Two applications of the "Strategic Choice Approach"
The traditional, rational approach to planning, with its formal hierarchic, sectoral organisations and procedures, demonstrates apparent weaknesses when it comes to non-standard issues that go beyond the normal agendas of the public planning organisations. Such issues may include segregation in the housing market, environmental issues in urban development, large-scale urban renewal, etc. These issues are characterised both by their complexities and their interdependencies with questions outside the normal foci and decision domains of spatial planning. Knowledge and opinions of individuals and organisations outside and from other parts of the municipal organisation are requisite in handling such complex issues.
The perspective on planning used here is that policies and strategies are actively developed in social contexts where dissention and complex power relations serve as the background to processes of fragmented analysis and valuations, negotiations and incremental decision-taking. Knowledge and understanding are gained through mutual learning processes among diverse stakeholders.
Current normative planning theories focus on participation and dialogue in such knowledge building processes and for building social and political capital among participants. The challenges are not just to reach political consensus for future developments, but to include concerned stakeholders outside the public organisations, making their knowledge and values explicit and communicable in a language that can be understood by participants from different professional and political cultures.
There are several ethical questions for such an approach to planning. Who can participate? Who formulates the agenda? What issues can be handled? Who can carry out the analysis? Who has the power to make decisions? What kind of legitimacy do such decisions have?
But there are also practical questions on how such dialogues can be managed. Is it possible to improve the conditions for communicative processes in planning by organisational and methodological developments?
This paper describes the experiences and reflections of two cases where the methodology, the "Strategic Choice Approach" has been applied, to facilitate problem structuring and the management of uncertainties in complex decision-taking situations. Both cases were initiated from the top-down within public organisations in situations where standard operational procedures could not cope with current issues.
The "Strategic Choice Approach" developed as an outcome of some long-term and detailed research projects on how problem structuring and decision-making in complex settings are carried out in practice.1 The main features are the incremental analysis and management of the complexities involved in problem structuring, the demonstration of the interdependence of possible chains of decisions and the analysis of three kinds of uncertainties, relating to the operating environment, to guiding values and to related decision areas, associated with their implementation. The approach has been continually refined through its application in different contexts. Both cases deal with communicative processes for problem structuring and public policy development at municipal and multi-organisational level.
The first case2 deals with the social and physical deterioration concerning imbalances in a local housing market, with a growing stock of unlet apartments in a medium-sized municipality in Sweden. Participants in the "Strategic Choice" process were initially politicians, officers and representatives of municipal stakeholders. At a later stage in the process inhabitants in the housing area were also involved. The immediate practical outcome of the project was that the amount of unlet apartments diminished and the downward spiral was broken. The methodology was later applied in other sectors of public planning in the municipality.
The second case3 deals with a initial regional Agenda 21 for western Sweden. Participants in the project came initially from five co-operating public organisations at the municipal and regional level. No political decision-takers were active in the learning process. A "Strategic Choice Approach" was initiated at a late stage of the project when standard operational procedures could not cope with the situation. The immediate practical outcome of the process, apart from written project reports, was a deeper and shared understanding of the complex relations between physical, social and environmental issues. This new insight led to a reframing of the initial proposal and the inclusion of active stakeholders outside the public organisation. It also highlighted experiences of how both the different forms of structural power embedded in organisations and the culture of public planning tend to restrain interactive co-operation.
The method of applied research used in these cases is a kind of "reflection after action". In both cases the researchers have acted simultaneously as consultants in process management.
Analysis of these cases from an organisational point of view shows that the deadlocked processes benefited from being moved from the normal political/administrative arenas with their focus on decision-taking, to new temporal forums4 with other framing structures for interpretation and pragmatic communication. These movements prompted the creative questioning of the rules and a testing of new ideas in the groups. In the later stages direct communication and dialogue with a wider circle of stakeholders were established in new forums outside the public organisation. In the first case an appointed facilities manager in the housing area acted as a communicating focus for the interaction with the inhabitants. In the second case concerned individuals and organisations outside the public authorities continued their dialogues long after formal completion of the official project. The initiating processes created new informal forums for ongoing discussion.
However, the incremental method of problem structuring and decision-taking also caused problems. In the first case politicians on the steering committee continuously took incremental decisions leading to immediate action. However, politicians from the opposition party considered it inopportune afterwards to co-operate with the incremental "Strategic Choice" process, since they had lost the opportunity of appearing in public arenas and criticising solutions to which they had already agreed, step by step. Hidden power games among officers and politicians from different sectors of the municipality hampered the process.
In the second case the politicians stayed outside the active learning processes. Difficulties appeared in communicating the findings and conclusions from the dialogue processes and to embed the experiences into the standard procedures of administration and decision taking. No decisions were taken that could lead the processes ahead. The discussions in the strategic choice group benefited from analysis of existing structures of power among the political organisations and concerned decision takers. This highlights the desirability to an early involvement of decision takers in the knowledge development processes.
From a methodological point of view the experiences of the two cases show that the application of the "Strategic Choice Approach" worked in facilitating discussion on knowledge development for groups of a limited size. The methodology is best adapted to handle problem structuring and the analysis of uncertainties in the initial stages of policy development and to co-ordinate analysis and evaluations with standard techniques in later phases. It is not an alternative, but complementary to standard operational procedures.
Crucial points in moving the decision processes forward are links between the learning process in informal forums and the decision process in formal arenas. This means managing incremental decision-taking under uncertainty. The insight that uncertainties can be handled explicitly without necessarily being resolved opens the possibilities for progress. Decisions can be taken under such conditions that "if" or "when" something occurs, then we are going to do this or that. All decisions are continuously put together and reviewed in a commitment-package, making it possible to monitor the knowledge development and decision-taking processes.
The experiences of the first case study showed that internal power plays within the decision-taking organisation led to a need to focus on ethical questions and power relations. By introducing a fourth kind of uncertainty, intra-organisational uncertainty, these kinds of questions were made visible and possible to handle by participants in the working group.
Concluding remarks. The two cases indicate that it is possible to manage complex dialogues and create not only knowledge but also social and political meaning for small groups of participants. Now, there is an urgent need to develop social settings and practical methods, for example, with the support of future search methods and different types of IT devices, which can frame and facilitate dialogues with a wider groups of citizens.
However, there is an ethical risk that forums for such dialogue may be misused and lead to the creation of platforms for negotiative processes involving powerful groups of citizens with narrow interests, for example, NIMBYs (not in my back yard). Power relations have to be focused on the links between knowledge building processes in forums and decision-taking processes in political arenas.
In Sweden, planning organisations at the municipal level have declined to a minimum during the last few decades, since the focus has been more on building projects than on planning processes. Now there is a growing movement away from focusing mainly on technical and economic issues and towards a greater interest in environmental and cultural issues. There is also a growing understanding of the need for co-operation across municipal boundaries in urban regions in matters of mutual concern concerning strategic infrastructural and environmental issues (Bjur, Malmstrom, Stromberg 1999).
The same changing directions can be noted at in most parts of Europe (Healey, Khakee, Motte and Needham 1997). The new efforts in strategic spatial planning differ significantly from those deployed in the 1960s in both the process and in their policy agendas. In an analysis of ten European case-studies of spatial strategy-making.
Current planning theories focus on participation, communication and dialogue. Much of the planning theory that is building on a communicative approach refers to Habermas' theory of communicative action. Other theorists focus on the role of unequal power in relationships and how they affect the understanding of representations of different forms of rationality. Flyvbjerg (1998) shows, with reference to Foucault, that power defines reality and that rationality is context-dependent. The context of rationality is power.
Communicative planning theory focuses on how political communities communicate in public arenas, how participants exchange ideas, sort out what is valid, work out what is important and assess proposed courses of action (Healey 1997, p 53). Public agencies are just one group of many local "actors" involved in a process of collaborative planning. She emphasises the "soft" infrastructure of building relationships as a main feature and makes several recommendations as to the form and style of the planning process that acknowledge the diverse stakeholders of local communities. She also recognises the "hard" infrastructure of institutional design and the need to adapt the public planning system to promote and support community-based planning activities.
Sager (1994) shows the constraints on communication and dialogue that are caused by power relations and different kinds of conflict in society. His critical pragmatism concerns primarily the public planning system and the role of planners. His purpose is to uncover and manage power relations and conflicts in support of processes of communicative action.
All three authors represent a shift to an interactive perspective that recognises that strategies and policies are not the outcome of objective, technical processes, but are actively produced in social contexts. However, many interests are concealed in these social contexts and they struggle for influence and are more powerful and common than is readily described in theoretical textbooks.
The empirical findings from an in depth case study of a Danish urban planning process (Flyvbjerg 1991,1998) reveal how power, in different forms, distorts the rationality of planning and how power creates its own rationality. It is money, influence, personal bonds etc that are the keys to understanding why decision processes develop as they do. Power relations have deep historical roots (see also Putnam, 1993) and are constantly being produced and reproduced.
Bryson and Crosby (1993) address the problem of power relations in shared power, in "no-one in charge" situations. They introduce the idea of the intentional design and the use of forums, arenas and courts to establish and communicate meaning, to make decisions, and to manage conflicts, respectively. Their idea of the design and use of social settings is founded on a three-dimensional conception of power.
Note Figures to be added
Figure 1. 'A three-dimensional ... conception of power' after Bryson and Crosby (1993, p. 180). "Framing structures" are used here to summarise the more detailed terms used in the definition of the second dimension of power, as used in the original scheme.
The first dimension is related to human action. The power of "actors" varies with the issue, and there are several sources of power, such as wealth, status, knowledge, and skill (Bryson and Crosby, 1993, p.177). This is why a modern democracy is pluralist rather than elitist.
The second dimension of power has to do with agenda setting, the privilege of problem formulation and other forms of manipulation of what comes up for decision and action. "Various ideas, rules, modes, media, and methods are the principal barriers that bias attention toward some matters and away from others." (Ibid., with reference to Forester, 1989 and Healey et al., 1988). A "framing structure" is used here as a term that includes ideas, rules, modes, media, and methods.
The third dimension of power is the "deep" social, political, and economic structures of a society that provide " ... the basis for a potential set of issues, conflicts, policy preferences, and decisions (all rooted in consciously or unconsciously felt needs) that public "actors" might address." (Ibid. p. 178).
The three dimensions of power are closely inter-related. Deep structure power determines possible issues for public action; "framing structure" power determines which of these issues shall, or shall not, be addressed; and human action power determines whether and how such issues shall be managed. In other words, public actions are guided by human action power as well as by framing and "deep structure" power. The latter dimensions provide options as well as constraints, as they carry power relations from one period of time to the next. However, framing and deep structures are man-made cultural constructs that can be strengthened, weakened or changed by human actions.
The "framing structure" is the active link between human interactions and "deep" social structures. Accepting the concept that planners in a shared-power world are neither able to prescribe action and dictate terms to other "actors", nor to make significant changes in a "deep" social structure: " planners can have their greatest influence over action and outcomes by focusing on the second dimension of power - that is, by strengthening, weakening, or altering the ideas, rules, modes, media, and methods that divide what is theoretically possible into what is actually possible and what is not." (Bryson and Crosby, 1993, p. 178.)
Bryson and Crosby see the design and use of forums, arenas and courts with special reference to framing structures, as crucial tasks in shared-power situations to support knowledge development, problem-solving and the co-ordination of decisions and action. While established formal social settings, i.e. arenas and courts, are difficult to change, the possibility of establishing experimental and temporary informal social settings rests with the forum. This happens in practice when formal institutions face problems/issues that they cannot manage. Such innovative practice can influence established institutions to take the longer view (Malbert 1998, Healey et al.1997, Khakee & Stromberg 1993).
Healey believes that a consensus-building process, initiated and controlled by affected stakeholders, or what she calls the stakeholder community, can be successful. The initiator can be anyone with the capacity to 'read the opportunity for strategic review' and communicate it to other members of an initial stakeholder community. Healey sees a dual role for public planners. One is to approach the question of institutional design so as to adapt the planning system to support communicative action. The other is to participate as representatives of "actors" with a stake in the specific issue. Here, the planner could possibly have a role as initiator and activator. However, Sager's discussions on power relations in planning, notably in connection with professional planners, indicate that this is a problematic solution. Flyvbjerg's analysis also calls for caution. It is not likely that a representative of one, often strong, "actor" can gain all of the stakeholders' trust and support in the design and leadership of a consensus-building process. This may call for a third party, with a neutral and professional role in facilitating complex knowledge-building and problem-structuring processes.
How can findings and insights into the planning theories put forward by different writers as discussed earlier be incorporated into practical and appropriate settings, procedures, methodologies and techniques for planning, decision-making and action? What roles are to be played by different "actors"?
Two researchers who have worked with different aspects of policy-making, planning and decision processes for many years, and with different co-authors, are Donald Schon and John Friend. The core of Donald Schon's message is that people learn by doing. He has coined the phrase "reflection-in-action" to describe the conscious reflexive way of working used by the reflective practitioner (Schon, 1983). Schon means by this that learning processes can take place in social situations, through dialogues during which the participants can collectively explore and learn about issues and each other's attitudes to them.
Schon discusses two dimensions to such learning: firstly, "single-loop learning", which involves working out how to perform a task better in a given context and with given premises; the second involves learning about the premises and thereby possibilities of changing the conditions under which the tasks are performed. Schon's model of the reflective practitioner emphasises this second type, "double-loop learning".
Schon emphasises the importance of taking into account the working environment and that action is always embedded in a broader context that limits the scope of action. "Practitioners tend to assume that the factors essential to the goals they pursue lie at least partly within their control. With their taken-for-granted assumptions, they tend to ignore the factors that lie beyond their control, and the shifts of context that may distort the hoped-for outcomes of deliberate action." (Schon and Rein, 1994, p. xiv.)
Schon and Rein (1994) hold the view that uncertainties, conflicts and controversies are realities that have to be handled and that "frame-reflection" is an effective way of working. Group discussion processes that achieve "double-loop learning" can reset parameters for subsequent action and in this way can be used in setting the frame for action. Different facilitating methodologies and techniques can assist such group dialogues. The "Strategic Choice Approach" is one of several methods used in facilitating problem structuring and learning processes for small groups (Rosenhead, 1989). Other methodologies developed for larger groups are "Future Search" (Weisbord, M. & Janoff, S 1995), "Scenario" workshops (Street, P. 1998) and the "European Awareness Scenario" developed within the European Sustainable Cities Campaign.
The development of this methodology is based on research that was initiated in the 1960s at the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations in London and is a pioneering work on the analysis of policy-making in local governments (Friend and Jessop, 1969; Friend, Power and Yewlett, 1974). The research was conducted with teams comprising operational research workers and social scientists. Their empirical findings decisively challenged the prevailing view of how policy-making is carried out in public administration. They showed how informal networks actively co-operated without invoking legal and procedural rules. The "actors'" drive to co-ordinate stemmed from efforts to resolve different kinds of uncertainty about the working environment, about values and about other "actors" in related fields of decision-making. The research was not focused on conflicts and struggles for power as in Flyvbjerg's (1991, 1998) case study, rather it focused on processes for achieving consensus and the formation of policy decisions.
Drawing on the results of this rigorous research Friend and his colleagues later evolved a practical methodology to assist and facilitate complex decision-making processes (Friend and Hickling, 1987; 1997). The "Strategic Choice Approach" (SCA) has been refined continually since it was first applied in the late 1970s. The key problem in forming a strategy, as the authors see it, is the resolution of uncertainty. "The most distinctive feature of this approach is the way it helps users in making incremental progress toward decisions by focusing their attention on alternative ways of managing uncertainty" (Friend, 1989, p. 121). Planning is viewed as a continuous process: a process of choosing particular solutions strategically over time. It is a question of choosing in a strategic way rather than at a strategic level. The use of the term "strategic" is, therefore a bit misleading, since it is not the usual meaning of strategic planning.
The focus is on the connection of decisions with one another, rather than on the relative importance of each decision. "The approach sets out to do no more than to articulate, as clearly as possible, the kinds of dilemma that experienced decision-makers repeatedly face in the course of their work and the often intuitive judgements they make in choosing how to respond." (Friend and Hickling 1997, p.1).
The process comprises four main modes of shaping, designing, comparing, and choosing solutions in order to manage a continual input of multiple problems and to achieve a continuing output of multiple decisions (see Figure 2). It includes the option to switch freely from one mode to another; this offers the opportunity to share insights and perceptions, which makes a valuable contribution to sustaining the sense of momentum in the decision process. The key to success in applying the methodology depends heavily on the personal capability of the facilitator to manage the complex group-process of knowledge building.
Figure 2. A process of strategic choice after Friend and Hickling, 1997, p. 20.
The "Strategic Choice Approach" views the management of any non-routine decision process as governed by perceptions of the relative importance attached to three broad types of uncertainty, each calling for a different type of response. These three categories of uncertainty are: uncertainty pertaining to the working environment; uncertainty pertaining to guiding values; and uncertainty pertaining to related decision fields (Friend and Hickling, 1997 p.9)
Uncertainties pertaining to the working environment lead to demands for responses of a relatively technical character, which can be handled by simple telephone calls or by research, surveys, investigations, forecasting exercises, cost estimations, etc.
Uncertainties pertaining to guiding values lead to demands for clearer objectives and can be dealt with by a request for policy guidance from a higher authority, an effort to clarify objectives, a programme of consultations with interested parties, etc.
Uncertainties pertaining to related decision fields lead to calls for a response in the form of establishing structural relationships between the proposed decisions and those with which they appear to be interconnected. This requires a broader view and can be dealt with by extending the agenda of decisions, negotiations and collaboration to other decision-makers, and moving towards a broader perspective.
Responses to the "Strategic Choice Approach"
Sager classifies the "Strategic Choice Approach" (SCA) as being guided by "bounded" instrumental rationality with the core paradigm to "Search for satisfactory alternative, given an unclear and partly collapsed means-end scheme" (Sager, 1994, p. 42, Table 2.2). Sager holds the SCA to be an essentially decision-centred incremental approach and refers to Yewlett (1985), who regards the approach as designed to integrate rational analysis with a creative synthesis (Ibid. p.47).
Healey is critical of the SCA, due to the limited attention it gives to the power relations of the inter-corporate networking process, or the ethical issues of network building generated by the individual, as well to the informal construction of policy networks bypassing the hierarchical accountability arrangements of individual public agencies. (Healey, 1997, p. 256).
Although it is possible to argue that power is implicated in all forms of the SCA and also that it is embedded in the three broad categories of uncertainty, power is not dealt with explicitly as a concept. In the second edition of Planning under Pressure (1997), the political context has become more explicit than in the first edition (1987) and the authors draw attention to the growth in the complexity of the organisational and political context within which the search for progress is made. Therefore, considerably greater attention has to be given to the design of the work required in the overall design of the decision-making process in the political arena, rather than in the technical domain. (Friend and Hickling, 1997, p 298)
However, there is no reference to power and only one to power relations in the index of the new edition. An explanation may be the authors' long-term practical experiences of how to reach a consensus and their belief in its desirability. "Concepts relating to the management of uncertainty may have to be kept in the background of the work rather than brought to the foreground, as they are sometimes seen as threatening to people in policy roles." (Ibid., p. 299).
To evaluate the "Strategic Choice Approach" as an interactive decision-supporting methodology, a case study was carried out in a Swedish municipality of about 20,000 inhabitants (Stromberg, 1986, Khakee and Stromberg, 1993). The municipality had severe problems with an imbalanced housing market and a growing stock of unlet residential apartments. A reduction in the number of vacant jobs, a decrease in the population and an increased construction of single-owner houses were put forward as the main reasons for this development. The empty apartments created social problems, with a growing segregation in the housing area. Despite many efforts to solve these problems, the imbalanced development in the housing market could not be prevented. A closer study showed that the planning for housing provision had a narrow sectoral approach and was based on certain routines which did not reveal the underlying uncertainty. The situation deteriorated as a result and different agencies and persons in the administration were blamed.
The situation in this municipality is a good illustration of a traditional planning organisation, which at some stage can no longer develop effective strategies when uncertainty becomes a considerable factor. Because of the sectoral division of the planning system, a previously unrecognised issue becomes "no-one's" problem. Most of the municipal departments were connected in some way to the problem, but no department could solve it alone within its own decision domains.
Local government officers found themselves incapable of developing an integrated strategy to tackle the problems. The politicians attempted to inject optimism by revising the demographic prognosis - from one of retardation to one of expansion. From these revised and manipulated figures the officers prepared a new housing provision programme. The way of tackling the problems appeared to be an act of invocation rather than strategic decision making. An analysis of the past ten years of housing provision programmes in the municipality was carried out as preparation for the problem structuring processes. The analysis revealed a considerable amount of uncertainty and faulty implementation of the plans.
The "Strategic Choice Approach" was applied as a device to manage the communicative processes between politicians, administrators, planners and other stakeholders outside the administration in an attempt to tackle the problems of the housing market. The aim was also to evaluate the approach as an interactive decision-supporting methodology, at the same time evaluating the problem structuring efforts. The process was introduced at a three-day workshop on physical planning and the housing programme. The concepts and tools of the "Strategic Choice Approach" were not described prior to the workshop, but introduced during the sessions, as required. Participants were local government officers, politicians and representatives of the municipal housing company. The participants, except for a few leading officers, were not informed about the methodological evaluation. During these three days the process was led by Allen Hickling, one of the inventors of the methodology, and the author of this paper.
A large number of issues and questions were raised during the first day of the workshop. The discussions came gradually to dwell on the problems related to unrented apartments and their relationship to overall planning in the municipality. Most of the discussions took place with the help of graphical representations on large sheets of paper fastened to the walls of the meeting room. A majority of the participants became aware of the fact that most of the views and uncertainties they had expressed were interrelated. With the help of various graphical techniques from the methodological toolbox the participants could work on the problem structure and subsequently they were able to recognise the interrelationships between decision areas with the help of decision graphs. Simple techniques were used to differentiate between alternative solutions. They could also manage different types of uncertainties related to different decisions as the work proceeded. Each decision cycle ended up with a commitment package outlining what had been decided and what should and could be done later on if certain conditions arose.
The new way of informal interactive working constituted a new spirit of co-operation among the participants from different departments and organisations. In Bryson and Crosby's terms a new forum was established which moved the deadlocked processes into a new "framing" structure and made it possible to invent a new temporal organisation. Working groups were formed and dissolved during the process. They varied in size and composition depending of the issues they were investigating. A reference group including representatives of the political parties and other stakeholders, and a steering group of politicians and leading officers responsible for housing and planning were established.
The dialogues, facilitated by a process leader, revealed a mutual need for understanding both the language and culture in different parts of the municipal organisation. As a result a clearer understanding of causal relationships in municipal development was established among officers and politicians. During the initial decision cycles, a large number of investigations were initiated and at the same time proposals were formulated and put forward to the reference and steering groups. Incremental decisions that could take the process further were taken by the steering group. A meeting place and an office for a facilities manager were established in the most problematic housing area to enable direct and daily contact with the inhabitants.
During the following two years the process was lead by a municipal officer as process leader. The work of the groups changed, the attitudes towards the issues were dramatically revised and decisions were developed and implemented which would change the housing market. The methodology was also applied to other planning sectors within the municipality, such as care for the elderly and housing renovation. Five years later, however, the key persons in the experiment have moved away from the municipality and with them the methodological knowledge. Some of this method of working is still used within the municipality based on tacit knowledge, but without explicit reference to the "Strategic Choice Approach".
The use of the "Strategic Choice Approach" as a facilitating vehicle proved to be powerful. However, there are two explicit experiences from this study that are of significance to the further development of the methodology. Most processes and decisions were adversely affected by hidden power-plays among some groups and individual participants. Many of these power-plays had little to do with differing apprehensions over, or values concerning actual policies, but were based on personal friendships, antagonisms, competitions or other forms of human interdependencies. These hidden agendas constituted power-relations and processes that were not discussed openly. But they were always present.
The facilitator for the decision-making process has a very exposed position. During the introduction of the methodology external experts guided the process. Unaware of the actual power-relations, these consultants were regarded after a while as "actors" in the hidden power-play. At a later stage of the process a leading municipal officer was appointed as process-leader, which confirmed which group was the 'owner' of the process. This affected the problem-solving and decision-making processes in a harmful way.
To be able to carry out the research and to understand the decision-making processes, a fourth dimension of uncertainty was introduced for the power game among staff, politicians and other "actors" in the organisations involved in the decision processes. It was called "intra - organisational uncertainty". This type of uncertainty was devised as an instrument for analysis in the case study, but it was not used as a tool in the actual decision-support process.
These experiences of the evaluative case study gave rise to two methodological developments concerning a further application of the "Strategic Choice Approach". One was the introduction of the fourth type of uncertainty, "intra-organisational uncertainty", not just as an instrument for research but also as a tool for facilitating the problem-structuring processes and for gaining a deeper understanding of the context for group work. The second development concerned how to conduct the problem-structuring and knowledge-building processes. The role of the process-leader was separated into two: a process leader who guided and facilitated the intellectual processes and a project leader who gathered the substantive ideas generated in the dialogues.
Environmental issues do not recognise administrative municipal borders. In an attempt to establish co-operation and a common ground for impending Local Agenda 21 processes, a regional Agenda 21 project was initiated and financed by four major public authorities on the Swedish west coast. The Gothenburg City Council, the Association of Local Authorities, the County Council and the Provincial Government were the funding bodies. The total area involved comprised nearly 700,000 inhabitants. Although the establishment of this public partnership was innovative, the original project organisation and the project plan followed standard operating procedures. When the project was started, a project leadership team comprising staff from the authorities involved and guided by a similarly composed political steering group, drew up a linear project plan whereby each phase should be finished, reported on and approved before the next was initiated.
Figure 3. Original
project plan for the environment in the West, 1993 -
The project work got stuck even at the initial goal description phase. The description of the current environmental situation of the different sectors consumed most of the time and money available. Over time the political steering group, more interested in strategies and actions, lost some of its confidence in the work when a traditional sector-oriented report was presented. When an innovative turnaround was brought about in the strategy phase, the politicians had already, at least subconsciously, abandoned their ownership of the project. The active participants had difficulty in conveying their growing insight and knowledge in the form of briefings at meetings which involved formal reviews and decision-taking.
Participants whose ambitions had not been realised, expressed disappointment and criticism. One of the critics, representing a local municipal authority in the region, was appointed head of the subsequent strategy stage. His task was to make the best possible use of the remaining year of the project, to regain the enthusiasm and confidence of the participants. Five strategy task groups were set up; these also included people from outside the initial organisations. Three of the strategy groups were formed to deal with sector issues: traffic, energy and chemicals. The two other groups were established to work with broader and more complex themes: Life in the City and Life in the Countryside.
The Life in the City strategy group comprised an interdisciplinary group of planners and other officials from the four public authorities and two researchers from Chalmers University of Technology. Using Bryson and Crosby terminology, a new forum was set up. A new application of a somewhat developed "Strategic Choice Approach" was decided on. The researchers had a leadership task as consultants, with shared responsibility: Bjorn Malbert for the project and Knut Stromberg for the process.
The practical work of the group lasted for almost a year. After the introduction and orientation, where the main task was to understand the context, contents and expectations of the continuing Agenda 21 process, the group worked for two intensive periods. The first was directed towards the complex relationships between different problem areas and related decision domains. The second period addressed knowledge development and a new problem conceptualisation leading to the identification of related decision domains and "actors" for continuing problem-solving activities.
The group had access to a special room, where the collective discussions took place and where the continuous knowledge-building process was represented in the form of schemes, symbols and key-words on sheets of paper covering the walls. This external "graphic" memory constituted a structured base for an effective common language and for the notation of ideas, concepts and other references.
Between meetings, the participants had assignments for one half day in every second week, to investigate uncertainties that had emerged in the discussions. The project-leading team analysed the results from one meeting to the next to facilitate progress in the work. The meetings started with a short résumé: where are we now; how and why did we reach this position? During the meetings the process leader had the task of leading the discussion towards a higher level of conceptualisation and conclusion, but apart from this the discussion was very free. Questions which were not so relevant to the current discussion were saved so that they could be re-introduced at a later stage, to inject new energy into the work at a point where they would be of greater importance.
Most local environmental problems in cities and in their surroundings, and their global impacts, are related to the use of natural resources. Accordingly the group chose to tackle a problem area which they called "unbalanced flows". By concentrating on one of these flows, phosphorus, the group could then identify related problem areas and structure them to reveal significant inter-relationships and inter-dependencies. With information from the broad and tentative study of the phosphorus flow, the group could make a preliminary problem structure at a higher level of abstraction. Figure 4 shows the related problem areas identified by the group while searching for solutions to problems of unbalanced flows. The code words in the circles carried, significant and specific meaning to the members of the group.
Figure 4. Problem areas related to unbalanced flows as described by the strategy group.
To understand the kind of decisions and actions that must be co-ordinated so as to find sustainable solutions concerning unbalanced flows, the group analysed the decision domains affected in each of the different problem areas indicated in the Figure. The purpose was to identify "actors" who could be mobilised for the purpose of problem solving. Some new members with special competence in nutrient flows were brought into the group. The continued study of the phosphorus flow also included a study of nitrogen and potassium; these three together are the most important nutrients in food production.
The excess fertilisation of watercourses, lakes and the sea caused by the leakage of nutrients from fertilisers used on fields and from drainage and sewage systems, is the phenomenon that dominates today's view of this pollution problem in Sweden. Technical experts from the water and sewage sector dominate the standard problem-solving activity in this field. Large public investments are planned to improve purification technology.
In Sweden, however, agricultural production is very specialised in certain regions. In large parts of southern Sweden vegetable production dominates. The knowledge-building process and the search for solutions relating to excess fertilisation started with the standard approach commonly used by technical experts. During this process the group identified another problem in the under-nourishment of cultivated land, which is solved in the short-term by the unsustainable use of artificial fertilisers. By "reframing" the problem (Schon and Rein, 1994), the group questioned the standard approach and identified other strategies and "actors" instead as a means of closing these cycles of nutrients; in this way, both the problem of 'under-nourishment' and that of 'excess-fertilisation' could be solved at the same time. This collective cognitive achievement of the group is a good example of how dialogues can generate a new situation, with "double-loop learning" (Schon, 1983), which produces new insights and makes it possible to take advantage of a new point of view.
In the search for natural fertilisers that can replace artificial fertilisers, farmers, the food industry, distributors, traders, households, property owners, housing companies, tenants and building constructors became key "actors". The group decided to involve representatives of these categories in the process. The knowledge-building process now shifted to another phase, with more problem-solving activities. Adding new participants also implied the introduction of new perspectives, which led to the identification of many new uncertainties.
Uncertainties of different types were identified continuously during the knowledge-building process of the strategy group. A draft report was produced for the management of uncertainties relating to the working environment, stating briefly the technical, economic, judicial, sanitary and behavioural prerequisites for a change in the system that would close the cycles of nutrients (Schonbeck and Westberg, 1995). This report was to be used as a starting point for the continuing dialogue process involving the "actors" and stakeholders involved.
There were many uncertainties relating to the values which were identified, not least the entrenched uncertainty of consumers' attitudes towards the use of human urine on land used for food production. These attitudes are, in turn, related to the uncertainty about the possible sanitary and medical impacts. What are, for example, the medical effects of hormones contained in human urine? That kind of uncertainty was analysed in depth by a special working group that contacted research groups working in the field.
The most successful part of the work of the strategy group was the management of uncertainties in related decision fields. The establishment of a new problem focus led to the identification of a broader group of "actors" and involved parties. After the formal closure of the Environment in the West project, these "actors" were invited to a meeting to discuss the problem and possible actions. At that meeting all key "actors" associated with the flow of nutrients, from farmers to households and housing companies, were represented. The participants declared their willingness to take over and build on the work of the strategy group.
The Environment in the West organisation comprised several different organisations with various purposes and goals. Competition, misunderstandings and distrust within organisations, between groups and individuals, especially between the active participants of the strategy groups and the steering group of the initiating organisations, constituted a lot of intra-organisational uncertainties. There were no politicians working in the strategy groups and the possibilities for reducing these kinds of uncertainties were limited. The obvious gap between current mainstream planning in the region and the issues discussed in the regional Agenda 21 process, interfered with the broader involvement of additional "actors" in the later stages of the process. The strategy group managed these uncertainties by identifying, uncovering and discussing them, leaving the way open for future problem solving-actions.
By the time the project was formally completed it had developed gradually into a dialogical process comprising numerous organisations and individuals in the region. In other words, several innovative forums were set up and used. This change was accepted but not actively supported by the steering group. The lack of committed political leadership and the need for skilled process leaders for the different forums became obvious in this final stage of the official project.
The work in the early stages of the process closely resembled "business-as-usual". Ithe main, staff from the Provincial Government carried it out. After the innovative turnround, other "actors" and stakeholders became more actively involved in the work in the later stages of the process. The forums of the strategy groups, however, had no direct linkage to the formal arena of the Environment in the West project. The political steering group acted according to the Swedish mainstream planning tradition: decisions should be taken only after consideration of referred prepared proposals. This is not convenient in a cognitive problem-structuring process, where uncertainties have to be managed continuously to drive the discussion forward. This requires the direct involvement of experts as well as decision-makers representing public and private "actors".
The products of the Environment in the West process are on one hand traditional visible products such as reports and other written material and on the other hand, invisible products such as new levels of knowledge and shared problem perceptions among participants. The invisible products of the maturation process among the participants can provide the basis for longer-term co-ordinated actions, those which support Agenda 21. A substantial result of the Environment in the West process is a voluntary association, Agenda 21 in the West, which includes individuals from the organisations and task groups in the original project and other interested persons of the region. One group has been given the task of reviewing critically and rewriting the preliminary report of the former strategy group (Schonbeck and Westberg, 1995) in order to address the remaining uncertainties that could constrain the full-scale experimental application of ideas. In order to demonstrate their commitment, all participants signed the new report. They represented all the key "actors" in food production and consumption concerned with the recycling of nutrients. This report (Linderson, Schonbeck and Westberg, 1998) is a tangible outcome consistent with the ideas of the strategy group, Life in the City. A group of diverse stakeholders has voluntarily been involved in a consensus-building and problem-solving process and they have reached some agreements for the practical implementation of the results.
The work of this strategy group, Life in the City, had a great deal of influence on the project Environment in the West's final stage. The need for community involvement at the solutions stage became obvious to the project leadership team and the original idea of a common public sector action programme was changed to a strategy for establishing meeting places and forums, and for initiating community-based problem-solving processes.
Is it possible to answer the initial questions of this paper? Is it possible to improve the content, outcome and implementation of planning processes with methodological developments that include wider groups of concerned stakeholders? Who should take part? What issues can be dealt with and what legitimacy do such processes have? How can they be organised and dealt with in practice?
It is impossible to form any general conclusions from the processes described here. No-one knows what would have happened if the methodology had not been applied. In any case it gives grounds for some reflections. The effects of such mutual learning processes are long-term and although the formal project of Environment in the West has long since finished, there are still communicative processes maturing and new knowledge is being developed and disseminated in the established networks.
In both case studies the "Strategic Choice Approach" was applied in non-standard situations that did not fit into the standard operation procedures in the municipalities. These endeavours have not in any obvious long lasting ways affected the standard operating procedures. One explanation for this is the need for special skills which have been brought into the organisation from outside through consultants and researchers, or from specialists within the organisation. When those specialists leave the organisation, they also take their skills with them. This indicates a need to provide continuing education for professionals in the facilitating processes.
Both of the two processes where the "Strategic Choice Approach" was applied, as outlined briefly above, took place in situations where the standard operational procedures of the planning organisations were unable to deal with acute situations. In the terms of Bryson and Crosby (1993) the processes were moved from the normal arena, with its "framing structures" for decision-making and access, to "temporal forums" with new "framing structures" for communication and access. In the first case study, the municipality with an imbalanced housing market, a new temporal organisation for the management of facilities was organised within the municipality, thereby moving the action from the established administrative "framing structure" to one which had direct contact with the stakeholders.
In the second case, in the project Environment in the West, the organisation and method of working was altered at the end of the project. A "temporal forum", Life in the City, was established with external participants and a new way of working. By this means, the focus of the participants moved from the main goals of the official consortium of formulating policies and implementation strategies, to the creation and communication of the meaning and formulation of basic questions and their interdependence for and by the stakeholders themselves. The "framing structure" for the work thereby changed, making it possible to question rules, test new ideas and use new methods.
In the first case the new forum was embedded within the municipal administrative structure. In the second case with its multi-organisational consortium, with different cultures and established procedures for working, different legal responsibilities and differing geographical demarcations, the situation was much more difficult. The original project organisation was not suited to the complex task of a regional Agenda 21. However, the experiences became learning processes, not just for the participants in the working groups, but also for the administrative leadership, which in the end recommended the establishment of meeting places, forums, and the initiation of local problem-solving processes.
The communicative planning processes have, however, other meanings than that of learning and problem solving. Apart from the intellectual dimension there is also a social dimension in the building of networks for stakeholders and other involved and interested parties. These networks can be proactive in the identification and description of problems and their interconnectedness. That means that there is also a political dimension embedded in this way of working, since it becomes possible to create political pressure for certain solutions to community problems that can stem from selective interests. Such questions arise quite often in the protection of certain areas which are to be used for collective or commercial interests.
This poses the question as to who should take part in such communicative processes which are sponsored by the municipalities or other official organisations. Lobbing groups and negotiative planning processes become the reality as soon as commercial interests are involved in the outcome of planning processes. An optimistic view is to suggest that it is possible that the establishment of stakeholder forums could couterbalance such developments. There are, however, many examples which show that the commitment and involvement of the constituencies mainly depend on what happens in the near future and nearby in their neighbourhood. Interest in long-term and strategic questions often diminishes after a short time (Falkheden 1999). The explanation for this can lie in the complexity of the issues involved and the fact that such communicative processes take up a lot of time. There is a need to develop democratic modes, methods and media for facilitating the opportunities for involvement of a wider group of people in these processes.
The applied methodology, the "Strategic Choice Approach", is just one of many ways of facilitating group dynamic work. It is most useful in small groups of less than ten participants. There is an overview of similar techniques in Rosenhead (1989). There are now also several interesting developments for larger groups. "Future Search Conferences" is a mechanism for facilitating the monitoring and reporting on progress towards sustainable development by consulting and involving the public and developing partnerships with groups within the local community (Weisbord and Janoff, 1995). There are several local authorities, such as Hitchin, Sutton and Guildford in England that have applied this methodology with success. There is another interesting development initiated by the Sustainable Urban Development Campaign called "The European Awareness Scenario" which has been applied in several European countries.
One of the main problems concerning managing this kind of learning process is the huge amount of time it takes for the analysis and understanding of the existing situation and the analysis of possible consequences for different future developments. The compilation of local data bases with open access makes it possible to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and computer simulation techniques, and the systematic analysis of future developments provides the opportunity to reduce the size of some of these problems. "SPARTACUS" is a methodology for assessing urban sustainability based on mathematical simulation models, which provides values for environmental, social and economic indicators of urban sustainability (EC DGXII, SPARTACUS 1998). These kinds of developments encompass both possibilities and threats. Mathematical models, computer systems and simulations can only provide relatively poor representations of reality and must, therefore, be put into a context where the results can be reviewed critically. This is applies to transport simulation models that are used as standard instruments in planning without much knowledge and questioning by planners or other parties. This is the case inspite of their huge impact on the dimension of transport infrastructure systems and accordingly on the whole of urban-region structures.
It would be a positive development if the "soft system analysis" type of methodology such as "Strategic Choice", "Future Search Conferences" and others, could be complemented by "hard systems analysis" techniques through the use of local databases accessible on the internet, GIS, and simulation system models such as "SPARTACUS". By integrating these kind of tools in local forums, not only could the intellectual dimension of learning be supported, but also the development of the social and political dimensions of community work.
1. Original publications are Friend, J., Jessop, W.N.(1969), Friend, J., Power, J. M., Yewlett, C.J.L.(1974) and Friend, J., Hickling, A.(1987).
2. This case was carried out in co-operation with Allen Hickling as consultant. It has been discussed and published in Stromberg, K. (1986) and in Khakee, A. and Stromberg, K. (1993). See also Friend, J. & Hickling, A. (1997).
3. This case was carried out in co-operation with Bjorn Malbert. It has been discussed and published in Malbert, B., Stromberg, K.(1996) and Malbert, B. (1998). See also "Sustainable Urban Development - analysis for management and design". A framework for long term research at the Department of Urban Planning and Design, CHALMERS, 1997.
4. For the notions of arena and forum refer to Bryson,J., Crosby,B.(1993).
5. This case study was carried out in co-operation with Allen Hickling as consultant. It has been reported in Stromberg, K. (1986) and in Khakee, A. and Stromberg, K. (1993). See also Friend, J. and Hickling, A. (1997).
6. This case study was carried out in co-operation with Bjorn Malbert. It has been discussed and published in Malbert, B., Stromberg, K.(1996) and Malbert, B. (1997). See also Sustainable Urban Development - analysis for management and design. (Bjur, H. et al 1997).
Making Outdoor Places for Children
Göteborg Conference Papers - Oct 1999
Identification of ecological potentials (Guldager et al)
A Communicative Planning Methodology (Stromberg)
Rationality Revisited (Lapintie)
European Research Network - Urban density and Green Structure
of the Gothenburg Conference: