The Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) thematic group on Planning Theories hosts a series of talks and discussions in their ‘Infinity Series’, inspired by the Marvel Universe. On 8th March 2022, I talked about “Planning and the Mind”. In the following, my input presentation to this discussion.
I would like to start with some of my thoughts on “Planning and the Mind”. It is hard for me to talk about the mind today, while we see how an isolated and brutal mind can cause so much pain, war, destruction, and emptiness. Nevertheless, this strengthens my belief in spatial planning in democratic societies and my ambition to talk about planners today.
Corona unveils a canvas to learn for the roles that planners need to explore, develop, and enact when facing global crises. Two counterintuitive claims help explaining. First, planning needs more uncertainty to take its roles. The more we know about the unfolding crisis, the harder any action becomes. This takes us to the heart of planning: values and societal goals. Second, planners should plan for uncertainty, both acknowledging and actively creating uncertainties. Reduction and production of different uncertainties are inevitably linked. Post-corona planning must even plan for uncertainty to succeed.
To the start of the academic year 2020-21 in Groningen, I was asked to deliver a short pitch (‘Pint of Science’) on the future of the Netherlands in 2050. In my function as a a coordinator of the Master Society, Sustainability and Planning (SSP), I looked at the programme and developed my own view that I will hereby share in a few words. I have deliberately chosen a positive story here that aims to motivate, given the amount of environmental and social problems visible to us.
The future of academic work might look different than it used to be. We will not see the re-emergence of larger venues and (international) conferences before at least early 2021. While small-scale meetings become possible again, gathering with hundreds of people from different countries in one place seems to be of a distant past. Travel restrictions provide unequal opportunities to participate in academic events depending on locations. However, there is something in between going and not going. The sustainability of (large) conferences was in question long before Corona made the reduction of travels an immediate health necessity (see e.g. Wenner et al. 2019). Hybrid conferencing (digital & physical combined) and hybrid academics may be on the rise. In February 2020, without knowing about upcoming Corona restrictions, we engaged in a hybrid format in Dortmund on “Post-growth from international planning perspectives: Digital roundtable on the future of planning in a post-growth world”.
We live in an extreme situation in most countries since mid of March 2020. It can hardly be expressed with words in any of our languages. We are moved to see impacts as well as strong collective measures taken in Europe and worldwide. We all live in space and we will continue to live and plan in space. The more we get knowledge and control over COVID-19, the more we will be able to think ahead and to restart a collective debate on spatial visions, their ethical/moral foundations and ways to organize and lead them. I am active in discovering future possibilities for spatial planning, changes induced by Corona and our means to lead spatial development in times of crisis.
It sounds easy: let’s make our work online. We can discuss online, we can meet and even have social events online. We can video conference with family, friends and colleagues at any time and, so far, mostly with reliable networks. This is an amazing and sudden success of digitalization that was unforeseen and deemed impossible only a few weeks ago. It also brought people together (again), supported networks of help and support and made neighbors recognize each other’s immediate needs. However, this produces new forms of exclusion beyond general questions of access to technology and internet. There are a number of groups that get out of sight if we #stayathome and that need our special attention as spatial planners. Usually, we would see these groups outside and using our public spaces, our infrastructures and being usual part of our urban or rural life.
While we #stayathome, we experience an amazing speed in developing ways to continue spatial planning work through the digital means we have available. Digital transformation of society and of our lives is actually happening and becomes tangible for each and all of us. In an extraordinary speed do universities switch to 100 % online education, cutting off all physical contacts, excursions and field work and continuing with a diverse range of lectures, seminars and events. Some of these developments will provide role models for future global work and education. However, this is not without new questions for our profession of spatial planning.
decade starts in 2020 with intensified talks about environmental change, climate
change and a global crisis. These challenges do not only excel the global
dimension of human activity. They also exhibit the emergence and growth of
strong social movements like ‘Fridays for Future’, ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and
This decade starts after much turbulence towards the end of the last one. Which roles should planners develop and take in a world of change, populism, ecological crisis, social polarization and a feeling of uncertainty? In my view, there are clear signs of hope: much protests and conflicts circle around our responsibility and the need to change our goals, our thoughts, our actions – and thereby our roles – as planners. The challenge is not to adjust some instruments or to find better ways of communication. The necessities go deeper, are more demanding and harder to imagine.
My own work has developed around the theme of roles in planning. From using roles to describe statutory planning processes working through uncertainty in my PhD in 2016 to analyzing leadership roles in local land-use planning and changing roles of planners in transformation in 2019 (see publications). This coincides with growing discussions on prospects beyond growth in planning (post-growth planning, see also www.postgrowthplanning.com). To add, there is another concern that can connect or destroy our joint efforts: the digital transformation of society, economy and planning. Some of this was seen as counter-force to growth-oriented strategies, but the sharing economy and large tech giants have developed in diverse directions. In the same vein as the traditional economy, digital is not better or worse. Planners are yet puzzled how to best deal with platforms for short-term rental services, e-scooters, ride sharing and alike as well as how to integrate augmented and virtual realities and digital social media channels of communication into their daily work.
This means planners are even more in need of strong roles to explore, to navigate and to lead the transformation in a digital world that loosens or loses its orientation towards growth. How do we (as planners) navigate and lead this transformation? How do we develop our roles as explorer, motivator and inspirator for collective action? The new decade starts with a strong ‘turn to action’ in planning discourse and needs much effort to update planning to today’s needs and to ensure that we all use our tools to collectively design spaces we desire.
A new decade – what opportunity could be better for a fresh re-start of thoughts and actions? My best wishes to everyone who reads this for a decade that can (and hopefully will) entail the change we all make together.
Der Abschluss meiner Dissertation an der TU Dortmund ist schon fast drei Jahre her. Seit wenigen Tagen ist die Arbeit ” Unsicherheit und Komplexität in Planungsprozessen: Planungstheoretische Perspektiven auf Regionalplanung und Klimaanpassung” jetzt auch digital als PDF verfügbar. Text und Seitenzahlen stimmen mit der Veröffentlichung im Rohn-Verlag aus Oktober 2016 überein (ISBN: 978-3-946319-07-8).
My PhD Thesis (book pubslished in late 2016) from TU Dortmund University is now available as PDF in its full text version. Translated title: “Uncertainty and Complexity in Planning Processes: Theoretical Perspectives on Regional Planning and Climate Adaptation”.