social, cultural and linguistic diversity. My home, Toronto, may be the most ethnoculturally diverse city in the world when measured by these aforementioned characteristics. Scott Page, a systems scientist from the University of Michigan, has written a fantastic book on diversity that provides a strong case for diversity in many different contexts from school to work to community life.

But diversity has a dark side. The less we have in common (i.e., the more diverse we are) the less cohesion we are likely to experience as a duo, group or society. It was that very topic that Michael Valpy wrote about in the Globe and Mail this week. In his article, he quotes another Canadian and now Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff from his new book:

“We need a public life in common,” he writes, “some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live. Without this feeling of belonging, even if only imagined, we would live in fear and dread of each other. When we can call the strangers citizens, we can feel at home with them and with ourselves.

And reaching for a codicil from his intellectual hero, he adds: “Isaiah Berlin described this sense of belonging well. He said that to feel at home is to feel that people understand not only what you say, but also what you mean.””

Anyone who has worked on projects where there is a diversity of opinion knows the benefit of having someone not only understand what you say, but also what you mean. That trait alone may be the reason we commit to working together at all and, when it doesn’t happen, why we might choose to do things apart. A healthy system has both diversity (represented by chaos at its extreme) and cohesion (represented by rigid order at its opposite pole). Having watched Cary Fowler’s talk shortly after reading Michael Valpy’s article has me questioning what the balance is in fostering diversity within a system. How does one know when you’re ‘diverse enough’ or when you’re too rigid and inflexible? In the case of Cary Fowler, he’s not planning to have all 7500 apples growing at the same time and place if he even gets all those seeds saved, but he’s not planning on saving just the tastiest, crispest or hearty of them either. That strikes me as a good thing.

In my eyes, a great community is one that is diverse and cohesive — living at the ‘edge of chaos’ in systems terms. Toronto is one of those cities, with many small villages within it, and has been highlighted by urban thinkers like the late Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida as a place that does diverse urbanism rather well. As imperfect as it is, Toronto is pretty cohesive.

But it is also seeing a large gap between the wealthy and the poor – and likely the healthy and the unhealthy. This gap was driven home yesterday as I took part on a panel on the social determinants of health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.The concept of ‘poverty by postal code‘ and the gap between those with choices and those without was clear. Along with Carol Timmins and Stephen Hwang, we spoke separately and as a panel about issues of public health practice, homelessness, and youth. As we explored these issues I thought about this ‘cohesion’ amongst the diversity and wondered whether this is as good as it gets? Can we create greater social cohesion than this or are we doomed to some level of diversity that has lots of upsides, but also many downsides. Can we have it all?

What is the balance here and would we know it if we achieved it?

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