Bamberton, Public Participation, Design Thinking

February 20, 2010 at 11:59 pm | In ideas, innovation, land_use, leadership, local_not_global, politics, real_estate, vancouver_island | Comments Off on Bamberton, Public Participation, Design Thinking

This afternoon I attended a forum on land use and public participation, Competing Values: Land Use and Public Consultation. The forum was sparked by an installation, Bamberton: Contested Landscape by Cedric and Nathan Bomford, at Open Space. That installation is itself informed by the redevelopment of Bamberton.

Situated to the north of Victoria, Bamberton lies on the shores of Saanich Inlet, across from Butchart Gardens. It used to be a cement manufacturing plant, founded in 1912. Operations ceased in 1980, and in 1982 the property was sold. Various redevelopment plans have come (and gone); the most recent is described here. Oh, and here.

This afternoon’s forum dealt with development and land use issues outside Victoria, many of which I’m not familiar with, especially as they relate to forest lands (including Crown lands – I confess that I have a lot of difficulty wrapping my head around the idea of “Crown” land) and greenfield development / sprawl. (Bamberton is a brownfield development)

I came away with the sense that development outside the city of Victoria tilts heavily toward benefiting developers, who don’t appear to be legally obligated to consult with the community before crafting proposals that are generally not publicly presented until it’s time for a public hearing (which only happens if the project requires rezoning or variances).

The question, then, is how do you get public participation that’s timely, and how do you structure a collaborative process – versus a stand-off (which is what seems to happen too often presently).

Guy Dauncey was one of the participants this afternoon and as usual his comments struck me as the most incisive and progressive. While most of the other participants and audience members seemed willing not only to embrace but also to propagate an adversarial narrative (that it’s impossible to work with the current BC government, that developers are all just greedy SOBs out to make a killing, that all developers are liars who can’t be trusted, that the human footprint is in all instances bad, that development must stop, that we already have “too many people” on Vancouver Island, and so on and so forth), Dauncey chose to think about how development can actually be beneficial and – by extension – how the process for public participation might actually be made to work.

Which brings me to design thinking. In The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is The Next Competitive Advantage, Roger Martin distinguishes two approaches or mind-sets to solving problems: one favors validity, the other reliability. Today’s forum allowed me to think about how Martin’s concepts apply to real life situations, such as NIMBYism and public participation, which too often seem downright intractable.

Martin posits “design thinking” (based on abductive reasoning) as the basis for moving forward productively when caught between the contradictions of validity and reliability. At the risk of bowdlerizing Martin’s concepts, here’s some what I took away from his book and how it might apply to public participation around community planning and land use issues.

People who operate from the principle of reliability use the past to predict what the future will bring. This means that they will reject “vision”-based and “unproven” value-based ideas (unproven because they can’t “prove” their validity through past successes). Obviously, a truly new vision (for the future) isn’t based on a past success (otherwise it wouldn’t be a vision, it would be hindsight). Reliability-oriented thinkers want quantifiable values, they want good odds, they want to meet budgets and face bean-counters with confidence.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who want valid outcomes. Reliability doesn’t figure too strongly because what’s most important is that a project or an outcome is valid. That means it has to feel right, it has to ring true, and it has to meet needs that might not even be fully identified yet. While reliability predicts the future based on the past and has a strong quantitative bias, validity can’t base itself on the past and has a strong qualitative bias.

In a corporate business that’s traditionally reliability-based, it’s very difficult to let validity get anything resembling an equal footing. In land use decisions and development, there’s clearly a very strong bias toward reliability, which makes all attempts at introducing validity seem airy-fairy and touchy-feely.

This is where the community-based activists and others who are striving to create a climate of positive public participation face an uphill battle. The people who live in a given community want validity – they want validation of their way of life, of the place where they live, of the dreams they have for the future. Their vision can seem creepily backward to reliability-driven business people, while the business people’s focus on reliability appears short-sighted and at best unimaginative, at worst greedy (hence the notion that developers have horns, a tail, and cloven hooves) to “the community,” however it’s defined.

The “reliable” model of development for the most part has assumed that the past is the best guarantor of future successes, and if in the past we developed land in a certain way, then in the present we must do the same. After all, there are bottom lines to be met and accountants and shareholders to face.

What communities in the path of reliability-driven development are instead saying is “our concerns are valid, we have needs and visions of our own, and we want to be heard.” This is not to say that the community is always right. As Guy Dauncey pointed out, every single railroad in Great Britain was opposed by community members who wanted no part of a railroad, and preferred the horse and buggy instead. Today, we (rightly) laugh at the backwardness of opposing rail, given that cars not only swept the railway aside, but contributed to bad land use and sprawl. (We should be so lucky as to have a great rail system…) So, while the community wants validation, it cannot expect to be validated in all aspects …because, frankly, it might be wrong on some points. (This is important to point out, because “community” has become a sacred cow in many ways, and it’s almost sacrilegious to suggest that community might actually be wrong. But indeed it can be.)

When reliability and validity go head to head, we too often seem to get either a stalemate (a protracted fight that gets progressively nastier), or nothing happens (the developer gives up, which can leave the community with a Pyrrhic victory if the result is loss of economic growth), or “reliability” wins (cookie-cutter / sprawl development, lost farmland/ greenfield, etc.).

In turn, public participation itself becomes more self-selective: seeing validity thinking trumped or sharpened into an anti-development sword, people who actually want good development or who prefer to avoid confrontation opt out of public participation entirely. Why bother, they reason, if it’s only for extremists?

That’s where design thinking can help – to bridge the gap between reliability and validity, and to design a process for public participation. It seemed to me that this was the point Dauncey was making in one of his comments. While many of the other speakers suggested that it’s already too late to parlay with developers, Dauncey’s idea of involving the reliability-driven developer much earlier in a conversation with the validity-driven community made a lot more sense (unfortunately, he was in a distinct minority at the forum, and his idea was not pursued by any of the other speakers). But as Roger Martin noted in his book, design thinkers need to understand and speak the language of reliability and validity if there’s to be any hope of having a positive conversation to resolve the problems we face.

Judging by today’s discussion, it’s a challenge that clearly applies to land use, development, and public participation. I’d prefer any day to work with Dauncey and those like him who can meet the challenge of design thinking than to limit myself to a validity that remains only a vision …or devolves into a stalemate.

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