Small scale planning discourse platform and process – Draft (‘Planning Discourse Support System’ PDSS)

I n t r o d u c t i o n

The crises and challenges facing humanity are increasingly global in scope and nature. They call for planning and policy decisions based on wide (ultimately global) participation, aiming at better understanding of the problems by all participants, best available information and evidence, and due consideration of the concerns of all parties affected by the problems and proposed solutions.

To my knowledge, there is currently no platform available that exhibits all requirements and functions of such a global platform. The following suggestions for an experimental, small scale planning discourse framework are seen as a bare-bones ‘pilot’ project for the development of such a ‘global’ (large scale) platform and process, using the provisions of current social network platforms such as Facebook. The hope is to start a discussion clarifying needed provisions and agreements for the design of the global platform, using a discussion of the setup and procedural rules of its own discussion as a vehicle. The experiences of this experiment will then guide the design of the global platform.

Overview of the Process – Main steps / phases of planning projects:

The diagram shows a rough overview of the main phases or tasks of a planning project discourse, as a framework for discussion of the needed provisions for the platform and discourse at each stage:

Project Initiation Any planning project, by an individual or a collective, is initiated in some form, leading to a discussion or discourse. The initiating move can be a ‘problem’, a proposal for a ‘solution’ (a ‘plan’) or just a question;

Discussion The discussion – contribution of information, data, exchanges of opinion, is seen as consisting of several main tasks, which may or may not be addressed in an orderly sequence;

Problem /situation ’Problem definition’, description and
Exploration, understanding of the situation, its
Understanding ‘givens’ (‘data’) and the relationships among the variables, forces, and entities involved;

Response ideas, Exploration of ideas, possible means of
Solution changing the ‘problem’ situation into a
Development desired state; solution proposals and their descriptions and refinement;

Assessment Intertwined with the other discussion
Evaluation aspects will be the examination of the
Judgment merit of contributions, the expected performance of proposed solutions

“Next step?’ The discussion will be interrupted (or ended) by calls for a decision, for returning to a previous step, for more information, f or changing a proposed plan, or dropping it;

Decision The discourse will reach a preliminary or final conclusion: a decision or recommendation to adopt or reject a plan or agreement.

Implementation, monitoring, maintenance and the need for repairs and modification are seen as extensions of the discourse, to be studied later. Aspects of these tasks may be considered in the discussion of the platform design, but the aim and focus of the current discussion at this stage is the design of the discourse platform aiming at a decision about its configuration.

The main assumptions guiding the project are the following:
Human societies are (and will be) faced with conflicts, challenges and problems for which traditional and current tools, methods and responses are no longer adequate.

Responses by societies (or parts of societies) that are not acceptable to other parts or societies will lead to conflicts

The human tradition of ‘resolving’ conflicts by force – violence, wars, coercion, or deception, — will lead to more conflicts. Given the destructive potential and long duration of the damage inflicted by today’s weapons, wars and coercion is seen as increasingly counterproductive and endangering the well-being and survival not only of the ‘losers’ of such conflicts but also that of the ‘victors’ as well as other societies – indeed, the survival of human civilization on the planet.

The ‘economies’ of human societies have relied on techniques and resource exploitation that have already led to the extinction of many other living species, endangered many more; and caused significant ecological damage. Thus, new approaches are urgently needed. They must be coordinated globally to avoid counterproductive results and more conflicts.

While scientific research and technological development have created information and tools of unprecedented quantity and quality, this knowledge is not adequately brought to bear on planning problem-solving processes. It is not contributing to development of constructive and sustainable solutions by being embedded into a planning discourse aiming at decisions reliably based on adequate understanding of the problems, on valid information and on the aims and concerns of affected parties.

To the extent meaningful discourse takes place for these challenges, current decision-making tools and methods do not guarantee that decisions are based on the merit of discussion contributions, and arguably encourage the dismissals of valid concerns of large groups by ostensibly ‘democratic’ methods such as majority voting.

The proposal aims at eventually developing a better planning discourse support system to deal with these challenges.

Current technology, methods and tools for a fully functional PDSS system are not yet available; the proposed development of a small-scale ‘pilot’ system aims at facilitating its development by means of experiments using currently available tools.

While the internet, current communication and social media technology might be expected to offer adequate resources for the needed planning discourse platform, there are significant shortcomings in current practice that call for improvement and innovation.

Examples of problems that the proposed platform tries to address:

– Discourse too often facilitated by partisan interests

– Poorly organized discourse:
– Disorganized
– ‘Debates’ focus on election of candidates not on merit of plans
– Discussions on ‘social media’ favor ‘conversation’ not conclusions, decisions – just airing ‘opinions’

– Powerful partisan institutions constrain discourse:
– By controlling media
– By controlling ‘narrative’
– By controlling ‘perspective’
– Decisions ignoring discourse

– Public participation
– Constrained by ‘voter apathy’; (a sense that participation won’t make much difference
– Insufficient incentive (not worth the effort);
Effort of participation too high
– Disciplinary ‘expert’ jargon
– Core of information drowned in repetitious comments (overload)

– Lack of adequate overview
– Of all concerns and factors (complexity)
– Of relationships between topics, issues,
forces and variables

– Confusing multitude of ‘new’ approaches, techniques
– Offered as overall framework for discourse but mostly focusing on single aspects of overall planning process

– Lack of measures of quality / merit of discourse contributions
– Even ‘fact-checking’ does not cover all claims

– Inadequate connection between discourse merit and decisions

– Decision modes allowing disregard of discussion merit
– Voting overrides minority concerns
– ‘Leadership’ authority to decide

– Inadequate provisions to ensure adherence to agreements / decisions.

T h e   p r o p o s e d    ‘p i l o t’   p l a t f o r m

Responses to a first proposal for such a framework on the Facebook page ‘Ecology of Systems Thinking’ (EoST) suggested some simplifications. A first suggestion was to keep the effort within the EoST group instead of starting a new group, though this would generate fewer options for the hierarchy of sub-threads of different discussion topics. This option remains open for discussion: the description below assumes a separate group for each new ‘project.

For this basic version, no provisions for contribution ‘reward’ credits are made, and ‘decisions’ will be determined by the number of ‘likes’ and negative emojis for an issue position. Nor are provisions for systematic evaluation of planning arguments included in the main process, since the FB platform does not facilitate the needed formatting. Options for these provision swill be offered as ‘special techniques.

 

A key assumption is that participants in the project discussions will be committed to reach a ‘decision’ (a recommendation, or an agreement for further coordinated work, at least a ‘resolution’ about a controversial issue). This will generate structural requirements that prevent the discourse from degenerating into the kind of interesting but rambling, poorly coordinated conversation we see on social networks even for significant issues.

The structure of the resulting revised framework will be as follows:

1 A new Group (or EoST subgroup) will be started for selected planning projects. The first project will be the discussion, refinement and testing of its own planning discourse provisions and procedures, building on the following proposal.

2 The project’s starting thread will provide a brief introduction and aim of the project. A listing of achieved ‘decisions’ for each raised issue will be added here as the discussion proceeds and yields decisions. Several ‘standard’ threads will then be started:

A ‘Procedural agreements’ thread.
These agreements outline the procedural steps and decision ‘rules’ governing the process. Participants are assumed to agree with these provisions by entering to the discussion. A ‘standard’ set of agreements can be adjusted to the requirements of each project, and can be changed later if needed. (> ‘Next step’ below)

A ‘General Comments’ thread
Participants will begin to raise questions, make suggestions, seek clarification etc. There will be no special format requirements other than general ‘netiquette’ and expected relevance to the project.

A thread for ‘candidate issues’, ‘raised issues’ and overview maps
Drawing from the material in the ‘General comments’, moderator or participants enter suggested topics or issues for detailed discussion. Simple overview maps listing the topics or issues, distinguishing ‘candidate issues and ‘raised issues’ aim to inform members of the state of the discourse. ‘Raised issues’ are questions for which members are starting a separate thread discussion. (>> #3 below).

A ‘Reference and links’ thread
Many posts and comments include links to other sources, pages, and literature. These will stay with the original post but be assembled in one comprehensive list for easy reference and to avoidi repetition.

3 Each ‘raised issue’ will receive a separate thread; participants will then begin discussion of that specific issue in that thread.
Posts should focus on the subject of the thread and avoid ‘off-topic’ comments. Comments introducing new topics should be posted in the ‘general comments’ thread.

4 ‘Next Step?’ call or motion. Within each thread, at any time, or when the discussion about an issue appears to converge or dries up, a ‘Next step?’ motion can be entered, to proceed to one of the following steps:
– Decision; (see next item 5)
– Entering a ‘special techniques’ process; (>> Special techniques examples, Appendix)
– Request for special information (research);
– Further discussion;
– Changing procedural agreements (e.g. decision criteria / voting majorities);
– Ending discussion without further steps or decision (‘dropping the issue’).
The ‘next step’ motion should specify the next step called for.
Each of these steps may have to be decided based on different rules (e.g. ‘like’ ratios) as specified in the procedural agreements.

After completing the requested steps (except ‘decision’ and ‘stop’) the process will return to the ‘Next step’ phase.

5 Decision. Within each thread or for the main project, ‘next step’ calls for a ‘decision or agreement should spell out the proposition or plan feature to be ‘voted’ upon.
While the aim of the entire effort is to eventually develop better decision procedures that will forge a closer link between the merit of contributions and the decision, the proposals for such procedures require platform features that are not yet available on social network platforms. Thus, the procedure agreements draft below only provides steps that merely ‘nudge’ a discussion group to make decisions after careful consideration of all concerns entered, (for example by presenting core concerns in concise but comprehensive overview diagrams. The decisions would then be made by conventional means such as majority-rule means, using features such as the FB ’like’ or emoji tools. Examples include agreed-upon ratios between the number of ‘likes’ and the total number of participants in a given process. Each project group is encouraged to craft its own rules – innovative or traditional – about how it will reach agreements.
Decision results will be entered in the main project overview thread, gradually building up a summary of the discussion’s outcome.

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A p p e n d i x

A1 Procedural agreements (draft)

These procedural agreements are written for projects using the Facebook platform as a familiar example, using FB provisions, simply because the first discussions were carried out on FB. Such discourses can of course be conducted on other platforms; the agreements would then have to be adapted as necessary given the provisions and constraints of the respective platform.
It should be kept in mind that the proposed platform aims at facilitating problem-solving, planning, design, policy-making discussions that are expected to result in some form of decision or recommendation to adopt plans for action, rather than mere conversation, however insightful and enlightening those may be.

Project groups.
For each planning or problem-solving ‘Project’, a separate FB group with the respective title will be started by its moderator.

Group members
Participants or ‘group members’ are assumed to have read and agreed to these provisions.

Discussion
Project discussion can be ‘started’ with a Problem Statement, a Plan Proposal, or a general question or issue. The project will be briefly described in the first thread. Another thread labeled ‘Project (or issue)… General comments’ will then be set up, for comment on the topic or issue with questions of explanation clarification, re-phrasing, answers, arguments and suggestions for decisions. Links or references should be accompanied by a brief statement of the answer or argument made or supported by the reference.

Candidate Issues
Participants and moderator can suggest candidate topics or issues (potentially controversial questions about which divergent positions and opinions exist or are expected, that should be clarified or settled before a decision is made). These will be listed in a thread of Candidate and Raised Issues. There, participants can enter ‘Likes’ to indicate whether they consider it necessary to ‘raise’ the issue for a detailed discussion. Likely issue candidates are questions about which members have posted significantly different positions in the ‘General comments’ thread; such that the nature of the eventual plan would significantly change depending on which positions are adopted.

‘Raised’ issues
Issue candidates supported by at least __ % of the number of registered ‘member’ participants become Raised issues; highlighted as such in the thread. Each ‘raised’ issue will then become the subject of a separate thread, where participants post comments (answers, arguments, questions) to that issue.

It will be helpful to clearly identify the type of issue or question, so that posts can be clearly stated (and eventually evaluated) as answers or arguments: for example:
– Explanations, definitions, meaning and details of concepts to ‘Explanatory questions’;
– Statements of ‘facts’ (data, answers, relationship claims) to Factual questions;
– Suggestions for (cause-effect or means to ends) relationships, to Instrumental questions;
– Arguments to deontic (ought-) questions or claims such as ‘Plan A should be adopted’, for example: ‘Yes, because A will bring about B given conditions C , B ought to be pursued, and conditions C are present’).

‘Next step’ motion
Participants and moderator can request a ‘Next Step?’ interruption of the discussion, for example when the flow of comments seems to have dried up and a decision or a more systematic treatment of analysis or evaluation is called for. The ‘Next step’ call should specify the type of next step requested. It will be decided by getting a minimum number of __ % ‘likes’ of the total number of participants. A ‘failed’ next step motion will automatically activate the motion of continuing the discussion. Failing that motion or subsequent lack of new post will end discussion of that issue.

Decisions
Decisions (to adopt or reject a plan or proposition) are ‘settled’ by a minimum of __% of the total number of participants. The outcome of decisions of ‘next step?’ motions will be recorded in the Introduction thread as Results, whether they lead to an adoption, modification, rejection of the proposed measure or not.

 

‘Special techniques’
In the main ‘basic’ version of the s∏ process, no special analysis, solution development, or evaluation procedures are provided, mainly because the FB platform does not easily accommodate the formatting needed. The goal of preparing decisions or recommendations may make it necessary to include such tools – especially more systematic evaluation –than just reviewing pro and con arguments. If such techniques are called for in a ‘Next step?’ motion, special technique teams must be formed to carry out the work involved and report the result back to the group, followed by a ‘next step’ consideration. A few examples of such tools are described in the following Appendix 2.

A2 Special techniques and procedures’ – Examples

While the proposal is acknowledged to be based on a view of planning as an ‘argumentative’ process, the platform itself will have to be as ‘perspective-neutral’ as possible. This means that structural or procedural provisions of the platform should not prevent members from introducing different perspectives, paradigms, approaches, into the discourse but facilitate such efforts. Even the creation of new ways of approaching a problem situation can be an integral part of an individual or group’s response: the approach becomes an integral part of the final ‘solution’ and defines ‘who we are’ as part of the emerging situation.
The introduction of other perspectives will always occur through communication – Discourse – which therefore is the most open ‘perspective’ we can think of that can accommodate all other vocabularies.

The ‘Special techniques’ component of the platform can be seen as a ‘tool kit’ of techniques and perspectives that can be introduced into a planning process, but which require format provisions not accommodated by the Facebook platform. The following examples are just that, examples of techniques or procedures that require slightly different, more structured work and output patterns than the sequence of posts in the discourse thread.

Examples of techniques or services that cannot easily be done in regular thread discussion format include:

+ Information and data-gathering searches and experiments, including AI-based data analysis programs;
+ Idea-generating small group techniques such as brainstorming and related approaches;
+ ‘Pattern Language’ and related approaches;
+ ‘Counterplanning’ (Churchman) approaches;
+ Evaluation techniques such as
– The systematic assessment of planning arguments; (>>A3)
– Formal evaluation procedures to evaluate solution alternatives;
– ‘Benefit-Cost Analysis’ and related approaches;
– Examination of proposed plans for compliance with rules, regulations, ‘best practice’ principles;
+ Problem explorations and analysis techniques such as
– Root cause analysis;
– ‘Systematic Doubt’ analysis of a problem’s necessary conditions and contributing factors;
– Systems modeling techniques of various kinds;
+ Participation Incentive provisions (‘Contribution credits’ modified by merit assessment;
(e.g. based on plausibility or argument weight measures derived from argument assessment)

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A3 Evaluation of planning arguments

If the group decides (upon a ‘next step’ move) to perform a systematic evaluation of the pro and con arguments about an issue or a plan proposal, two worksheets will be prepared:
a) A listing of all the deontic claims (goals, objectives, concerns) referred to in all the arguments offered about the issue in which all arguments are listed; and
b) An argument assessment worksheet listing all arguments with all their premises stated explicitly (including premises that were left instated as ‘taken for granted’ in the original post).

Each participant will first assign weight of relative importance w to the goals in sheet (a), on a scale 0 to +1 such that all weight add up to 1.

These weights will then be entered in sheets (b) for the respective deontic premises. All premises will then be given a plausibility score pl, on a scale -1 (totally implausible) to +1 (totally plausible, virtually crtain) with centerpoint 0 meaning ‘don’t know, can’t decide’ to all premises.

From these judgments, argument plausibility scores argpl (product of all pl scores), argument weights argw (argpl times w of the respective deontic premise) and Plan plausibility Plpl (sum of all argw) will be calculated. These scores are all individual judgments. Statistics of judgments across the group of evaluators (Mean scores, maximum and minimum scores, range, variance) can be derived for analysis and discussion.
The results will be reported and explained back to the group, for another ‘next step?’ decision. How the results will be used in the decision process is a matter to be agreed upon by the group and set down in the procedural agreements ahead of running the evaluation.

A4 Discourse contribution points
The feature of awarding discourse contribution points to participants in the pilot version of the platform discourse is up for discussion. It would be desirable for various reasons, but is not yet supported by the standard provisions of the FB platform. It would therefore have to be done outside of the regular discussion platform as a ‘special techniques’ task. The basic steps involved are the following:

1 Participants in the discussion receive a ‘basic’ contribution credit point for every contribution. This is an ‘empty’ point at first; signifying that the participant has made a contribution; but the point will become an actual ‘reward’ if the content of the post is the ‘first’ to the discussion. Repetitions (posts conveying essentially the same content) will not receive awards. (This encourages not only participation itself, but also speedy contributions).
2 Either by means of other / all participants assigning ‘plausibility’ judgments (on the scale of -1 to +1) to each contribution point, or by applying the plausibility values assigned to arguments / argument premises in the course of systematic argument assessment (see A3) the reward points will be modified by multiplying them with the mean group plausibility values. (This will discourage unsupported and flawed contributions).
3 Participants will build up an ‘account’ of contribution merit points – its total value will represent a ‘reputation’ score based on the group’s assessment of the merit of a participant’s contributions.

The contribution merit accounts should become a fungible ‘currency’ used for a variety of possible purposes, but this is beyond the scope of the experimental discussions on the ‘basic’ pilot platform, where those possibilities might merely be explored in detail and discussed.

Process of contribution credit use

The feature of rewarding discourse participants with ‘contribution credits’ can take different forms, depending on the range of uses and the main priorities aimed at:
– providing incentives for speedy participation, reducing redundancy: a minimal version;
– increasing depth of consideration by adding plausibility assessment to items contributed;
– strengthening the connection between evaluated merit of contributions and final decisions.
The initial assignment of a reward marker or ‘container’ for reward is necessary for all subsequent features.

Steps:

1 The first time a participant posts a comment (e.g. a argument) to the discussion, a ‘contribution credit account is established. Subsequently, the participant is assigned a ‘neutral’ credit point for each substantial content claim of a post IF that claim is ‘new’, meaning that it (or an essentially identical but differently worded claim) has not already been entered by another participant. (Claims or proposals posted after another post has been entered but not yet displayed for other participants to see may receive partial credit.)
2 The contribution will be entered into a ‘formatted’ display such as an argument assessment worksheet, for evaluation by the entire group of participants. For arguments, each participant will assign a ‘plausibility’ score pl – on a scale from -1 (totally implausible) to +1 (totally plausible) with the midpoint ‘zero’ meaning ‘don’t know’, ‘can’t judge’, to all premises of all arguments. Deontic (ought-) claims will also be given a ‘weight of relative importance’ judgment w, on a scale from zero to +1 such that the sum of weights of all deontics equals +1. Other contributions – e.g. plan proposals, or proposals for details of plans, are just given plausibility scores.
3 A statistical value of all these (e.g. mean value) of these assessments will be used to modify the initial credit point (e.g. by multiplying the latter with the plausibility average.
4 The statistical analysis (e.g. range of scores, or variance) may reveal considerable differences of opinion about the item, in which case more discussion, more research or information search may be called for. Step 3 may then be repeated if, for example, an initial plausibility score is revised after the author has presented further evidence in its favor, or another comment has shown it to be incorrect or implausible. The ‘final’ adjusted value is added to the author’s credit account.
5 One possible use of the resulting credit account may be its use as a complement to standard voting. If the size of the credit account can be seen as a measure of the merit of a participant’s contribution, the participant’s vote might be ‘weighted’ according to the size of the account. The result would be an indication of the impact of valuable information on the decision, giving more of a ‘say’ to participants who have demonstrated not only participation but having provided valuable information (in the view of all participants).
6 The credit account can become an added criterion for the appointment of candidates for offices whose holders will have to make decisions that cannot be validated by lengthy discussions.
7 A potential tool for helping to prevent such office holders from falling victim to the temptations of power might be to require that each ‘power decision’ must be ‘paid’ for with an appropriate amount of credit points. When an officer’s credit account is exhausted, that person will have no more ‘power’ to make important decisions – unless other citizens transfer credit points from their accounts, a step that will also make those supporters ‘accountable’ for the decisions, to the extent of their own contributions.

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CRA Again

The curious news surrounding the CRA related agencies of the City prompt us to review a lament by Abbé Boulah from almost a decade ago, presented to the revered public among other strange tales in the book ‘Abbe´ Boulah!’ (XLibris 2009) which the revered public as the respective agencies have lamentably ignored, (just like similar reminders of unsavory real-estate goings-on in our City earlier on — actually last millennium — that were laid out, somewhat disguised in befogged discussions about architecture, building economics, planning discourse and other fascinating ruminations in a more recent book ‘Rigatopia’ – Lambert Academic Publishing 2015). Here is the premonition-laden text of the CRA chapter in ‘Abbé Boulah!:

“CRA Sticking in Abbé Boulah’s CRAw”

(From a letter by Abbé Boulah to his friend, a learned consultant on municipal government)

… By the whiskers of Holy Apostrophoulos of Kalambaka! Enlighten me on this latest conundrumous invention of the government of the City of Our Stuckness.

What elicits this degree of raging curiosity — or curious rage — about the intricacies of city governance, you ask? Today, it is the phenomenon of CRA, a device that seems uniquely suited to generate confusion in the minds of citizens. Why, isn’t it enough that those acrimonious acronyms which stick in my CRAw refer both to an agency (the Community Redevelopment Agency) AND the area (Community Redevelopment Area) designated by that agency for its selective and devious financial machinations? Wise knowleati tell me that those machinations are an instance of TIF — tax increment financing — which involve a commitment to set aside the taxes that accrue on the increase of property values as a result of the beneficial planning the CRAgency intends to unleash on the designated CRArea, to be spent solely on further infrastructure improvements in that specific area, so that it will prosper and become attractive and thereby benefit the entire community.

Sounds good, you say? I will agree that everybody should be interested in furthering the welfare and prosperity of all sectors of our town, and especially the downtown area. I do love wandering around in lively and mysterious cities, savoring their sights and smells and temptations of all senses. And I do lament, in my most high-pitched wailing voice, the way American cities seem to engage in an competition to eradicate those temptations from the walkable cityscape.

But today, dear friend and connoisseur of magistrative secrets, tell me this: Does the City not have as its main purpose to collect taxes to provide services and improvements for its residents in all its neighborhoods? And the County as well? So is the City in its entirety not a kind of CRA(rea) by definition? And the respective Government a CRA(gency)? And the same for the County?

Now, there seem to be areas in the City with problems that warrant special attention. Correct my naive ignorance: does this not strongly suggest either that those areas have been neglected (by comparison with other, better off areas) or that such special attention intends to bestow above-average benefits on those designated areas? In brief: that the government has been negligent in its duty to fairly distribute its resources, so that some areas are falling behind whatever expectations might be appropriate? Or intends to commit unfairness by future uneven distribution of resources?

While waiting expectantly for satisfactory answers to this question, there arises another in my curioucynical mind: Ready to praise and applaud the government for its insight that something has not gone right, we are stopped short, confounded and baffled by the measures taken with these CRA’s. Do the city, as well as the county governments, not have several departments toiling away on their charges to manage growth, to plan, to enhance economic development, to enforce its regulations, to attract new enterprises and financial investment here? Do we not have a Downtown Improvement Agency striving for the same admirable goals? Does the Chamber of Commerce not have committees racking their brains about the same conundrums? Did we not have blue-ribbon and zerostudded (1) volunteer citizens task forces attempting to provide our illustrious governments with guidance about all these issues?

So why do the venerable City Deadbeat Dads (Holy Chinchindra of Calcutta, forgive me for these unkind thoughts that intrude upon my inquiry) come up with this scheme of yet another agency to deal with these problems? Another agency, to be staffed and founded, housed and supplied with printer ink, toiling away making surveys one would have thought would fall under the regular monitoring duties of one or the other of the existing departments, making plans that either agree with or differ from the plans made by other agencies, which either way then have to be checked, negotiated and coordinated with all those other folks?

Why cannot the simple commitment to spend the tax money fairly and wisely on all areas of this great Town and County be achieved with a simple policy change and declaration by the governments involved — or with a statement of constitutional analysis that this is after all the basic charge of the government in the first place? Would this require too much in the way of admitting past misdeeds? We are not even asking for contrition, by all the scarecrows of Vladivostok!

Or could it be, Heaven forbid, that they are ever so slyly conceding the UNthinkable notion that such a policy declaration can’t be trusted to be adhered to in the long run? That in fact, policy statements by government aren’t worth the papyrus they are printed on, unless they come complete with fully funded new agencies and trust funds to guarantee the orderly distribution of monies? There are, to be sure, other questions besides these, that rob me of my deserved slumber. It may be too paranoid to spell them out, but some do require clarification. For example, why is nobody even conceiving of the possibility that citizens residing just outside the gerrymanderingly drawn borders of the CRA(reas) might begin harboring suspicions and concerns? To the effect, for example, that they will be comparatively less well-served by the combined efforts of governmental agencies? that they are at the mercy of the very agencies whose work has led to the deficiencies inside the CRA’s, instead of now becoming the beneficiaries of the superior wisdom, attention and benevolence of the surely infinitely more highly qualified CRAgents?

I shall not even entertain the mischievous and Danaherous (2) notion that some may be as suspicious of the competence of the CRAgents as they have by now been led (by the nose) to be of the existing agencies. What is the guarantee that there might not be areas within the respective CRA’s that might be as comparatively neglected or unfairly bestowed with preferential treatment, as the entire CRA has been in the city as a whole? I have heard the argument that the CRA is needed to instill confidence in potential investors and business leaders we’d like to attract: confidence they are now lacking? confidence that they will make a decent profit on their investment. Do we really want to attract investors who fall for this kind of tomfoolery? Unless the term ‘confidence’ be associated with ‘scheme’…

My head, dear friend, is spinning with those questions. And what makes me most suspicious is that I have not been able to pull up and read the full information the City has claimed to have posted on the CRA, on its website, and that the ‘citizen comment’ section there has a mere three brief, enthusiastic testimonials that contain no real argument or information, just pollyannic praise, posted by members of the very agency itself.

Yours in exasperation
Abbé Boulahghpfght (with a silent ghpfght).

Notes:
1) The reference is to a task force called Blueprint 2000, an entity once looking boldly forward in developing plans and priorities for big infrastructure projects around the city — but not, it turns out, looking far enough into the
future and thus inadvertently condemning itself to instant obsolescence as soon as the millennium was reached. Quite apart from the fact that blueprints themselves have been a thing of ancient history for decades…)

2) This word-butchering creation refers to the late Eugene Danaher, a self-appointed Government Watchdog who has made a considerable nuisance of himself by habitually and heroically asking such uncomfortable questions; it will never be known how much mischief he has prevented doing this. (At the time of the CRAcreation he was still around; may he rest in peace in a realm where his meritorious efforts are no longer needed).

*****


A paradoxical effect of thorough examination of planning pros and cons

In the Fog Island Tavern:

– Bog-Hubert, I hear you had a big argument you had in here with Professor Balthus last night? Sounds like I missed a lot of fun?
– Well, Sophie, I’m not sure it was all fun; at least the good prof seemed quite put out about it.
– Oh? Did you actually admit you haven’t read his latest fat book yet?
– No. Well, uh, I haven’t read the book yet. And he knows it. But it actually was about one of Abbé Boulah’s pet peeves, or should i say his buddy’s curious findings, that got him all upset.
– Come on, do tell. What about those could upset the professor — I thought he was generally in favor of the weird theories of Abbe Boulah’s buddy?
– Yes — but it seems he had gotten some hopes up about some of their possibilities — mistakenly, as I foolishly started to point out to him. He thought that the recommendations about planning discourse and argument evaluation they keep talking about might help collective decision-making achieve more confidence and certainty about the issues they have to resolve, the plans they have to adopt or reject.
– Well, isn’t that what they are trying to do?
– Sure — at least that was what the research started out to do, from what I know. But they ran into a kind of paradoxical effect: It looks like the more carefully you try to evaluate the pros and cons about a proposed plan, the less sure you end up being about the decision you have to make. Not at all the more certain.
– Huh. That doesn’t sound right. And the professor didn’t straighten you out on that?
– I don’t think so. Funny thing: I started out agreeing that he must be right: Don’t we all expect decision-makers to carefully examine all those pros and cons, how people feel about a proposed plan, until they become confident enough — and can explain that to everybody else — that the decision is the right one? But when I began to explain Abbé Boulah’s concern — as he had mentioned it to me some time ago — I became more convinced that there’s something wrong with that happy expectation. And that is what Abbé Boulah’s research seems to have found out.
– You are speaking strangely here: on examination, you became more convinced that the more we examine the pros and cons, the less convinced we will get? Can you have it both ways?
– Yeah, it’s strange. Somebody should do some research on that — but then again, if it’s right, will the research come up with anything to convince us?
– I wish you’d explain that to me. I’ll buy you a glass of Zinfandel…
– Okay, maybe I need to rethink the whole thing again myself. Well, let me try: Somebody has proposed a plan of action, call it A, to remedy some problem or improve some condition. Or just to do something. Make a difference. So now you try to decide whether you’d support that plan, or if you were king, whether you’d go ahead with it. What do you do?
– Well, as you said: get everybody to tell you what they see as the advantages and disadvantages of the plan. The pros and cons.
– Right. Good start. And now you have to examine and ‘weigh’ them, carefully, like your glorious leaders always promise. You know how to do that? Other than to toss a coin?
– Hmm. I never heard anybody explain how that’s done. Have to think about it.
– Well, that’s what Abbé Boulah’s buddy had looked at and developed a story about how it could be done more thoroughly. He looked at the kinds of arguments people make, and found the general pattern of what he calls he ‘standard planning argument’.
– I’ve read some logic books back in school, never heard about that one.
– That’s because logic never did look at and identified let alone studied those. Not sure why, in all the years since ol’ Aristotle…
– What do they look like?
– You’ve used them all your life, just like you’ve spoken prose all your life and didn’t know it. The basic pattern is something like this: Say you want to argue for a proposed plan A: You start with the ‘conclusion’ or proposal:
“Yes, let’s implement plan A
because
1. Plan A will result in outcome B — given some conditions C;
and we assume that
2. Conditions C will be present;
and
3. We ought to aim for outcome B.”
– It sounds a little more elaborate than…
– Than what you probably are used to? Yes, because you usually don’t bother to state the premises you think people already accept so you ‘take them for granted’.
– Okay, I understand and take it for granted. And that argument is a ‘pro’ one; I assume that a ‘con’ argument is basically using the same pattern but with the conclusion and some premises negated. So?
– What you want to find out is whether the decision ‘Do A’ is plausible. Or better: whether or to what extent it is more plausible than not to do A. And you are looking at the arguments pro and con because you think that they will tell you which one is ‘more plausible’ than the other.
– Didn’t you guys talk about a slightly different recipe a while back — something about an adapted Poppa’s rule about refutation?
– Amazing: you remember that one? Well, almost: it was about adapting Sir Karl Raimund Popper’s philosophy of science principle to planning: that we are entitled to accept a scientific hypothesis as tentatively supported or ‘corroborated’ as they say in the science lab, to the extent we have done our very best to refute it, — show that it is NOT true, — and it has resisted all those attempts and tests. Since no supporting evidence’ can ever conclusively ‘prove’ the hypothesis but one true observation of the contrary can conclusively disprove it. It’s the hypothesis of that all swans are white — never proved by any number of white swans you see, but conclusively shot down by just one black swan.
– So how does it get adapted to planning? And why does it have to be adapted, not just adopted?
– Good question. In planning, your proposed plan ‘hypothesis’ isn’t true or false — just more or less plausible. So refutation doesn’t apply. But the attitude is basically the same. So Abbé Boulah’s buddy’s adapted rule says: “We can accept a plan proposal as tentatively supported only to the extent we have not only examined all the arguments in its favor, but more importantly, all the arguments against it — and all those ‘con’ arguments have been shown to be less plausible or outweighed by the ‘pro’ arguments.”
– Never heard that one before either, but it sounds right. But you keep saying ‘plausible’? Aren’t we looking for ‘truth’? For ‘correct’ or ‘false’?
– That’s what Abbé Boulah and his buddy are railing against — planning decisions just are not ‘correct’ or ‘false’, not ‘true’ or false. We are arguing about plans precisely because they aren’t ‘true’ or ‘false’ — yet. Nor ‘correct or ‘false’, like a math problem. Planning problems are ‘wicked problems’; the decisions are not right or wrong, they are ‘good or bad’. Or, to use a term that applies to all the premises: more or less plausible, which can be interpreted as true or false only for the rare ‘factual’ claims or premises, or more likely ‘probable’ for the factual-instrumental premises 1 and factual claims, premise 2, but as just plausible, or good or bad, for the ought claims, premise 3, and the ‘conclusion’.
– Okay, I go along with that. For now. It sounds… plausible?
– Ahh. Getting there, Sophie; good. It’s also a matter of degrees, like probability. If you want to express how ‘sure’ you are about the decision or about one of the premises, just the terms ‘plausible and ‘implausible’ are not expressing that degree at all. You need a scale with more judgments. One that goes from ‘totally plausible’ on one side to ‘totally implausible’ on the other, with some ‘more or less’ scores in-between. One with a midpoint of ‘don’t know, can’t decide’. For example, a scale from +1 to -1 with midpoint zero.
– Hmm, It’s a lot to swallow, all at once. But go on. I guess the next task is to make some of your ‘plausibility’ judgments about each of the premises, to see how the plausibility of the whole argument depends on those?
– Couldn’t have said it better myself. Now consider: if the argument as a whole is to be ‘totally plausible’ — with a plausibility value of +1 — wouldn’t that require that all the premise plausibility values also were +1?
– Okay…
– Well — and if one of those plausibility values turns out to be ‘less that ‘totally plausible, let’s say with a pl value of 0.9 — wouldn’t that reduce the overall argument plausibility?
– Stands to reason. And I guess you’ll say that if one of them had a negative value, the overall argument plausibility value would turn negative as well?
– Very good! If someone assigns a -.8 plausibility value to the premise 1 or 3, for example, in the above argument that is intended as a ‘pro’ argument, that argument would turn into a ‘con’ argument — for that person. So to express that as a mathematical function, you might say that the argument plausibility is equal to either the lowest of the premise plausibility values, or a product of all those values. (Let’s deal with the issue of what to do with cases of several negative plausibilities later on, to keep things simple. Also, some people might have questions about the overall ‘validity’ or plausibility of the entire argument pattern, and how it ‘fits’ the case at hand; so we might have to assign a pl-value to the whole pattern; but that doesn’t affect the issue of the paradox that much here.)
– So, Bog-Hubert, lets get back to where you left off. Now you have argument plausibility values; okay. Weren’t we talking about argument ‘weight’ somewhere? Weighing the arguments? Where does that come in?
– Good question! Okay — consider just two arguments, one ‘pro’ and one ‘con’. You may even assume that they both have good overall plausibilities, so that both have close to +1 (for the ‘pro’ argument) and -1 (for the ‘con’ argument). You might consider how important they are, by comparison, and thus how much of a ‘weight’ each should have towards the overall Plan plausibility. It’s the ‘ought’ premise — the goal or concern of the consequence of implementing the plan, that carries the weight. You decide which one is more important than the other, and give if a higher weight number.
– Something like ‘is it more important to get the benefit, the advantage of the plan, than to avoid the possible disadvantage?
– Right. And to express that difference in importance, you could use a scale from zero to +1, and a rule that all the weight numbers add up to +1. The ‘+1’ simply means that it carried the whole decision judgment.
– That’s a whole separate operation, isn’t it? and wouldn’t each person doing this come up with different weights? And, coming to think about it, different plausibility values?
– Yes: All those judgments are personal, subjective judgments. I know that many people will be quite disappointed by that — they want ‘objective’ measures of performance, about which there’s no quibbling. Sorry. But that’s a different issue, too — we’ll have to devote another evening and a good part of Vodçek’s Zinfandel supply for that one.
– Okay, so what you are saying is that, subjective or objective, we’re heading for the same paradox?
– Right again. First, let’s review the remaining steps in the assessments. We have the argument plausibility values — each person separately — and the weight or relative importance for each of the ‘ought premises. We can multiply the argument plausibility with the weight of the goal or concern in the ‘ought’ premise, and you have your argument weight. Adding them all up — remember that all the ‘con’ arguments will have negative plausibility values — will give you one measure of ‘plan plausibility’. You might then use that as a guide to making the decision — for example: to be adopted, a plan should have at least a positive pl-value, or at least a pl-value you’ve specified as a minimum threshold value for plan adoption.
– And that’s better than voting?
– I think so — but again, that’s a different issue too, also worth serious discussion. Depending on the problem and the institutional circumstances, decisions may have to be made by traditional means such as voting, or left to a ‘leader’ person in authority to make decisions. A plan-pl value would then just be a guide to the decision.
– So what’s the problem, the paradox?
– The problem is this: It turns out that the more arguments you consider in such a process, the more you examine each of the premises of the arguments (by applying the same method to the premises) and the more honest you are about your confidence in the plausibility of all the premises — they’re all about the future, remember, none can be determined to be 100% certain — the closer the overall pl-result will approach the midpoint ‘don’t know’ value, close to zero.
– That’s what the experiments and simulations of such evaluations show?
– Yes. You could see that already with our example above of just two arguments, equally plausible but one pro and the other con. If they also have the same weight, the plan plausibility would be zero, point blank. Not at all what the dear professor wanted to get from such a thorough analysis; very disappointing.
– Ahh. I see. Is he one of those management consultants who advise companies how to deal with difficult problems, and get the commissions by having to promise that his approaches will produce decisively convincing results?
– Oh Sophie — Let’s not go there…
– So the professor, he’s in denial about that?
– At least in a funk…
– Does he have any ideas about what to do about this? Or how to avoid it?
– Well, we agreed that the only remedy we could think of so far is to tweak the plan until it has fewer features that people will feel as ‘con’ arguments: until the plan -pl will at least be more visibly on the plus side of the scale.
– Makes you wonder whether in the old days, when people relied on auspices and ‘divine judgments’ to tip the scales, were having a wiser attitude about this.
– At least they were smart enough to give those tricks a sense of mystery and ritual — more impressive than just rolling dice — which some folks can see as a kind of prosaic, crude divine judgment?
– Hmm. If they made sure that all the concerns leading affected people to have concerns about a plan, what would be wrong with that?
– Other than that you’d have to load the dice — and worry about being found out? What’s the matter, Vodçek?
– You guys — I’ll have to cut you off…


Fog Island Tavern Spratly musings about what to be remembered for

> Hey Vodçek — are you starting a new trend in your famed Tavern — trying to revive the grand tradition of European Coffee houses a century ago, of providing daily newspapers for the customers to educate themselves on the evolution of the world’s affairs?
– Are you referring to the paper our esteemed professor Balthus is reading over there, Bog-Hubert? Sorry. He brought that over himself on his trip to the mainland yesterday. And it doesn’t seem to improve his mood, from the looks of it. So while I did think about your idea — not daily papers, but magazines like the New York Review of Books, out here people have the time to read those articles — I may have to rethink that. Even letting them bring in daily papers with bad news. Like the old rules ‘deliver your weapons and wet rain-gear at the reception desk’ Including Mullet Wrappers. Can’t have my customers get even more depressed than they are when they come in here for relief…
> Vodçek, Vodçek — you don’t even have a reception desk nor a maitre d’…
– A Tavern keeper can dream, can’t he? Well, I could have somebody carve a wooden one at the door, with nails to hang stuff on…?
> Can’t wait to see it. So do you have an idea what depressing news Professor Balthus is reading?
– Well, there seems to be a lot of it. He told me about one sad thing a while ago, sighing heavily — it wasn’t even news but an obituary.
> That can do it all right — a friend of his died?
– No, he didn’t even know the dearly departed.
> Are you worried about the fact that he’s down to reading the obits? We’re all getting there. Signs of a certain…maturity? But then again, the papers consists mostly of ever larger pictures these days, rather than news; so maybe there wasn’t much other news to read?
– Perhaps. It was the obituary relating, as the first remarkable item of his life, how the fellow had always been wearing his university baseball cap whenever he went outside. As a sign of his undying support of his alma mater, where he also worked for most of his life.
> Well, what’s wrong with that? Other than that your term ‘undying’ probably isn’t the best word here… Supporting a grand educational institution that enriches the knowledge and spirit of our young people, isn’t that a good thing?
– Now, Bog-Hubert my friend, how would you like to be remembered for the scruffy piece of headwear you use to cover up your bald spot, that you don’t even take off inside?
> Oooh, touché my substitute toupé. Sorry. Yes, perhaps you are right. Sailing off into that unknown night may be worrisome enough, especially if you don’t have much more to show for it than your cap to signal your dedication to something.
– Yes, something you can’t even claim credit for, any more that the touchdowns of your favorite football team…
> Makes you think all right. What would we want to be remembered for? Please, pour me a glass of that Sonoma Zin to think about it. Hallo, good evening, professor — Vodçek told me about that obituary you were reading in the Mullet Wrapper. Anything to help cheer you up after that depressing news? Join me in testing a glass of Zin?
o Hi Bog-Hubert, thanks. Zin, huh? Okay. In spite of the dubious alliterative associations. While we are talking about what we’d want to be remembered for?
– Well, not everybody can become famous leaders and statesmen or Nobel prize winners, eh?
> Like the great leaders who got famous by starting wars and having thousands of people killed? And then getting streets named after them? Statues in the squares? Even if some of those monuments are toppled if they lose the war, streets renamed for the general of the other army? There’s got to be a better way.
o Better way of what? Inventing an new and improved pesticide? Resolving conflicts between nations, quarrels that will be forgotten together with your name, precisely by virtue of having been resolved? Or being remembered for glorious victories?
> Putting it that way: if you were in a position to make war or peace, you’d want both? But it looks like that’s not as easy as it sounds.
o You are so right. But why is it that there seem to be more of those guys who are gambling on being the winning warmonger, than people who are successful avoiding the violent confrontations?
– More interesting boys toys? Aircraft carriers and MOABs and smart bombs and multi-million-dollar warplanes and the ultimate power gizmo: the red button for the start of the nuclear war?
> Coming to think about that — there may not be anybody around to remember even who won or lost that kind of altercation…
o Okay, so what would you do about the crises that keep coming up, that threaten to escalate into real wars? Or already have? Syria? North Korea? The Spratly issue?
* Spratly who?
o Haven’t read the paper, huh, Renfroe? No, right, it wasn’t in the paper, but in that book review magazine: the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Some small, barren islands, not much more than reefs, really, from what I hear. Where the Chinese are filling in sand and soil to make them larger and declaring them part of China, even though they are much closer to the Philippines.
> So what about that — if they are building up the islands so people can live there, what’s the crisis?
o   Well, it seems that they don’t do it just for people to build some family homes with a front and back yard. Looks like they think there’s oil underneath those islands. So the enlargements are for ports and oil rigs and airports — and for military bases to protect those.
> Wouldn’t that be a good thing too, have China a little less dependent on coal that’s now polluting the air there to the point where Beijingers have to walk around with breathing masks all the time?  That pollution is blown to other countries as well, and on the whole contributes to the weather issues that can’t be named in the US budget anymore?
– Would it be better if they’d build solar or wind power installations there, is that what you re saying? I mean, better than to replace one fossil fuel with another, that’s only a little less polluting than coal?
o Good point. But regardless what they are building there, there’s another implication that is worrying not only the countries around there but the whole international community depending on shipping.
–  Can you explain that? Ah — I think I see what you are talking about. Control of shipping lanes?
o  Excellent, Vodçek. Yes. If they ‘take possession’ of those islands, which they already claim they own, based on centuries-old records, by the way — with the customary waters extending so many miles from the shores around those islands, they will in effect control the entire South China Sea and its shipping lanes, as a kind of inland lake. Which will put them into a much more powerful position to dominate their neighbors around that sea — the Philippines, mainly, but also Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Borneo, Thailand etc. but any other nations who are using those shipping lanes for their trading and supplies.
– And make it more difficult and costly for the US, for example, to ‘protect’ the interests of those poor nations, with its aircraft carriers and battleships.
o Right. By the way, those other nations are claiming ownership of those islands, and building ports, bases, airports and the like out there, on different reefs and islands.
* Is there anything else on those islands? Do they even have drinkable water?
o   Just fish — and the possibility of oil and gas. Water? Not to my knowledge.
> Let them drink Zinfandel. But it sounds like a powder keg all right. Wasn’t there already some violent altercation some time ago, involving the Chinese and Vietnam? So what can be done about that? Is anything being done?
–   I think I heard about the Philippines complaining about that to the United Nations…
> Yeah, and with both small and big powers on the Security Council having blatantly ignored or failed to do anything about dozens if not hundreds of United Nations resolutions, are the Chinese going to pay any attention to that?
o Not likely. So our intrepid leader is sending our warships over there. For ‘exercises’.
> Really? That’s really asking for trouble, don’t you think?
* Why?
> Ah, Renfroe, that can’t be done indefinitely, can it? Not if you intend to keep your campaign promises of reducing the federal budget, eh? And is it going to ‘resolve’ the intentions of China just by sailing the carriers up and down the South China Sea, wasting money? Sooner or later, there’s going to be an ‘incident’. In response to which all the intrepid leaders involved will feel compelled to take ‘decisive action’ for which they will be remembered, remember? Which will become an expensive and bloody mess for everybody else.
– Hmm. So what would you do instead? Take over one of those islands, plant the flag there, claim it as the number fifty-something state, enlarge the size of it, and claim the shipping lanes?
> I can see building something like that one those reefs. Yeah! Collect all the garbage floating in the oceans and use it as part of the landfill. Even enlarge the existing islands with floating cities and land — fish farms, wind and wave and solar power generation, — that we can sell to the Philippines.
–   Or give the places to the Philippines outright, to manage and exploit.
>  You sly devil: you just want to make sure the Philippines will be on our side for any power struggles over there. Diplomacy, my scruffy headgear…
> Why not move the United Nations out there? Or the Eastern Hemisphere branch of it?
o   This kind of diplomacy-brainstorming is getting interesting. Next you’ll come up with a different version of that crazy idea of transforming the UN by declaring all the US states to be independent nations, with their own seats in the UN, thereby creating a very different balance of the voting balances in the UN General Assembly — wasn’t that on the platform of this weirdo who announced his run for president in the abandoned gas station in Sopchoppy? His one and only rally. Promising to dissolve the US as his first and only executive action before stepping down and out, thereby confusing all the US enemies who all of a sudden didn’t have their bedeviled enemy to cuss out anymore… Never heard about it? So now you want to create even more so-called nations to be our friends?
– Sure: just think about it: Get Abbé Boulah to sell the UN on starting many more Rigatopia-style communities out there — for refugees and as research prototypes for such settlements in many other places: experiments with alternative governance systems. Research stations, new International universities, conference centers… Ellmau and Davos are soo last millennium, eh…?
> And vacation destinations: Club South China Sea, or renamed after the glorious leader who’s going to do this. Rename the whole archipelago. Who was Spratly, anyway?
o   Some British captain who ‘discovered’ one of those islands in the 1800’s and lived to tell about it — the whole area is so treacherous for navigation that the mariners call it ‘Dangerous Grounds’, so earlier ships straying into it were not likely to get out. Now people can fly in and out; the main thing they are building is air strips. Renfroe, you seem to have an idea?
* Yeah, yeah: Gambling casinos to finance the whole thing…
> Ahh.  What’s the matter, Vodçek: you suddenly look — how do the Norwegians call it — so moolefoonk? You don’t like this?
– Sorry: I’m going to have to cut you guys off. Who’s going to come to this lowly Tavern anymore if somebody starts implementing your ideas…?


Some problems with the systematic assessment of planning arguments.

(Ref. e.g. the article ‘The Structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments’ (Informal Logic, Dec. 2010, also slightly revised, in Academia.edu).

In an effort to explore phenomena, identifying shortcomings and errors, that can be seen as arguments against the too ready acceptance of the argumentative model of planning, I ran into a well-intentioned article full of claims and arguments that did not fit the simple clean basic model of the planning argument, and would cause some problems in their analysis and plausibility assessment. Briefly, there are three aspects of concern.

The first is the liberal use of verbs denoting the relationship between concepts that — in the basic planning argument — would be seen as plan features that cause outcomes or consequences. Reminder: the argumentative view shares the focus on cause-effect relationships with much of the systems modeling perspective: the ‘loops’ of systems networks are generated by changes in components / variables causing positive or negative changes in other variables. So the relationship constituting the ‘factual-instrumental’ premise of planning arguments is mostly seen as a cause-effect relationship.

Now the survey of arguments in the article mentioned above (not identified to protect the author until proven guilty, and because the practice is actually quite common) hardly ever actually uses the terms ’cause’ and ‘effect’ or their equivalent in arguments that clearly advocate certain policies and actions. Instead, one finds terms such as ‘reflects’, ‘advance’ (an adaptive response); ‘reinforce’, ‘seeks to.. ‘, ‘codifies’, ‘is wired to..’. ‘erodes’, ‘come to terms with…’. ‘speaks to…’, ‘retreats into…’,’crystallizes…’, ‘promotes’. ‘cross-fertilizes…, ’embraces’, ‘ ‘cuts across’, ‘rooted in…’, ‘deeply embedded ‘, ‘leverages’,
‘co-create’ and ‘co-design’, ‘highlight ‘, ‘re-ignite’. (Once the extent of such claims was realized in that article that was trying to make a case for ‘disrupting’ the old system and its propaganda, it became clear that the article itself was heavily engaged in the art of propaganda… slightly saddening the reader who was initially tending towards sympathetic endorsement of that case…)

This wealth of relationship descriptions is apt to throw the blind faith promoter of the simple planning argument pattern into serious self-recrimination: What is the point of thorough analysis of these kinds of argument, if they never appear in their pristine form in actual discourse? (The basic ‘standard planning argument’ pattern is the following: “Proposed plan X ought to be adopted because X will produce consequence Y given conditions C), and consequence Y ought to be pursued, (and conditions C are or will be given.)” True, it was always pointed out that there were other kinds of relationships than ‘will produce’; or ’causes’, at work in that basic pattern: ‘part-whole’, for example, or ‘association’, ‘acting as catalyst’, ‘being identical’ or synonymous with’, for example. But those were never seen as serious obstacles to their evaluation by the proposed process of argument assessment, as the above examples appear to be. How can they be evaluated with the same blunt tool as the arguments with plain cause-effect premises?

Secondly, the problems they cause for assessment are exacerbated by the fact that often, these verbs are qualified with expressions like ‘probably’; ‘likely to’, ‘may be seen as’ and other means of retreating from complete certainty regarding the underlying claims. The effect of these qualification moves is that the entire claim ‘probably x’ or ‘x is likely to advance y’ can now be evaluated as a fully plausible claim, and given a pl-value of +1 (‘completely plausible, virtually certain’) by a listener — since the premise obviously, honestly, does not claim complete certainty. This obscures the actual underlying suggestion that ‘x (actually) will advance y’ is far from completely plausible, and thus will lend more plausibility and weight to the argument of which it is a premise.

A third problem is that, upon closer inspection, many of the relationship claims are not just honest, innocent expressions of factual or functional relationships between real entities or forces. They are often themselves ‘laden’ with deontic content — subjective expressions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’: ‘x threatens y’, or ‘relativizes’, or ‘manipulates’ are valuing relationship descriptions: judgments about ‘ought-aspects that the proposed method reserved for the clearly deontic premises of planning arguments: the purported outcomes or consequences of plans.

What are the implications of these considerations for the proposal of systematic argument assessment in the planning discourse? (Other than the necessary acknowledgement that this very comment is itself a piece of propaganda…)

Apart from the option of giving up on the entire enterprise and leaving the subjective judgments by discourse participants unexamined, one response would be to devise ways of ‘separating’ the qualifying terms from the basic claims in the evaluation work sheets given to participants. They would be asked to assess the probability or plausibility of the basic premise claim, perhaps using the qualifying statements as a ‘guide’ to their plausibility judgment (like any other supporting evidence). This seems possible with some additional refinement and simplification of the proposed process.

It is less clear how the value-contamination of relationship descriptors could be dealt with. Changing the representation of arguments to the condensed form of the basic ‘standard planning argument’ pattern is already a controversial suggestion requiring considerable ‘intelligent’ assessment of arguments’ ‘core’ from their ‘verbatim’ version, both to get it ‘right’ and to avoid turning it into a partisan interpretation. The ‘intelligent computation’ needed to add the suggested separation of value from relationship terms to the already severely manipulated argument representation will require some more research — but doing that may be asking too much?

And it is not clear how these considerations can help participants deal with insidious argument patterns such as the recent beauty alleging media coverup of terrorist incidents in Sweden, and then using the objection that there was no evidence of such an incident, as a ‘clinching’ argument for the coverup: ‘see how clever they are covering it up?’


Alexander, Churchman, Rittel: A Fog Island Tavern Conversation

– Good morning Bog-Hubert! You look a bit worried today — what’s the trouble? Need some coffee?

– Ah Vodçek, yes, thanks. Trouble? No, but I’m wondering about Abbé Boulah. Haven’t seen him for several days, — have you?

– He was in here briefly yesterday, mumbled something about a letter he’s working on — some question an acquaintance from the old days sent him, that he got all entangled in trying to answer.

– Sounds intriguing. What was the question, did he say?

– As far as I could tell, it was something about the Pattern Language, the Systems Approach, and the Argumentative Model of Planning. Somewhat disparate issues, if you ask me, but I was busy with some weekenders here, didn’t get the whole story. Did you get a better sense of what that was about, Professor Balthus?

– Not sure. I think it was a question about reconciling the work of the three authors of those concepts: Christopher Alexander, West Churchman and Horst Rittel, who were all teaching at Berkeley in the sixties and seventies, and each made some important contributions to their respective disciplines.

– Yes, I remember: Alexander’s Pattern Language for Environmental Design; Rittel’s Wicked Problems and Argumentative Model of Planning and information systems. They were both teaching at the College of Environmental Design. But Churchman was in the Business School, working on his Systems Approach books and research, wasn’t he? So somebody wants to reconcile those different perspectives? For what purpose? Isn’t that a bit of old history? Haven’t all those disciplines evolved into new conundrums by now?

– Abbé Boulah didn’t explain the purpose of that question, Bog Hubert. But it’s interesting to speculate about it — you said it: conundrums. It seems all those disciplines are still facing challenges that suggest they haven’t solved their problems yet. And that the problems are more pervasive and general than we all thought at the time? So they were just looking at different parts of the problems at the time?

– That makes sense: I hear many people who call themselves systems thinkers talk about the need for a more holistic perspective: looking at the ‘whole system’.

– I’ve heard those folks talk too, Vodçek, and admired your patience with all that talk.

– Ah Bog-Hubert, and I have to thank you for not starting a brawl on some occasions — I’ve seen you get quite steamed up about what I guess you consider their still so limited perspective of their whole system? So you think there isn’t much hope for reconciling those perspectives?

– Wait, Vodçek. Before we get into that reconciling issue: what is your beef with the Systems Thinkers perspective, Bog-Hubert?

– Well, I think there are two main concerns I have, maybe there are two different kinds of those SThinkers. Sorry Vodçek, don’t throw that washcloth at me, I know you don’t like frivolous characterizations of your customers. Okay. Systems Thinkers.
One concern is that they still don’t acknowledge different opinions about their assumptions in the systems models; arguments. The models all look like any questions or disagreements about the model assumptions have all been settled, when they only express the model-builder’s view.
The other is the ‘holistic’ claim — the intent I don’t argue with, in principle, mind you. But to me, it seems to often focus exclusively on what they call the ‘common awareness, the unified ethical mindset they are advocating. But I guess that’s something that will come up if you really want to get into that reconciliation issue here…

– Okay, I’ll take your word for that, for now, though I think that’s a special group within the ST community that’s not shared by everybody. You don’t sound very optimistic about the prospect of reconciliation though? If ‘reconciliation’ is the proper word for what the question is after?

– Well, let’s just say I reserve judgment about that. I remember how Alexander pulled that dramatic break with the Design Methods group and I guess the Systems perspective associated with that — in the early 70’s when he first launched his Pattern Language. It seemed pretty irreparable at the time.

– Wasn’t he originally a key member of that design methods movement?

– Yes, Vodçek. But he got so disenchanted with what the various efforts of applying the tools of Operations Research and Systems technology, Building Systems in the Architecture realm — were doing to the built environment that he felt an entirely new direction and perspective was called for. And a lot of people felt the same way. There were aspects of what he called ‘quality’ missing that needed to be articulated and re-introduced into the practice and of architecture and urban design, that the systems view of that time didn’t seem capable of acknowledging. And there’s no question that the Pattern Language added many valuable insights about building.

– Well, didn’t Churchman’s take on the Systems Approach add a lot of similar aspects to the discussion that were not — and I guess are still not really — part of the general systems perspective?

– You are talking about all the components of his systems definition — the purpose, the designer, the decision-maker, the client, the ‘Guarantor Of Decisions’ (GOD?) the measures of performance for each of those parties? Yes, compared to some ‘definitions’ of systems expressed even today — ‘a systems is a set of related components whose relationships exhibit at least two loops’ is one I seem to have read recently somewhere — this view was certainly advancing significantly away from the early functional system concepts. What Rittel called the ‘first generation’ systems approach. It just seems that it was too abstract and general for environmental designers to work into their view of what they were doing. The Pattern Language was much closer to what designers in architecture, say, were already used to.

– I don’t understand. There are many architects who have never heard of the Pattern Language, and don’t seem to even want to get into and use these ideas?

– You are right. But consider: Architecture is a discipline that is already dominated to a large extent by — I hesitate to say, but the closest term I can come up with is ‘rules’. Patterns. The oldest ‘textbook’ on architecture (Vitruvius) talks about ‘orders’ which are rules for the parts and design of buildings. For centuries, there were design guides that were essentially ‘pattern’ catalogs. There are client requirements and expectations, constraints by climate, culture, available building materials, the knowledge and ‘ways we’ve always done it’ of all the trades involved in building construction all the building regulations. All those rules are giving you quite a range of options for how to put buildings together, sure — but they all say simply: Follow the rules, meet the requirements, and you’ll get the client’s go-ahead and the building permit. I’m not saying that is easy, and it definitely takes skill and creativity to come up with new, inspiring, innovative designs juggling all those rules and expectations. But in the end, the act of having followed the rules ‘guarantees’ the result.

– Some guarantees: all the ugly buildings that have gotten permits?

– Yes, Alexander was quite right in pointing out that all those rules did not guarantee quality environments — that in fact the rules, including the systems concerns — which in the building realm manifested themselves in ‘systems building’ or ‘industrialized building’: standardization, dimensional coordination, mass production of parts and mechanized assembly — all tended to produce deadening, uninspiring environments without ‘quality’.
But look at what he added to fix that: the patterns too all look just like rules. Better rules, arguably — but rules all the same: In a given context, there exists a conflict or problem, and tho resolve or avoid it, here’s the general essence of the solution. The patterns are related in certain ways — and all give the designer quite a range of options — Alexander’s claim was essentially that ‘you can do it a thousand different ways and never end up with the same result twice’ — but you have to follow the essential pattern rule. If you don’t, you’re not solving the problem.
And this is what enables him to reject all the measure of performance and evaluation procedures of the design method and systems movement: the result is guaranteed by virtue of having followed the rules: no evaluation needed.

– I see: the design methods efforts, the systems modeling were essentially incompatible with Alexander’s ‘Timeless Way of Building’ and Pattern Language from the outset. That explains your pessimism about reconciliation all right. But did that also ignore the aspects Churchman had added to the systems story?

– I agree there was a disconnect — but as you said, it wasn’t easy for architectural designers to adapt Churchman’s concepts in practice. It does explain why the Pattern Language became such a hit in quite different disciplines — software development, for example. It always surprised me; but now I understand: especially in the computer realm, the machine has to work according to rules, patterns, so software has to consist of valid rules.

– Right. But what about Rittel — he was coming from design, a systems view of design, as well, didn’t he? What made his work incompatible with the Pattern Language view?

– Good question. Though he was teaching design, at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, earlier, architecture and urban and regional development at Berkeley, his background was in mathematics, statistics, systems. And he was involved at that time, through a Systems Research think tank in Heidelberg, with the design of information systems for planning and design, even political decision-making.
He was looking less at the kinds of problems that the systems folks of the ‘first generation’ were adamant about ‘defining’ and stating clearly and succinctly at the outset of a problem-solving process, but at larger problems in society — problems like urban renewal, traffic, housing, education, the environment, — that early grand ‘expert model’-based solutions had not solved but actually made worse.
And his insight was that those problems could not be ‘defined and stated’ clearly — that there were widely different opinions about what causes them, how to describe them, and of course, what would qualify as a solution — in fact, that there were no clear and ‘true’ answers — ‘solutions’ for those problems he called ‘wicked problems’. Essentially, — among other properties of WP’s — he found that each WP is essentially unique, unprecedented in most respects. And that meant: there were no rules, no patterns, for dealing with them that ‘guaranteed’ the solution.

– Bummer. And clearly incompatible with the Pattern Language approach, even I can see that. So what was his answer to that Wicked Problem?

– Put very briefly: the Argumentative Model of Planning. He saw the design and panning activities as a process of raising and answering questions — about the problem, understanding it, the way it affects different people, and about what would qualify as a solution. A discourse. The process, and the information system needed to support it would have to acknowledge the contradictions in the discourse — the proverbial ‘pros and cons’ about proposed solutions.
It would have to accommodate wide participation — the information about how the WP affects people in the population is ‘distributed’, not dealt with either in the expert’s education or in neatly documented traditional information systems — after all, it’s ‘unprecedented’. So he started to develop ‘Issue Based Information systems’ (IBIS) and ‘Argumentative Planning Information Systems’ (APIS) — and — less well documented — the principle of ‘complicity planning’ — where decisions were based on — informed by — the merit of arguments brought forward during the discourse but carried by all participants’ willingness to assume responsibility for the decisions and the risks associated with their eventual consequences.

– Hmm. If I understand this correctly, this was an evolution or change of direction of the systems perspective — and as such conceptually compatible with Churchman’s view of systems. Is that a reasonable way of looking at it? So why wasn’t it adopted by the wider systems thinking community?

– Ah, now we are trying to find an answer to Abbé Boulah’s question, eh?

– Not so fast: I’m not sure we are anywhere close to that, Vodçek.

– Why? What would it take to reconcile these perspectives? I see different kinds of problem situations to which the approaches apply; so each kind of situation needs to be dealt with by the appropriate approach. Isn’t the difficulty just in making those distinctions?

– It isn’t that simple, Vodçek. The situations and approaches aren’t that clearly distinguished so everybody can quickly decide ”Ah, this is a WP, let’s use the Argumentative Model” as opposed to “Here, we have a clear conventional design problem to which all the established rules apply; so let’s study the rules and the patterns and use them to develop a solution.” And “This one is a typical systems modeling challenge — many variables, related by many feedback loops, but we can model it and predict its behavior, to select the intervention with the optimal outcome.” The wicked questions crop up in the middle of the apparently most standard modeling efforts. The implementation of even the boldest innovative plans involve many conventional ‘patterns’ and requirements.
But you could say that the fallacies and flaws of all three perspectives can be traced to a tendency of selective reliance on selected aspects of their respective model.

– Can you explain that, Professor? I’m not sure I understand that one.

– I’ll try, Vodçek. Take the reliance of the systems folks on digitized data bases. Large scale planning depends on data. And the tendency is increasingly on using sophisticated computer programs to actually draw inferences — statistical and logical — from the data. That must rely on the assumption that the data are actually ‘correct’ — ‘true’ and thus reliable. Not only that the measurements are accurate, but also that the variables that are measured are appropriate. And for the logical part: that the data are consistent, not contradictory. If there are contradictions, no reliable conclusions can be drawn. So there is an upfront effort involved in setting up and maintaining the data base to remain contradiction-free. The science basis of the data — observation, measurement, testing, etc. tries to ensure that: understanding a situation as it exists — the aim of systems thinking: to understand the ‘whole system’ — aims at getting the ‘true’ story about the problem.
But now look at the planning discourse. It consists of a lot of ‘pros and cons’ — which are contradictory claims. If a data base aims at properly representing a planning discourse, shouldn’t it accommodate those contradictions?

– Well, you could say that it’s the precisely the purpose of the discourse — with participants presenting evidence to support their claims — to develop what we’d call the ‘true’ picture of the situation, the ‘correct’ problem understanding.

– Yes, Bog-Hubert. But in reality, that isn’t as easy as it’s said. And as long as it’s not settled, if it ever can be, the data base for planning and policy-making contains contradictions, and the expert system that can draw reliable conclusions from it is out. Pipe dream. Even for factual claims and about what works and what doesn’t work to achieve a desired outcome. But there — I said it — it’s the desired outcome that we argue about most intensely — and the labels ‘true’ or ‘false’ don’t apply to those claims. So the data base can’t be consistent by definition. Which means that a lot of the sophisticated tools used in systems modeling simply don’t apply to the planning discourse — even the most trivial ones.

– Hold on, I’ve got to think about that for a moment.

– Okay. Let’s take a break. Perhaps Vodçek can draw a map of our discussion in the mean time?

***
– Ah, I see.

– Well, it’s just the overall topics so far. I thought we’d use the different purposes of the three approaches as the basis for looking for compatible or incompatible features.

– What do you mean?

– Well, look at Churchman’s work. Or the systems perspective in general. Could we say that the purpose of those kinds of studies is mainly to understand the systems we are dealing with, and how they behave? And the understanding would also mean to be able to predict how the system would behave when it is affected by this or that intervention, which is how the systems guys talk about design or planning proposals. So any planners would have to deal with those questions whether dealing with a ‘wicked’ problem or a ‘tame’ one, wouldn’t they? And that is also the basis on which a pattern is developed and adopted — if it wants to have any claim to validity. So there’s a first set of compatible aspects. Couldn’t we find more of those?

– I suspect we can find as many common features as we can find further incompatible characteristics. For example, the fact we mentioned earlier, that systems models seem systematically eliminate any semblance of arguments or difference of opinion about the assumptions in the system — variables, values, relationships — which therefore always turn out to represent the modeler’s understanding of the problem to the exclusion of other views. And that the arguments in the Argumentative model seem to always just describe one variable’s relationship to another — the network of arguments has considerable trouble coming to grips with the many relationships and loops in such a system — are those just temporary incomplete aspects of these approaches or fundamental differences?

– Hmm. What about the movement that claims to be seeking better awareness and understanding of the ‘whole’ system — still claiming to be part of the systems thinking tribe — but what it comes to suggesting what to do about solutions to the big problems and crises, seem to focus on achieving a common, even ‘universal’ kind of ethics and morality, that will determine the decisions?

– Good point — I had forgotten about that aspect of the systems movement. I think that is one of the basic flaws of the way these tools are used.

– Huh? Please explain: basic flaws?

– Let me see. Perhaps I’ll use the structure of the ‘standard planning argument’ to explain that. We talked about the fact that the basic planning argument of a plan proposal A has two or three key premises: To support the proposal:
“A ought to be adopted” the premises used are:
1) If we implement A, result B will happen, — given certain conditions C;
and
2) Result B ought to be pursued (is desirable);
and
3) Conditions C are present.
Of course planning decisions always rest on a number of such arguments, never a single one. But here my point is: Most of the time, people don’t explicitly state all the premises but only one or two, taking the other premises ‘for granted’ — which means that the discussion isn’t likely to focus on those. This allows us to distinguish between some major ‘movements’ or tribes that rely on only one of these key premise types to support their case: Look at what happens when people stress and rely only on the first premise to make their case:
– There are the ‘engineers’ who have found a way of realizing the If A then B relationship or technology: simplified (unfairly of course): “we should do A because we can, to get B”. Technicians, causal analysis types — remove the cause, never mind any consequences of how you do it…
– Or look at resting the argument on the second premise: there is the philosophy of ‘B is the goal’ we should all support, by all means — and the effort of many such groups is aiming for evoking the common awareness and adoption of universal goals (sustainability, global piece, or ‘creativity’ or change, innovation) — at all costs.
– And finally there is the group relying on the third premise, which has to do with data, or increasingly BIG DATA — the conditions of the system overall: “The conditions for implementing plan A are given”. As if the decisions flow logically from those data.
I know I’m drawing caricatures here — but you’re not laughing: it’s true, isn’t it?

– Hmm. Coming to think of it, there are countless management consulting ‘brands’ of ST approaches that fall in one or the other of your three categories. You might want to add the ‘user design’ movement — the people who proclaim that whatever a cooperative bunch of people are ‘co-creating’ will be good: the solution will ’emerge’ and be ‘good’ just because it’s co-created. Of course, they might need a consultant ‘facilitator’ …

– Oh, many people are being more straightforward than that, bluntly calling for the strong leader — sometimes with a sly suggestion that they might just be that leader — well so far, perhaps just ‘thought-leader’ — who will unify the will of the people, precipitating the needed change from which the ‘new system’ will emerge, that just can’t be described yet because it must ’emerge’.

– You are scaring us here, Vodçek. Are you trying to get us to invest in some liquid courage medication?

– Well, relieve our concerns, Bog-Hubert. What would you suggest Abbé Boulah might write in his reply to this wicked question?

– Oh — why me, why should I make a fool of myself? You go first, Professor!

– Chicken. Well, for starters, without trying for a clear answer to the original question itself: can we say that there should be some ‘system’ in place that could be activated as needed — when a problem arises that needs some form of collective action. A system that can alert people when there is such a need — and then is open to all kinds of questions, ideas and answer and argument contributions, by anybody. To start and support a public planning discourse. We discussed before some aspects of what such a planning discourse support system should be like. For example, that it should have a provision for assessing the merit of contributions, the plausibility of arguments — by all participants. And a mechanism for making the connection between that merit and the eventual decision clear and transparent, if not outright determining the decision. So that aspect would clearly be drawing on the argumentative model of design — Rittel.

– I see where you are going here. The system should then also provide or contain access to what we might call the ‘rules’ applicable to the domain of the problem — drawing on past experience, laws and regulations, the scientific-technical knowledge applicable to that domain — as well as ‘patterns. They will become part of the argument set for the detailed description and refinement of the plan.

– Yes — and both the discussion and the ‘documented’ data and reference base will also be the basis for the development of system models of the situation — to support the ‘understanding the situation’ part of the process.

– Good point, Professor. yes. Of course there are some significant pieces of work that need to be taken up before such a system can be put to work.

– What are those, Bog-Hubert?

– They have to do with the issues we mentioned. The relationship between the systems models and argumentation: better integration of model insights and displays into the argumentative process on the one hand, and acknowledgement and accommodation of argumentation — differences of opinion — about assumptions of the systems models.

– I am worried about the final part of that system, — I can see how participants can develop their individual measure of plausibility for or against a plan proposal — we have talked about some work for that aspect. But then: if many participants come up with reasoned plausibility measures that differ significantly from one another — how can that be translated into a collective decision? Just voting it up or down isn’t the answer — it will destroy the link between the merit of the information and the decision, and thus be open to hidden agenda influences and similar problems.

– Yes — violating the principle that the voting minority shouldn’t just be on the losing end of the process. And any calculation of a group plausibility measure from the individual values has problems. The attempt by the unified values people amounts to sidestepping this problem, believing that if science can clarify the facts, the only problem is to make sure we all share the same opinions about what we ought to do and the values we ought to pursue. And while it sounds so well-intentioned and beneficial, that is even more scary than the prospect of having a messy system of haggling our dirty compromises between different parties with different views of what we ought to do…

– And you hope that Abbé Boulah will have a better answer for that than what we have been bouncing around here?

– We might have to help him out with that when he shows up…

– He better show up, soon? Or this might drive a fellow to drink…

– Cheers.

acr-synthesis


On the fascination of geometry in developing problem-solving approaches

I am intrigued by the interesting efforts of some folks to enlist the logic and beauty of geometric structures to the task of designing communication and organizational ‘approaches’ to teamwork, collective planning and problem-solving. It brings to mind memories from my own youth that may have some pertinent lessons for these new endeavours.

Fresh out of architecture school, very soon realizing that we hadn’t been told some essential things we needed, but eager to explore new frontiers, I became involved with a group of ‘mobile architecture’ in Europe (GEAM –‘Groupe d’Étude de Architecture Mobile: Yona Friedman, Schulze-Fielitz and others).

Studying the geometric basis of structural systems that could be mass produced (‘industrialized’) to create ‘space frame’ buildings and urban environments allowing users to easily modify the ‘infill’ of floors and walls to suit changing needs, we were fascinated by the insights of how all the regular 3D geometric forms were inherent in structures starting with simple cubic forms and their plane and space diagonals; endlessly battling the problem of joints and connections for these systems. Of course Wachsmann and especially Buckminster Fuller were our heroes; Bucky’s tensegrity structures embodied the ideals of stability, geometric logic, and lightness — achieving maximum strength with minimal material and resources. With Schulze-Fielitz, I explored ‘diagonal’ urban systems featuring continuous 3D transportation systems (unlike the ‘Manhattan’ skyscrapers with their dead-end elevator systems (that ended up dooming the hapless folks in the 9-11 twin towers disaster) giving apartments at least some minimal outdoor ‘roof garden opportunities while creating covered public spaces, with more efficient densities than conventional developments); we designed schemes for a space frame ‘channel’ bridge, new universities, housing systems, exposition projects. All unpaid, after hours, long ‘all-nighter’ fun. Even a large construction firm started asking us to develop concrete building systems.

We were slow to realize that the fascination with the pristine structural systems was missing several critical points. A critical one was that the real problem was not the optimal design of one of the various subsystems of buildings and urban developments, but the coordination of all of those systems, keeping all of them from getting in each others’ way. Not only transportation — the clumsy way streets, above-ground and underground rail transport and high-rise elevator systems are cobbled together — but the other infrastructure of water supply, sanitation (sewer) systems, power and gas supply, urban steam heating lines, communication systems, fire protection and other safety/security systems. The ubiquitous joke of the city having just repaved the street only to have the sanitation department coming in to tear them up again to repair the sewers was matched by the jungle of systems inside the buildings. The’ flexibility’ chaos of electrical wiring and pipes inside even today’s 21C houses, has to be covered up by sheetrock. The beautiful filigree structural system: no longer visible — Paxton’s Chrystal Palace, Bucky’s Montreal Expo dome, a beautiful little space frame church by Schulze-Fielitiz, all ignoring the need for insulating the steel, all fell victim to fire.

There were some heroic efforts to grapple with the multiple systems coordination issue — examples such as the Robertson Ward / Inland Steel entry to the 1960’s California School Systems development competition, (I worked in Ward’s office trying to design a flexible multiple service system for a College Science building) or Fritz Haller’s computer program for designing coordinated layouts of highly complex service systems for research buildings. They resulted in designs so impressively complex that the intended flexibility was never practically achieved, the manuals unread and soon forgotten. There was the legendary story about a researcher trying to follow up on the use of one of the California School Systems buildings, explaining the concept to a principal who had come to office some years after the initial construction. The principal, excited by the idea of e.g. movable partitions etc. exclaimed how he would love to have such a building — with the researcher replying “But sir, you are sitting in one!”

So the spectacle of efforts to harness the logic and beauty of geometric structures for the task of designing approaches to planning, collaboration, conflict resolution etc. raises some questions that should be examined and answered, explained, before turning those analogies into societal practice and decisions at large scale. What, specifically, is the point of those analogies, the justification for their transfer to these social realms?

– The literal application of analogy features to the other system?
– Ensuring validity of systems designs by testing them against certain features of the stable, beautiful, adaptive geometric systems? (which features?)
– Ensuring validity by drawing design ideas from ‘nature’s systems (in this case, geometry as a natural system)?
– Drawing inspiration and motivation from the geometric systems to pursue corresponding truth, beauty, logic, adaptability and strength in our designs?

Any of these and other possible rationales may have merit, I’m sure. Some may be more questionable than others — e.g. the design recipe I have heard architecture professors convey to students, of starting a project by selecting some ‘concept’ drawn from nature: A leaf, a sea shell, an open hand, an embrace? Then developing the further design of the building based on that concept, which will remain as an invisible ‘secret’ lending some depth or validity to the design…

What I would like to see is some demonstration, elaboration of the rationale for whichever of these ideas is at the base of this strategy. Explanations in the face of skeptical questions such as those I learned to ask about those efforts to make the logic of single systems, e.g. geometry, the basis for the entire enterprise of architectural design. I would like to see examples of features that justify and elucidate the usefulness and validity of the application of the analogy to the respective consulting approach.

Without such explanations — the very appeal and intricacy of the geometric system does not count! — there remain traces of suspicion. Of superstitious fads that replace the hard work of analysis, reasoning, deliberation with shortcut ‘rules of thumb’ (rather than brain…) and incantations of magic. Mystery, yes: design of decision patterns users/viewers can ‘discover’ and make part of their own ‘making’ (appropriation) and acceptance of the design. But ‘magic’ by analogy as a marketing and selling tool? Whiffs of of snake oil. And the sloppy models of crooked pipe cleaners showing tetrahedron structures? The goddess of geometry would be offended.