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).

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
1. Plan A will result in outcome B — given some conditions C;
and we assume that
2. Conditions C will be present;
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

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?’

‘New System’ Priorities: Diversity or Unified Vision?

A Fog Island Tavern Discussion

– Hey Bog-Hubert – got over your post-election excitement yet?
– Not exactly, Vodçek.
– Not exactly – what does that mean, exactly? Or, well, approximately, if you don’t do exactly?
– Well, right now I’m just wondering about all the blogs and sites that are oh so urgently proposing this or that ‘new system’ that should be adopted instead…
– Haven’t they been doing that for a while?
– True. Maybe I’m just starting to pay more attention.
– And?
– And I’m getting more and more confused and aggravated.
– Why is that? Well, the confusion part I understand: there’s just too much of all that floating around. But what’s aggravating you? Isn’t it encouraging that people are starting to think about these issues some more?
– Sure, if they just were the right issues.
– So you think they aren’t? Hmm. I could use some explanation…
– Okay: I know you’ve been looking at things like that too. Briefly, what are the main groups of controversies you see?
– Main groups? You mean the political parties?
– No, Vodçek. Sorry, my question wasn’t clear. I’m talking about the groups that are basically saying those parties, and the system they’re a part of, need to be replaced with something new.
– Not all of them are suggesting something new; aren’t many of them claiming to be ‘conservative’?
– Right: but they don’t mean conserving things as they are, more like going back to some mythical previous better state of affairs, aren’t they?
– I see what you mean. Even if it’s something traditional, inherited, it wouldn’t be just like that old system, but something new based on old principles? Well, I see many ‘New System’ groups calling for a more or less radical re-thinking of how society should be organized. Ditch the current ones, all parts and subsystems. I don’t see much specific detail in those, of the New Systems, that one could examine and discuss. And then there are all those groups that are doing very specific ‘alternative’ things: the commons projects, alternative currencies, sustainable agriculture or permaculture communities, alternative energy technologies, etc. Many good ideas, but hard to see how they’d fit into an overall picture.
– I agree with your impressions there. Any of those well-intentioned causes you would want to join, become a part of to create the new society, saving the human race?
– Oh man, I have enough trouble keeping my humble tavern going from day to day. But you are right. I can’t say I share the enthusiasm some of those people seem to have.
– And do you think about why that might be? Other than that some of those guys are just trying to make you feel guilty by accusing you of laziness, apathy, stinginess for not giving them money, or worse?
– Well, do you have a good explanation? You aren’t doing much of that enthusiasm-activism yourself, am I right? Other than scribbling in your little notebook there when there’s nobody else here you can shoot the breeze with?
– Touché, my friend. But hey, there are some ideas in this little notebook, some thinking about those issues, that explain why I am not out there ‘doing’ things. Well, as long as there’s nobody else keeping you distracted here, perhaps we can discuss some of it?
– Okay. Starting with why I don’t think the world is ready for THE BIG NEW SYSTEM yet? Apart from the fact that those websites and flyers mostly consist of complaints about how bad things are and how those current ‘isms’ – capitalism, industrialism, neo-liberalism, globalism etc. – need to be ditched. As I said, few convincing specifics about what the new system should look like.
– I agree, we aren’t ready for another big system. Not sure I agree with your ‘yet’ – whether we should go for one big ‘unified’ system again. The record on the few experiments we had with those grand schemes hasn’t been too encouraging, would you agree?
– I really don’t know, Bog-Hubert. Human societies today, — technology, trade, travel, politics, communications — have developed too far to really ignore the calls for some global agreements and order. We can’t really go back to a state where we fumbled around in small isolated tribes, assuming the things we do have no effect across the globe. But I don’t think we really have any good ideas yet about what a better system should be.
– ‘Yet’, yet again – we need to get back to that. For now, I agree: Even among the people who think they have the key to the design of THE NEW system, there is precious little agreement about what it should look like. So I’d say the chances for consensus about that unified vision they all call for are pretty slim. We — if you talk about humanity as a whole – still do not know and can’t agree on what that better new system should be. We don’t really know what provisions in such a system would work and what wouldn’t.
– So?
– So we should take a closer look at those alternative initiatives, experiments. Right now, I have come across estimates of such efforts already counting in the millions. No idea if it’s true, or what the bases for those numbers are. Most seem to be small, local, and struggling with limited resources. I think we can say that most of them are working in isolation, many trying to stay under the radar of ‘official’ systems that tend to see tem as subversive or worse. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see that they communicate well either with the outside world or among themselves. If they do, it’s mainly promotion pieces focusing on their ideas and hopes and successes, if any. Not a good basis for accumulating systematic, valid information about what works and what doesn’t.
– Don’t some of them see their main focus as the very key to making the BIG system work, and ask the entire world to awaken and accept it? And give them all more money?
– True. But okay, they are entitled to their faith. What I’m saying is that we need those experiments – many more, and as different and diverse as possible.
– I agree; that’s why I list that as a high priority. There should be a concerted effort to encourage and support those – on the condition that they are voluntary, not forcing people to participate, don’t get in each other’s or the existing systems’ ways in disruptive or aggressive manner, and most importantly that they agree to share their experiences in some coordinated and systematic fashion that allows others, the world, to learn from what they are doing.
– Hmm. Sounds good – but hey, doesn’t that already require some kind of global system?
– You are right. But that is, first off, not a BIG BROTHER governance and decision-making system, only a documentation, evaluation and discussion platform. You could say that the development of such a platform itself is an experiment. Starting small and local, but yes, aiming at involving many or all such initiatives, so global.
– The agreements of that system, or platform, as you call it, will require some decisions though. Beyond local, so: global, after all?
– Right again. But the decisions are not all-embracing whole system design decisions. Not even excluding alternative forms of communication or interaction, or replacing other institutions. So to the extent decisions – yes, ‘global’ decisions – are aimed at, they are sufficiently innocuous to serve as the basis for experiments about how to develop better decision-making modes? Because the current decision-making modes are part of the problem, aren’t they?
– Getting into treacherous territory there, Bog-Hubert.
– Perhaps. But isn’t it getting more obvious every day that Voting – the crucial element and crux of democracy — it’s more of a crutch? Simple and straightforward, sure. But I don’t think you can say it guarantees that the democratic principles of self-determination or that all concerns people may have about common plans will actually be heard nor given ‘due consideration’. Majority voting by definition permits ignoring the concerns of the minority…
– Okay, okay. So what you are saying is that thee will be a need to design such a platform, and that one of its features will have to be better decision-making methods. Well, I agree, that is an agenda that we don’t hear much about in the public media and political platforms: Can you draw a diagram of all that while I get some more coffee going?
– Sure. Got a napkin?


– Ok, looks good. I see you added some issues down there — getting carried away already?
– Well, think about it. So far, we agreed that what’s needed are
• The ‘alternative’ experiments
• A forum and provisions for sharing and evaluating their experiences
• A ‘discourse’ platform for working out the global ‘road rules’ agreements
But since those agreements are not within any governance jurisdiction, wouldn’t there be a need for
• Some provisions for ensuring that those agreements are actually adhered to ?
Because they can’t be ‘enforced’ by any of the usual government policing and jurisdiction systems, they would have to be a different kind of arrangements. So that will need some innovative work. And I think that there will be a need for a better way of
• Selecting and appointing ‘leaders’ – people in positions to make decisions that can’t wait for the outcome of lengthy discussions.
And to the extent these people will wield power, won’t we have to rethink the problem of how to prevent that power from becoming addictive, leading to the temptations to abuse their power? I seriously feel that some better
• Tools for controlling power should be on the agenda. We don’t say anything about their order yet.
– Good grief, that is quite a package of work you’ve lined up there. No wonder our fearless leaders and candidates are a bit, shall we say, reluctant to even mention some of those. Hard to make meaningful campaign promises about those, eh?
– Sure. Quite controversial – which is precisely why they should be on the agenda.
– Okay, Bog-Hubert: at least there should be some meaningful discussion about those issues.
– More meaningful than their current treatment in the media, is that what you are saying? Because at least for some of the issues that are being talked about, the flood of opinions and rhetoric is already unmanageable. Almost meaningless for guiding sensible decisions.
– I agree. But…
– But — what’s bothering you?
– Well: those headings in the diagram, they are still so general that they don’t say much more than the usual complaints about problems with this and that. Calls for something to be done, but no specific details yet that one can get behind, don’t you agree? So you’d face the same kind of lack of engagement on the part of the public I think you’d want to enlist for that discussion?
– You are right. In the current form, the diagram doesn’t convey much substance yet. We’ll have to discuss some details: explaining why some new ideas and agreements are needed, sketching out what each of those components would do.
– And indicate why you think they can be made to work. We may need some help from our friends there. Let’s think about it for a while, until some of our usual suspects turn up.

– Hi guys, what’s that napkin doodle you are poring over there?
– Hello Commissioner, welcome to our little team. We are trying to figure out what the agenda really should be that you folks in government ought to be working on. Priorities…

Alternative Initiatives and Experiments

– Hmm. What’s this thing about ‘alternative experiments at the top here? Sounds subversive.
– We should have known that would look odd to you, what with all your calls for unified vision and purpose?
– Well, isn’t that what we need these days, come together to work on the urgent, common project of a more viable system to get us out of the mess we’re in, and the bigger mess we’re going to be in if we keep working at cross-purposes?
– Hear, hear, Commissioner. Yes, we need a unified vision we can all work on. It’s just what I have been saying for a long time, too.
– Hi Sophie, good morning. Amazing: you agree with our politician for a change? Well, can you tell us what that great, unified vision is going to be?
– Wrong question, Bog-Hubert: it will emerge once we get everybody to become aware of the whole system and acquire a consciousness of all of us being part of that whole together with the entire ecosystem. A new ethic…
– Oh yeah, that will take care of the economy, solve unemployment, inequality, and crime, eh?
– Whoa, Commissioner, is that a trace of sarcasm I hear, already? Suggesting a profound disagreement about the kind of unified vision we are supposed to embrace?
– Well, Bog-Hubert, it’s not the same thing. Sorry, Sophie, but that consciousness thing is just wishful thinking. Not a sound practical basis for reorganizing society. It needs negotiated compromise. Don’t hit me…
– Hey people, cool it, okay? Let’s not get into a brawl about specific Unified System Visions here. You are actually making the argument here, about why we need all those alternative experiments.
– How so? You’ll have to explain that, Vodçek.
– Okay, in principle, I’d agree: it would be great if we found that unified vision of the new and better system so many groups out there are talking about. But look at our first attempt to describe what it would be or should be like: big disagreement erupting before we even got started, about what it means and how to get there.. And I don’t’ think it’s just the two of you. Too much disagreement about it out there, all over. Doesn’t that tell us something: we – I mean humanity in general – don’t really know what that system, that vision should look like? Even if somebody really knows, too many others have different ideas about it. Too many to expect a unified consensus about the common effort we should start to get there any time soon. So… I think what Bog-Hubert is trying to say here is…
– Yes. We should just acknowledge that we don’t know. We’ve been through that before you guys came in, but it can’t be said often enough. Especially about the big, global system many think is needed. We have tried a few big systems, and so far none of them have met with universal approval, in spite of the intense propaganda from their promoters that flooded the media. Can’t we admit: we don’t really know what works and what doesn’t work for the big challenges we are facing? And spending all our chips on another big system without better evidence looks like an even worse idea than the muddling through we are doing now.
– Hmm. You’ve got a point there – and that’s why you’d let all those alternative crazies work on their separate blueprints to save the world?
– Right. I’d try to avoid the kind of name-calling though; many of those initiatives are run by very intelligent and well-intentioned people. Some of their ideas actually make a lot of sense, and I think we need to learn how they work out. The people doing that are often just working on a volunteer basis, — much cheaper and often more effective than big government contracts to big think tanks. Though to be fair, I’m sure some useful work is done there too. Most of them are small, local projects, and many are unquestionably improving matters – take the sustainability, organic and permaculture food projects – and do no harm, which can’t be said of all the big corporate activities. So they should be encouraged and supported rather than treated with suspicion and bureaucratic obstacles. The more diverse, the better. We need to learn from their experiences. But…

Sharing and evaluating experiences

– I knew it; there’s a but butting in.
– Yes, Sophie. As far as I can see, most of those initiatives and projects don’t really communicate well – not with the society and media in general, not even among themselves. So there’s little valid information available about their real experiences – what works and what does not work. Not much systematic evaluation. Much of the information they put out is just promotion — focused on the promises and whatever success they claim to have. Nothing about their obstacles and problems, other than that they really really need your donation.
– Yeah, and many of them actually are trying to sell the premises of their initiatives as THE basis for the next BIG system, for all to adopt.
– True. They should be given the opportunity to show some actual evidence for their claims, and a forum for fair but critical assessment. So the overall strategy should include encouragement and support. But on condition of sharing their experience in some organized and useful manner.
– ‘Organized’? That sounds like it will require some big system after all, Bog-Hubert? If those numbers you mentioned are real?
– Yes, that’s true. You’ll need some common format not only for compiling and documenting all that information, but also for the criteria and method for assessing the successes and failures. Big task. But there’s a significant difference: this ‘system’ can be designed and developed by those projects and initiatives themselves – not just ‘participation’ but actual decision-making, based on the interests and concerns of all the players involved.
– So there will be a ‘data base’ or documentation system for all the project information, and an ‘evaluation’ component with some common criteria and measures of performance based on what those initiatives are aiming at achieving, and a process for developing and displaying the results?
– Yes. And because that is not an all-powerful Big Brother Government system imposing its will upon all aspects of society, it will be a much less ideological and controversial process, don’t you think?
– Ah: if you are right – which remains to be seen though – it will be a good exercise project in itself – a testing ground for developing a better ‘self-governance’ system with all the aspects further down in your priority list. Sneaky.
– It was Abbé Boulah’s idea, that one, yes. He’s the sneaky one.
– So let’s look at those other parts of your list.
– Okay: which one?

Discourse platform

– The process you are talking about – developing the data base and evaluation system – already requires some common forum or platform where development ideas can be brought in, discussed, and decided upon, doesn’t it? Is that what that ‘discourse platform’ is supposed to be?
– Yes, Dexter. Glad you could join us, this gets into IT territory. And it will not just be like some of the social network platforms we know, nor a ‘knowledge base’ compilation of data, a data bank or encyclopedia-like system, but a ‘planning discourse support system’ aimed at developing, proposing and displaying, and discussing designs for the system itself, and then helping participants to make decisions based on the merit of those contributions – ideas, proposals and arguments pro and con. So that discussion must be accessible to all the participant entities.
– I see. It sounds plausible. But apart from the integration of the different programs, — feasible, but will take some work — won’t there be big practical implementation problems to do that? Just think of all the different languages all over the world, in which those contributions will be brought in. You can’t expect people will agree to one global language for that anymore – not in this post-colonial age. So there will have to be a massive translation effort to translate that discourse into all the different participant languages?
– True. And not only that. Much of the needed information will actually be in the form of scientific research, statistics, systems projects from many different disciplines? Each with their own vocabulary — disciplinary jargon, — replete with acronyms and greek letters and math equations. For a viable discussion, the content messages of those contributions must be translated into conversational language that ordinary citizens can understand. So yes, it will be a major project to coordinate that, and not an overnight process.
– And you’ll have to deal with all the problems we already know from the current scene of collaborative projects under various political systems.
– Such as?
– Well you have the ‘voter apathy’ syndrome – even in projects open to and relying on public participation. Many people just don’t participate or vote because they don’t really have the feeling that their input will count in any significant way. Then you have the ‘information overload’ problem – how can anybody digest all the information that’s flooding the media and social networks? You have the ‘trolls’ that just try to derail any meaningful discussion with irrelevant posts; personal attacks and insults and erroneous information – not even to talk about the problem of deliberately ‘false news’ – lies and distortions. And last not least the fact that the decisions — by so-called leaders or by referendum-type voting – can blatantly ignore even the most significant information and concerns of large parts of society.

New decision methods

– Yes, you are getting into the details of what’s needed to make any such planning platform work properly – in the best interest of all affected parties, in a really democratic way. So first, the system should provide some real participation incentives. And it should be organized so as to eliminate or at least reduce repetitious, irrelevant, erroneous and maliciously distractive and misleading content, and give people a good informative overview of the state of the discourse, don’t you think? Those are major design challenges – but we do have some ideas for improving things. Better decision modes for such planning systems remain a major issue.
– Hey, Bog-Hubert: all that doesn’t sound like a small local project anymore. You keep calling it a ‘planning discourse platform’ as if it were only a minor item on the agenda – but it is really a blueprint for the Big Global Discourse System, isn’t it?
– You are right in that any global governance system – as well as any local governance system if it wants to be really ‘democratic’ – will have to deal with the same issues and find acceptable solutions for them. The difference is that this is not a proposal for a ‘revolutionary’ upheaval replacing all the ‘evil’ current systems with another BIG System overnight.
– Or just a ‘get rid of the crooks’ effort that ends up just replacing the old crooks with different ones who will become just as bad and corrupted because the new systems hasn’t solved those problems you are pointing out here.
– So it looks like the ‘new decision models’ item on the priority list is really a high priority one. And that whatever the solution may be will look somewhat different from the ‘voting’ methods that are now considered as the key principle and guarantee of democracy? Can you give us some more details about what might make such methods work?
– Hey, putting a problem on the agenda doesn’t mean that we already have a solution, does it? Just that there is a problem and that we feel it is possible to fix it. But a key aspect, I think, is this: there must be a closer, more visible and recognizable connection between the merit of the information and arguments brought into the discourse, and the decision. That link is currently just a sanctimonious ideal: ‘let’s talk and then decide’.
– Sure, but a vote can, and too often does, ignore all the talk. So there’s work to do on that. But some of your Abbeboulahist ideas also justify hope – for example: if we can get a meaningful measurement tool for the merit of contributions, that measure can become a more decisive factor in the decision. And we have some ideas for that, too.

Few main ‘global’ agreements to facilitate ‘diverse’ aims

– True, Vodçek. So this system will be developed and emerge as a ‘parallel’ structure within the existing system, at first only dealing with the kinds of common agreements needed to draw useful lessons from the experiences of all those ‘local’ efforts. And aiming only at few decisions needed to facilitate the process – decisions like the ‘global, unified’ rules of the road – which side of the road to drive on to let everybody get to their ‘diverse’ destinations; or like the international rules for air or ocean traffic.
– Yeah, with all the translation and communication problems of such a global discourse, there won’t be that many decisions being agreed upon by that process, if you ask me. But I agree that some such common ‘road rule’ agreements will be needed, in this partial system as well as in the overall global system or non-system, if the Big Brother World Government is too scary a prospect.

Provisions for ensuring adherence to agreements:
‘enforcement’, sanctions?

– Hey, none of that is talking about any kind of World Government, I hope. Is it?
– Well, Sophie, think about it: Any kind of agreement or treaty or law – different names for essentially the same concept – will need some provisions for making sure that the agreement is kept, the rule is followed, and about what to do if it is violated. Deliberately or inadvertently.
– If all such agreements are reached by consensus by all the well-intentioned folks in a well-informed, spiritually conscious and aware community, and with more adequate decision procedures giving each participant’s concerns due considerations, will there still be such violations? Or at least not as many?
– Wouldn’t that be nice, Sophie. Won’t there always be people who feel that they aren’t getting as much of a benefit from a common decision as others, that they even get ‘the short end’ of it even if they couldn’t come up with sufficiently persuasive arguments to persuade the community or to justify a ‘no’ vote preventing the precious consensus decision? Peer pressure to agree resulting in a temptation to just bend the rules a little bit…? And then a little more?…
– I see where you are going here, Bog-Hubert, you cynic. You didn’t even mention all those sheer ornery or even pure evil folks. The problem isn’t just that there will still be such violations, but also that we – society – have not gotten past the traditional ways of dealing with them that we inherited from times when rules and laws were imposed by rulers who didn’t give a hoot about whether people were really adhering voluntarily to the rules because they agreed to them…
– What are you talking about, Vodçek?
– Law enforcement, of course, Sophie. The traditional approach is that laws have to be ‘enforced’ – that violators have to be punished so that they wouldn’t do it again, and to deter everybody else from even trying. And what Bog-Hubert is aiming at, — I have heard him talk about it with Abbé Boulah before – is that enforcement, prevention and application of force – requires that the enforcer must have more force, be more powerful, than any would-be violator. Otherwise, it’s not effective. So he is saying there should be different tools for ensuring that agreements and laws are adhered to – ‘sanctions’ that do not require ‘enforcement’. Am I right, Bog-Hubert?
– Couldn’t have said it better myself, Vodçek. One alternative would be something like sanctions that are triggered ‘automatically’ by the very attempt at violating a rule. Like the car ignition key that can sense if you are drunk and just won’t turn on if you are.
– Like that kind of thing can really fight crime and corruption. But what’s wrong with the ‘enforcement’ approach?
– Two things, Commissioner. One is escalation of enforcement tools. If criminals are getting better weapons than the police, the police must get better weapons, eh? Then the bad guys get even better gins, and so on… Not supportable, in the short or long run.
– Hmm. There oughta be a law…And the other reason?
– Power. You see it already at the local level, but it becomes critical on the level of international relations. It’s the reason people are very uncomfortable with the idea of World Government.
– I don’t get it.
– Well, you’ve heard the quip about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely, haven’t you? Now if you have an enforcement agent or agency which does have better weapons, more powerful tools, than any would-be violator, what’s keeping that agent or agency from becoming tempted, ever so slightly, to bend the rules a little for itself? If the theory is true that it would take an enforcer with more power…
– Well, we have the balance of power of the different branches of government, and term limits, and impeachment rules, and so on, to constrain such power abuses, don’t we?
– True, and the claim is that they have been working adequately for quite a while. But many people are saying that those tools are getting to the limits of their effectiveness even al the local, regional and state levels. And seeing how often and how cleverly they have become ineffective, allowing power-holders to become evermore worried about the infringement of their power and their little abuses, and therefore seeking more power, and more clever, even ‘legal’ ways to circumvent their balance-of-power constraints. At the extreme, having to convince themselves that they really have the inviolate power by engaging in reckless activities – the Caligula syndrome.
– But those guys have always been brought down in the end, haven’t they? Well, most of them?
– Have they? At what cost of their own impoverished, murdered and ‘disappeared’ or otherwise oppressed citizens before they are stopped? Or that of other countries’ forces trying to bring them down? But think: if we have a World Government – one whose legitimate role is to ensure that agreements and treaties are adhered to, as we discussed – but whose tools for that are only ‘enforcement’ tools: weapons? And so-called ‘’security’ and ‘anti-terrorism’ systems that have to constrain the liberty of all citizens in order to be effective: With the kinds of weaponry we have nowadays, what could keep such a ‘government’ from falling victim to the temptations of power if there’s no more powerful agent to keep it in line?
– Right. So the concerns of people who oppose such governments are, shall we say, not entirely unfounded? And the governments who are supposed to ensure their citizens that they are not, — ‘trust me, trust me’ – in any way tempted to take some additional advantage of their power, are naturally and inevitably hesitant of divulging all the safeguards they have, so they won’t fall into the wrong hands: the secret service must be secret, after all. Mustn’t it?

Control of Power

– Okay. You’ve got us all worried, happy now? So the first conclusion is that we need some sanctions that don’t rely on enforcement, to ensure adherence to agreements. Keep it on the agenda. But what do we do about the issue of control of power itself, apart from the law enforcement aspect? Do we have any new ideas about that, or even grounds for optimism that better solutions can be found? Because I see that just the right of citizens to keep arms is not a solution, given the escalation problem and the other means of exerting power.
– No, Sophie, nobody has a brilliant solution up his or her sleeve yet. Just perhaps some different principles to bring to bear on the problem.
– Such as?
– Well, look at the concept of power itself, for starters. For the poor, the ‘disempowered’, the recurring slogan is always ‘empowerment’ – as if power were a universal human right, which we could argue is a good way of looking at it. Just like life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we always invoke. But we expect people to pursue, to work for, or pay for those things, not just to be ‘given’. At best, what’s ‘given’ or ‘endowed by the creator’ – or what a society agrees to grant all its members — is the right to pursue, not the right to get it without one’s own effort.
– That’s a concept that would need some discussion, my friend.
– Yes, we can discuss that, and what it means in detail. But to explore its implications here: what if we apply it to the power issue – specifically to the power to make decisions and take action on behalf of others, or that affect others in one way or the other. What if, say we’d ask people with such power to ‘pay’ for the decisions they make? Just like we expect the poorest fellows to pay for their loaf of bread they are allowed to buy at Wal-Mart to survive? By ‘paying’ we probably would need a different kind of currency than money.
– We might also look at some older forms of power control – patterns that have come to be despised lately, such as the hierarchical organization of societies.
– How did that control power? Wasn’t that the ultimate form of power abuse?
– Not always, Vodçek. See, in a hierarchy, the person at each level had a certain amount of power – the power to control and direct the activities of the subordinates, within certain limits set by their superiors. The unresolved issue was of course always the lowest and the top positions: the lowest ones had little or no power until they ‘earned it’ by whatever degrading means, and the top position had no one else to answer to – except supernatural ones in the afterlife.
– But there were some useful provisions in the form of controls by parallel boards with members from lower levels of the hierarchy, term limits and the like. They also tended to be older folks who weren’t as much tempted to certain distracting abuse as younger people. But again, the traditional controls seem to break down again and again, so the issue of meaningful and effective control for governance folks on the global level is still up for grabs. So I agree: the issue of control of power should be a high priority item.

Choosing the people for power positions

– All that sounds like you want to do away with all kinds of leadership positions. I’m not sure I can go along with that.
– You are quite right feeling uneasy about that, Sophie. But that’s not the intention at all. We do need people in positions of leadership and power.
– After all you went through show how they will be corrupted by power? I say kick the big shots out!
– Whoa, Renfroe. I understand how you can get impatient with some of their shenanigans. And how you might get the impression that with a better functioning ‘democratic’ decision-making system, we don’t need those bigwigs anymore.
– I’d say!
– But not all decisions need to run through such a process, and some can’t wait, they need a quick decision to deal with new situations. Think of a ship that finds itself suddenly on a course towards an iceberg. There has to be someone – the captain – who will have to make a quick decision: pass it on the port or starboard side? You can’t have a lengthy palaver to reach a decision: it must be done fast. And the problem is to have a process to appoint people to such positions, yes, power positions – whose expertise, skills, experience and judgment you can trust. And what safeguards have to be in place to prevent such people from getting tempted to abuse that power for purposes of his own that are contrary to the well-being of the ship and its crews and passengers.
– Okay, I see what you are saying. So do you have any trick up your sleeve for that problem? It’s what you’d call a dilemma, isn’t it? Giving a guy – or a gal – the power to make big decisions, but keeping them from making the wrong ones when they have all that power, and by definition, as you explained, no greater power to keep them in line?
– Well, can you see how that problem should have some better solutions for people in such positions in ‘global’ institutions, in world governments?
– Okay, it belongs on the list of priorities too, I agree.


– I still would like to know what gives you the idea that there are better solutions in sight for these problems. If a problem doesn’t have any solutions – like a genuine paradox or dilemma, why waste our time, money, and energy trying to find one?
– Good question, Commissioner. But for some of these issues, there actually seem to be some improvements in sight that should at least be explored and discussed.
– Explain that, please. I’m getting curious.
– I’ll leave it to Bog-Hubert – I think the way he drew that diagram shows how some answers to simpler questions in the list can help suggest solutions for others. Bog-Hubert?
– I’ll try to keep it simple. Take the idea we have discussed here before, of awarding contribution rewards to people who contribute ideas and arguments to the planning discourse we sketched out before. Basic credit points that simply will be an incentive for participation and providing information.
– That’s trying to get at the voter apathy issue, right?
– At least part of it. Now, the rule that only the first entry of an information item will get the credit, but not repetitions, will speed up the process. The assume we can put a process of evaluation in place, for the assessment of merit of each such entry – is it plausible, important, is there evidence or adequate support for the claims, do the arguments have weight. Then the original credits can be adjusted, upward for good merit items, downward for erroneous or unsupported, implausible claims and arguments. That will all help making better decisions, as a first effect. But in the process, participants are actually building up a ‘record’ of their contribution merit points.
– Ah, I see: and that record can be made part of the ‘qualification’ criteria for appointing people to positions of power? If they have made consistently meritorious contributions to the policy discourse for important issues, they can be considered better qualified than others whose entries have been shown to be unsupported and implausible?
– Right. Better judgment. But that’s not all. Those merit points can become a kind of alternate ‘currency’ for various purposes. One is the sanctions issue for violating agreements and ‘laws’. The penalties can be in the form of subtracting credit points from their accounts. Especially if some means can be found to identify attempts at violating agreements and laws as the attempt is started or going on, so that penalty points can be applied immediately, without having to involve heavy-duty law enforcement. So the size and extent of enforcement forces could be reduced, as well as the worry about enforcement by force and associated escalation, would you agree?
– I think that would take some fine-tuning, but yes, it’s an idea that should be explored. What about the power issue itself – didn’t you mention something about that as well?
– Yes indeed. The idea is to make people in positions of power ‘accountable’ for the decisions they make by having to ‘pay’ for each decision – again, with their merit credit points. If the decision is a flop, they lose the points – if it’s a good one, they earn them back, and perhaps more. ‘Profit’, eh?
– What about decisions that are so important, and therefore so ‘costly’, that officials can’t afford to make such decisions with their own points?
– Well, if you feel that such a decision should be made, that is, you support the leader who has to make it, how about transferring some of your own credits to his account? In that way, you are also ‘accountable’ for the decision – and perhaps less likely to let a populist loose cannon go around making disastrous decisions? If the decision is a good one, your ‘investment’ can ‘pay off’ in that you get your points back, perhaps with some ‘interest’? And if not, you lost your points just like the leader who made that dumb decision with your support…
– Oh man, you are getting way out there with these wild schemes.
– Well. It’s all up for discussion. Do you have any better ideas to deal with these challenges?


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;
2) Result B ought to be pursued (is desirable);
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.


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.