I’ve been writing a lot about values and vision lately over on the Thoughstream blog and that got me thinking about this really cool (to me) equation I learned in while taking the Provincial Instructors Diploma Program (PID) at Vancouver Community College… eons ago.
I actually hunted around for quite awhile looking for this equation. I even went so far as to post a plee for help in finding it, on the Facebook page for the PID program. Now that I have found it, it’s not quite a fantabulous as I recalled but it’s still pretty cool so I thought I’d share it.
The most often used example of this equation in action is the pro-life debate. The vast majority of people are “pro-life”, that would be the moral standard. Most people believe life is “good”, they value it. Where people differ is in their understanding and belief of the “facts”. Some people believe that life begins at conception or before and other believe it begins at some other time. What you believe to be the “truth” determines your moral judgement around abortion.
What we believe to be the truth is usually influenced by our culture, our upbringing and what our peers ascribe a “the truth”. With the internet and it’s enabling of access to a wider variety of “truth” maybe we’ll see more acceptance of other people’s truths and less harsh judgements of others… we can hope right…
Warren Karlenzig’s TEDx talk about using collective intelligence to co-create cities of the (near) future.
Recently the city of Chilliwack unveiled a new plan for the downtown. It seems like a great, values and vision based plan to revitalize the downtown core. The idea is to create the conditions that could facilitate development of a Live – Work – Play neighborhood. On the surface it appears like a great idea and yet for some reason it has rankled me from the beginning. I can finally put words to that gut instinct, so here goes.
The downtown plan
The plan is simple. Level the city owned building that no one seems to be able to figure out what to do with and thereby create a blank slate.. ok, not quite a blank slate.. for developers to paint a city scape on. The deal is that the boundaries are set by the city, the canvas is a bit limited as are the colours but outside of that you are invited to invest by building something that allows people to live, work and play in that neighborhood. Fair enough.
Gentrification of the downtown core
One of the challenges I have with this is related to the reality of the downtown core. The people that already live, work and play there will be displaced if this plan comes to fruition. Cost of living in the area will go up and the police will be instructed, or they will take it upon themselves, to move the sex trade workers, dealers and downtrodden out of the area. Ya, we are talking gentrification here folks. And lets be very, very clear about one thing. This will not solve the problems of complex trauma and the symptoms that state produces – addiction, self harm and violence. They will just move a street over, as they did in Gastown.
Systems thinking done wrong
The other challenge I have with the plan is that it’s based on faulty thinking. It uses a model of thinking and planning that is excellent when the problem is complicated but lousy with the problem is complex. The nut shell explanation of the difference is that sending a man to the moon, or landing Curiosity on Mars is complicated while raising a child is complex. City planners would love to convince you that planning a neighborhood makeover is complicated and therefore the tools of the complicated domain will work. They are wrong. Revitalizing the downtown core has more in common with raising a child than it does sending a piece of equipment into space.
Planning in the complicated domain
In a complicated environment you can create a community or organizational vision, determine where you are now, measure the gap and then create a stepwise plan to close the gap. It works. I use it all the time… in complicated environments. We define good practices, measure for progress against the plan, and if problems arise we call in experts. The problems are known or at least knowable as are the solutions. The process that works in this domain is to Sense (survey, study, research) what is going on, Analyze the situation(s) and Respond based on the analysis.
In the Complex Domain what works is to Probe-Sense-Respond... repeatedly. Very much like raising a child. You create safe to fail experiments called Probes. Notice the effect of the probe, especially the probes that do not work. Have in place a way to amplify probes that do work and dampen probes that don’t work.
Safe to fail examples in child rearing could be the many different ways to try and get a teenager up for school on time.
- it’s time to get up dear
- get up now, get up now, get up now…
- get up or else
- buy kid an alarm clock
- leave it up to the kid to get themselves out of bed and accept the natural consequences
- negotiate a strategy
I use teenagers as an example because they are the most complex creatures on the planet. What works with one in one situation may not work with others and what works with one on one day may not work at all the next day. Setting flexible boundaries, having a way to reinforce wanted behaviours while discouraging unwanted behaviours and being willing and able to adapt your approach is really the only method that works.
The process of renewing or growing the downtown core is very much like parenting. Here’s my take on how the city is approaching this.
We brought together a bunch of well intended relatives and created a vision on behalf of the child. The vision was very specific.. so instead of envisioning a happy, health, well adjusted human they decided how she would dress, act, who her friends would be and what she woud do when she grew up. They did this with the best of intentions because they only wanted the very best for her.
The problem was that although this approach had worked with her brother, she had other ideas. She wanted to be an artist, not a architect. She wanted to wear eclectic and fashion forward clothes, not colour matched seperates. She wanted to be able to.. ok, you get the idea.
Once heritage buildings are torn down, they are just gone. The possibilities become very limited. Now that we have invested in and approved a city plan other options will not be seen.
The city has decided to limit the possibilities for an emerging downtown core as the only strategy. It will be awesome.. if it works. It is not however a safe to fail plan. Once heritage buildings are torn down, they are just gone. The possibilities become very limited. Now that we have invested in and approved a city plan other options will not be seen, at least not easily seen.
Other ways of growing a city
The third challenge I have with this plan is that it shines a light away from developing neighbourhoods where they are. It is destined to become like neighbourhood described by Thomas Vander Wall, below.
Santana Row is a 3 by 5 block grid of new urbanism mixed use and walkable planning (one of many of efforts by Federated Realty). It is a highly designed community that is an oasis or aberrant outlier in the whole of San Jose city, depending on one’s perspective. As stated by Gordon Ross’ wife, “it is a great place to walk around if you drive there”.
Santana Row heavily proscribed design of space and use focusses the ground floors of the 3 to 5 story building to stores and restaurants and the upper floors for office and living space. It could be viewed as quasi-self supporting (lacking industrial and agricultural elements) for the roughly 1,000 people who live/work there. This village has a strong central management that proscribes use, design, and development of what happens in the bounds of the 3 by 5 grid bounds. It is not designed for emergence other than varying occupants of the spaces, which can be somewhat flexible, but it is largely held with in the already defined bounds.
As more natural social environs can grow, morph, and be emergent at, within, and beyond its initial bounds this planned village is less emergent and flexible. Use is constrained, for good or bad, by the heavily designed space. It is a social space that has set infrastructure, use, and size constraints that keep the development functioning with the same of similar vibe and experience across time.
The kinds of neighbourhoods that I believe we should be encouraging are not completely emergent. That would be chaotic. What I’m pondering is what if we started with what we had?
I live in an area of Chilliwack that, according to Walk Score, is a solid 27 (out of 100). That means I really can’t walk to any business or amenity that I might need in a day. To walk to the nearest convenience store is 30 minutes round trip with half being up hill.. and we have weather and the occasional bear. This is a neighbourhood where lots of people, including me, walk a lot… for exercise, not to get things done.
Other than the neighbourhood stores – we have two, one on one corner and on on the other – we also have a private liquor store, a Japanese restaurant, a video store, tanning place, hair salon, small coffee place, and two pizza places. All of these are located on one corner. WT!?
What would it be like if some of these businesses were scattered around the neighbourhood so more people were likely to walk to them? By having only one commercial “corner” in a residential area it limits the possibility of having more services scattered across a larger area. Centralized design may solve some problems but limits possibilities overall.
If I want anything other than what my corner plaza offers I have to drive or take one of the infrequent buses. I would take public transit more often if it was cheaper and more convenient. That has to happen first. Why don’t we have small, electric (they can plug in at city hall now) powered vans that pick up from more places more often? Or better yet how about a fleet of shared smart cars and electric bikes. I can’t afford one personally but would love to be able to use something more economical for trips into the city proper. I work in the Fraser Canyon so need a 4 wheel drive with room for passengers but would really rather drive something more enviro-friendly when possible. To work, either of these ideas would need to be easy and cheap-ish. I’m thinking of the systems in Paris to rent bikes.
Anyone can pick up a bike at any metro station or anywhere there’s a “borne” (stand) of bikes, ride around for half an hour, and then leave it at any Velib’ stand.
The first half hour is free, and not only that, the bikes themselves are extremely cool, a sort of futuristic bike that makes you feel like there is nothing more high-tech and advanced than a bicycle. (bikes designed by French designer Patrick Jouin)
With smart technology all the reasons people had for thinking it wouldn’t work.. well things have changed.
I guess my point here is that instead of focusing so much time and energy on a prescribed downtown core facelift how about focusing on the areas where development is already happening and adding to those. Why aren’t we talking more about adding Live to existing Work – Play neighbourhoods like Eagles Landing fro example. Why aren’t we distributing services to neighbourhoods instead of putting dollars into concentrated design.
Moores Law and the speed of change
That brings me to the last reason for my reluctance to embrace the cities plans for the downtown core. Things are changing at a speed we have never seen before. It’s as if Moores law now applies to everything. What I mean is that the things we think are impossible today may be the obvious solutions tomorrow. Literally. That means we need to start thinking with a complexity mindset.
We don’t know the questions or the answers today because we haven’t really got a firm grasp about what might be possible tomorrow. The processes we use to make decisions, make plans and develop communities has to change to a more flexible and reflective model that facilities emergence. Collective intelligence is one way to improve both decision making and the execution of decisions or plans. In complex, adaptive systems, vision, mission, goal setting, aka traditional leadership models and tools will not work… or they will work but with unintended and unpredictable results.
Building on success
You know what gets me? There are some awesome examples of things that are working downtown. Party in the Park is a prime example. That event, working the way it did, should be looked at. It was a Probe. A safe to fail experiment in community building and connecting. Now we need to Sense and Respond. Why did it work? What about it worked? Did it fill a common need? What need did it fill? Does that need tell us something about community engagement? Does it’s success tell us something about our community? Is there an opportunity to fill that need in another way, at another time, in another space? What else could work? How would we know if something else worked? What is the amplification strategy? If it doesn’t work what can we do to stop or minimize?
Don’t go getting all “best practices” here or even “let’s have a six month long, closed door, invitation only, inquiry”. That’s not what I’m suggesting. I wondering about entering into a process and mind set that facilitates learning in the present and uses that knowledge to create another safe to fail experiment.
Party in the park was a safe to fail experiment that went well and will most likely continue to do well. Bulldozing part of the downtown core in the hope that some company somewhere might someday buy into the official city vision… I’m not so sure about that.
As we question whether our instructional methods are fitting to our changing times…we also have to determine if our physical environments are conducive to supporting learning in the 21st century. Environment is not about whether we are using rows or group seating in our classrooms…it is about taking a deep and reflective look at the environment of our entire organization. And being able to decipher what message our organization’s physical environment is sending…
Absolutely! We ought to pay attention to the physical environment that we ask people (kids are people too) to be in while they learn. We also need to be more aware of the messages sent and received because of the way we design our physical environments.
What does your space say?
A few years ago I worked for a fairly well known non-profit. They did some amazing work in advocating and directly helping women and children. They also had this policy and practice around the counters in their office spaces. The counters were all over 4 feet high and had additional glass barriers on top of that. The message, to me, was very clear. It said we are afraid of you and we sure as heck don’t trust you. I did some digging and sure enough the counters were in response to one incident when an irate and mentally ill client jumped the counter. What disturbed me was that they just didn’t “get” that by sending the message through their environment that “you scare us” they were most likely increasing the likelihood of having people act out. They were also increasing the frequency of staff behind the counter treating clients with disrespect.
I recently had to pick up one of my grandkids at her middle school. It was awful. I felt like I was doing something wrong just by being there. There is a massive empty space at the entrance that looks like it might be used during lunch and other breaks, but as this was class there we no kids. The main office was just off to the side of this space and like most scholl offices, built like a fortess. Seriously, I have been in correctional institutions that were more and inviting than many a school. (Corrections folks know about the impact of environment on behaviour)
The real challenge with this particular grandkid pickup event was the emotional environment set by the office staff. I went tot he window and there were two office staffers chatting at he back of the room and one sitting at a desk near the window. The all did the office staff stare when I approached. you know the one. The look that says, ya, we see you and will get over to you when we it’s convenient for us. No smile, not even a neutral expression. A definite message message though. The visit went downhill from there. I understand the need for vigilance and child safety but seriously folks take a hint from Walmart greeters and crack a smile at least. You want me to support more funding for education to pay people who treat me like that? That’s a hard sell.
The other story I have about environment and messages relates to parking spaces. I had a meeting at a school district office recently and there was literally one space for visitor parking and it was really hard to find. I can understand space restrictions but at least acknowledge it. The sign for the one space said something like “Visitor Parking. Do not park in stall marked for staff. You will be towed.” How about something like “So sorry we only have one stall for you. Please use it so the tow truck stays away” I would have appreciated that and entered the meeting in a much better frame of mind.
The science behind environmental design
Ok, enough of the stories, the reason I wanted to post this was to share the video above. It has a refreshing message. Having just watched Waiting for Superman I was in need of some hope. If you haven’t seen Waiting for Superman I encourage you to rent of buy a copy and watch it. It’s well done but I have to warn you – it’s depressing. If you are in Canada and think its different here, think again and check out this Mclean’s article titled Why its so hard to fire bad teachers?
In the video embedded above one of the things that struck me in the school environment described is that it seems to be in alignment with some recent research on empathy and children.
Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez show a relationship between child rearing practices common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies (how we humans have spent about 99 percent of our history) and better mental health, greater empathy and conscience development, and higher intelligence in children. (Science Daily 2010)
Narvaez identified six practices that may increase empathy, intelligence and overall well being in children. Schools can’t do a lot of this, only parents and caregivers can. Schools can however create environments that promote interactions between children of differing ages and increase the number of adult caregivers that that children form attachments with.
- Lots of positive touch — as in no spanking — but nearly constant carrying, cuddling and holding;
- Prompt response to baby’s fusses and cries. You can’t “spoil” a baby. This means meeting a child’s needs before they get upset and the brain is flooded with toxic chemicals. “Warm, responsive caregiving like this keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years it is forming its personality and response to the world,” Narvaez says.
- Breastfeeding, ideally 2 to 5 years. A child’s immune system isn’t fully formed until age 6 and breast milk provides its building blocks.
- Multiple adult caregivers — people beyond mom and dad who also love the child.
- Free play with multi-age playmates. Studies show that kids who don’t play enough are more likely to have ADHD and other mental health issues.
- Natural childbirth, which provides mothers with the hormone boosts that give the energy to care for a newborn.
The other BIG thing that stood out for me in the video, also related to the idea of grouping kids with multi-age playmates, has to do with how we learn. In the video they call this flex grouping and one of the teachers in the video talks about kids teaching other kids and how that helps them learn. In a brain scan of a child doing four distinct learning activities – reading, writing, listening and telling – the brain activity is most active when the child is telling someone about that he had read or heard. Telling, explaining, showing aka teaching are things we do that activates the brain and learning becomes deeper, richer and more connected, literally. Providing opportunities for kids to learn by teaching other kids should be front and centre in considering learning spaces and practices.
Horses and carts
One final word. In Tom’s response to Dave original blog on this he offers us a glimpse into his wife’s mind more than her classroom. A new environment alone will not change learning. Teachers all over the world create warm and inviting spaces because their environment is a reflection of who they are. We need to be aware of the difference between cause and correlation, horses and carts. Great teachers with access to great environments are going to do great work. Great teachers in crappy environments will still find a way to connect with their learners. But the best environment in the world will not make an uninformed or disconnected teacher automatically become great.