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I’m taking an Organizational Behavior class this semester, and at the heart of the class is a series of tensions that all organizations face in deciding how to go about their work.  These tensions aren’t problems which can be solved, but basically a series of choices along a two-ended spectrum – for example, whether to focus on being profitable (exploitation) or innovative (exploration), or to structure themselves with formal or informal roles and processes.  Organizations don’t just do one or the other, but there are generally tradeoffs associated with each choice which may or may not work well for what the organization is trying to accomplish, and what other choices they’ve made.

This made me think of another tension which manifests in a variety of situations, one often on my mind (though not always in so many words) and certainly important to individual members of any group:

Is it more valuable to achieve an end, emphasizing the efficiency of completing the job, or have the process be valuable for those involved, emphasizing the agency of group members?

This is an open question, and a dilemma which gets at the heart of urban planning, among other things.  Sometimes the choice is clear.  A task needs to get done quickly and accurately, so a group delegates that task to the most competent person, or the leader takes on the task him/herself.  Or, a task is used as a learning experience for a new initiate or often a child, and it is more important that the doer gains experience than that the task is done in a particular way or to a certain standard.  In most situations, however, these two goals require very different means to reach the same end.  A project can be structured with decision making power concentrated in a few positions, a strictly-defined process emphasizing results and resource management over creativity, and division of labor according to who can already best complete the tasks.  Conversely, a project can have the same end result but be deliberated over by all equally-contributing members, leave the design of process to individuals or subgroups given targets to reach, and teams formed to emphasize members’ learning new skills or developing new processes.

Neither is better than the other, especially given the goals and constraints of an individual situation, but they have different underlying priorities.  Is it better to keep resources to a strict budget, or allow for some “waste” with the potential pay-off of new ideas or future savings?  Could time spent discussing a decision be better spent by instead giving everyone a specific role?  And perhaps most fundamentally, is the product of this project more important than the participants’ experience of completing it?

Debates about regulation and autonomy reflect this tension.  While those who advocate for the free market (versus centralized planning in the form of government regulation, land use controls, taxation, etc.) would argue that the system is more efficient because it responds more readily to changing resource conditions through supply and demand, in reality it is not clear (to me) that the free market always produces maximum efficiency.  The example which comes to mind is the privatization of city bus services in England, resulting in two bus systems running essentially the same routes in the town of Oxford, neither honoring the other’s ticket stubs.  A more consistent underlying assumption of the free market seems to be that regardless of their ends, rational beings are best left to act autonomously, and it is their pursuit of these ends rather than the ends themselves which will collectively create a functional system.  In terms of resource management, it may be more efficient to control and selectively allocate scarce resources, or to allow unilateral decision making rather than engaging in an endless democratic process, but these diminish the agency of individual participants, and may be less a problem of inefficiency than of “inautonomy.”

The history of urban planning seems to symbolize this tension, particularly the division between large-scale planning projects such as urban renewal or Moses-style infrastructure building, and participatory planning projects like community development, constituent empowerment, and environmental justice.  While the outcome is not unimportant, it is the process which, time-consuming and open-ended, grants a sense of agency to the previously-disenfranchised and ultimately brings more people into the conversation.  Making all zoning decisions by local referendum is not efficient, but it (in theory) allows citizens to have a say in what happens in their community.  Rationing the town’s water supply or mandating total greywater recycling  would (in theory) diminish waste, but political implementation would be extremely difficult insofar as it impedes on individuals’ rights to use water on their own property.

This tension plays out even on a small scale in a group meeting.  Who sets the agenda?  How are decisions made and tasks delegated?  Is it more important to run through the to-do list to meet a deadline, or to allow people to choose their own tasks and decide how they will get them done?  What is the individual member’s experience of working in the group and feeling empowered, and how much does this matter?  How much does it matter that they are given an opportunity designed to let them learn something new?

I put to you the idea that this tension is present, though rarely explicit, in any situation in which a group must somehow make a decision and/or complete a project.  Furthermore, I suggest that many group conflicts, particularly between a group’s leader and its members, may be traced to some form of this tension.  Where two or more individuals have very different views about which takes priority, the dispute may instead surface about micromanaging, time wasted in roundabout discussions, dictatorial decision making, or being pigeonholed into a certain role.

It might therefore be helpful to also talk about a group conflict in these terms, something I haven’t tried yet in this context but which may get past the surface matter and at the assumptions behind it.  Worth a try!


A short thought-detour out of the city.

I was signing up for office-hours meetings today, that sheet on the professor’s door.  It’s never easy to write vertically with a standard office pen, and everyone’s name looks uneven and scrawled across the time slot line.  Even so, each person’s handwriting was distinct in size, shape, angle of inflection, and all those points and curves a writing analyst might study.  Then I realized – I don’t really know anyone’s handwriting!

This isn’t a problem of not being observant.  Being left-handed, I tend to glance around and take note of who’s holding their pen in the “wrong” hand – there are never that many.  Most of my classmates still take their class notes on paper, so opportunities are there when you tend to have the same neighbors.  Yet at times I’m a little struck and surprised when confronted with a handwritten item from someone I know, realizing that this ingrained and distinct expression of that person is something totally banal, yet someone I rarely (if ever) see and even less often consciously think about.  Whose handwriting can you recognize?  Family?  Friends?  Co-workers?

Computers must be to blame. So much of what we communicate is text, but specifically electronic text – E-mails, Word documents, instant messages and texts.  Our digital writing may begin to more closely resemble our speech patterns as we type our conversations.  Our finished documents all look alike because they use the same fonts – even the most distinctive font cannot easily be “owned” by a particular individual.  We even give “digital signatures” in lieu of inked ones, consisting only of our name and perhaps a second piece of personal data.  The act and form of the written signature, itself a piece of personal data, becomes lost.

While handwriting is a commonplace and unconscious production of self-expression, it is not really commonplace anymore.  While so much of my day-to-day communication is done through the written word, almost none of it is written out by hand.  The distinctive handwriting of my most frequent associates or closest chat-buddies, rather than being the easiest to recognize, becomes strangely hidden and surprisingly intimate when revealed in a casual note or scrap of paper or on a professor’s office-hours schedule.  Whereas handwriting was perhaps once the most widely-distributed form of one’s self-expression, it is now reserved for closest connections (notes to roommates on the refrigerator, cards and letters, project collaborators trading drafts) but also the most mundane, throwaway items (grocery lists, signatures on credit card receipts, administrative forms).  Recognizing someone else’s handwriting therefore becomes a significant act.

What strikes me most about this thought is not that recognizing someone’s handwriting is somehow a mark of friendship or privilege – certainly there was no point in time where that ability was a perfect measure of a degree of relationship.  It is the increasing disconnect between communication and handwriting – that it is possible, indeed the norm, to communicate (in writing) with someone regularly, perhaps every day, and have no idea how they would actually write the same words with pen and paper.  That a small piece of ourselves remains so mundane yet so hidden from those around us makes the discovery of that small piece all the more interesting.

This post will actually be considerably less topical (read:  about Haiti) than its title implies.  It concerns two types of planning:  planning “before,” actions taken in preparation for or the prevention of a crisis; and planning “after,” the coordinated action we take to clean up the mess and build better than before.

The introduction to Nolon and Salkin’s Land Use in a Nutshell set me thinking about this:

The great fire of 1666 in London led to the adoption of municipal building construction laws that required brick exteriors, wider streets, and open space along the Thames River for access to water for firefighting. . . .  These early land use rules were . . . formalized by the Act for the Rebuilding of London adopted by Parliament in 1667.  The Act gave the municipality the power to regulate the construction of buildings:  their size, height, and placement on the lot, and the materials used (2).

Other examples of dramatic renewal and growth came to my mind:  Chicago, following the 1871 fire; San Francisco, following the 1906 earthquake; the many destroyed villages of northern France and Belgium, reconstructed after the First World War; the bombed cities of Japan and Germany after the Second World War; (a plan f0r) the town of Greensburg, Kansas, after being levelled by a tornado in 2007.

This is not to say that renewal will inevitably follow a crisis, but in each case listed, the devastating losses caused by natural or man-made disasters became an opportunity to reinvent the form of the city.  London, already one of the most important cities in Europe by the 17th century, was rebuilt to become the economic and political center for much of the world, its grand new architecture the manifestation of its wealth and power.   Chicago, its urban core cleared of its old wooden buildings and boarded walkways, had valuable land available to build its new downtown of skyscrapers, paved streets, and rail lines.  Albert, a small city in France, was completely levelled by 1918 and rebuilt by the late 1920s, not a replica of its original form, but with modern infrastructure, wider streets, and a reorientation of the city’s main axes to better locate its new industrial sites in appropriate areas.  Tokyo, with most of its wooden structures burned away in Allied firebombing by 1945, had by the end of the twentieth century become perhaps the most modern city in the world.

The idea that “an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure” is central to urban planning:  we can make choices today with tomorrow in mind, guiding our next steps, procedures in hand for when something goes wrong.  But even with all our precedent cases, forecast models, and good intentions, can we ever really do anything but react to the events we can’t control?

I’m not suggesting we should despair because we can’t prevent the unpredictable.  Much of our knowledge of good city design is thanks to the lessons we’ve wisely learned from past mistakes, or at least from close observation of what went wrong.  My question is whether we can do anything more forward-looking than error correction, and I’m not sure that the answer is “yes.”

There always exist a handful of brilliantly insightful people who can foresee possibilities far into our future, and many more who can make reasonable guesses about where we might be headed.   However, the complicated tangle of culture, politics, and logistical constraints we call modern life often makes it inordinately difficult to take more than a single step forward.  The one redeeming value of catastrophes seems to be their ability to force us into drastic action.  In their most extreme form, disasters can “wipe the slate clean” and challenge us to make new choices:  in the example of city form, to use physical loss as an opportunity to build new and better.  We can return to the status quo ante, but it is no longer a given that we should do so.

So how should we move forward?  I think we need to spend more time looking thoughtfully backward:  more careful assessment of successes and failures in disaster recovery, particularly where planners (or private developers) chose to rethink and redesign their city.  Evaluate what worked and which actors and circumstances allowed those changes to take place.  Identify which examples have the best analogues to current cities, and where those successful strategies might be employed in the wake of future crises.

To go a step further:  what if cities wrote into their comprehensive plans a “disaster renewal” section, in which they would identify locations which are most vulnerable, locations (or networks) which are most in need of change, and steps to take in order to foster successful redevelopment following a crisis?  No doubt this suggestion would be met by many, most notably city councils, as a morbid hypothetical exercise.  Consider, however:

  • More and more of our global population is living in cities.
  • In the United States, our infrastructure is aging; in many other parts of the world, city infrastructure is inadequate or non-existent.
  • Cities tend to locate on flat land near water.
  • The incidence of major weather-related disasters has been increasing in recent years, and there is little reason to believe this trend will reverse.
  • Even where disaster recovery plans have been written, they are notoriously difficult to execute.
  • Even where short-term disaster relief and recovery are administered, the monumental task of long-term recovery suffers from lack of organization, collaboration, and vision.

We can’t stop disasters in our cities, much as we try to mitigate, but time and again we’ve found opportunity in our losses well outside the scope of everyday planning processes.  If we can only really organize ourselves to make big changes in the wake of crisis, shouldn’t we be better students of our own past disasters?

I came across this article via Planetizen and it reminded me of another one about which I was very excited earlier this month.  The subject of collaboration in design, particularly urban design in this article, but the principle can extend to other fields.

This might sound Future-Shock-meets-World-Is-Flat (oh the name dropping) but it seems like a recent major shift in our working culture is toward more mobility – in terms of where work is done, outside the office and on the phone or at home or in a remote location, as well as the number of jobs (or even careers) an individual holds over the course of a lifetime.  The next logical step, then, is to allow this mobility to influence *where* we actually get work done, and with whom.  If one isn’t tied to an office desk, and one can work at home or on a bus or in a coffee shop, is this necessarily better or more productive if one is still alone?  Why not congregate and collaborate in a place of everyone’s choosing in order to be productive, feed off of each others’ creative energy, address and solve problems face-to-face rather than by indirect communication – was this not the point of having office space in the first place?

These articles describe two different collaborative environments and how they promote a positive culture of design.  As I currently work in an environment that is thoroughly stuck in the mid-20th-century in terms of workflows and productivity and their approach to the creative process, it’s really exciting to think that there are alternative work environments out there, that they produce good results, and that *someone* else out there recognizes the importance of people working together, enjoying where they are and who they’re with, and making work an effort rather than a toil!

Fast Company – “PieLab in Rural Alabama” – recent article about a group which seeks to promote community and good design, with a side of pie.

Urban Omnibus – “Work and the Open Source City” – this article really got me excited about collaborative workspaces.  Less excited about the whole “cloud” cliche.