Places and cities aren’t giant, complicated machines that can be controlled and managed only by knowledgeable experts.
We’ll explore this contention in the article below and provide an alternative concept based on systems thinking in a second blog post next week.
Thinking of Places as Machines is the Standard Approach
The scientific and industrial revolutions considered the world as a being like a huge, complicated, but ultimately understandable clock. The whole could be understood by breaking things in to pieces, studying each part intensely to better understand it and aiming for control and consistency.
A factory production line is a good representation of this worldview. A factory requires expert knowledge to design, build and operate and then produces relatively consistent, standardised outputs based on raw materials or unprocessed inputs. It is logical, linear and generally predictable. A key aim of a factory is to maximise efficiency through process optimisation.
“This worldview has profoundly transformed humanity in the last two centuries, bestowing upon us unprecedented levels of prosperity and life expectancy. The possibility to imagine “what if” has also freed us from the oppression of caste systems and religions and replaced feudal governance with the rule of law and democracy. This worldview dominates management thinking today”.‘Reinventing Organizations’ by Frederic Laloux
The Role of Government in the Machine Approach
The role of governments in this approach is similar to a factory manager. Given the machine is very complicated, places should be controlled and managed by knowledgeable experts employed in service-delivery silos in centralised bureaucracies. You need an engineer to design a bridge or a road. You need an urban planner to zone land, manage regulations and process applications. You employ a works crew to maintain parks and streetscapes etc.
“Many governments around the world have embraced a service delivery mindset inspired by management practices from the private sector.
By examining the evidence of what works and what doesn’t, designing services based on this understanding, and managing those services efficiently, the logic runs that we are likely to achieve better outcomes for citizens.
The delivery mindset holds that citizens can be thought of as customers of public services, and the same tools of process optimisation can be applied to a welfare service, for example as to a bank.”‘Enablement: how governments can achieve more by letting go’, by Adrian Brown – https://bit.ly/2Ykwkjf
The Centre for Public Impact summarises the key characteristics of the Places as Machines or service delivery model:
- Aim to maximise efficiency through process optimisation
- Outcomes are the result of clear, predictable linear processes
- The customer is to be serviced and should be the focus of the process
- Centralisation manages risk and delivers economies of scale
- Control who can do what via strict hierarchies, plans and regulations
- Aim for best practice via benchmarking and ‘scorecards’
- Deliver consistency, predictability and accountability
- The organsiation is typified by expert-led, service-delivery silos
This approach works well with logical, engineering-based services such as sewerage systems, roads and rubbish collection. Given the lack of these basic services 100 or even 50 years ago, the past dominance of this approach to deliver necessary services to people is understandable.
But, the machine or service delivery model doesn’t work very well with more complex issues, such as:
- Loneliness and social isolation
- Loss of community
- Mental health
- Physical health
- Climate change
- Environmental degradation
- Placemaking (defined as per the Project for Public Spaces definition)
These kinds of issues can’t be solved by one group of of people using logical, linear, predictable processes. They require a far more holistic and integrated approach based on systems thinking.
“The nature of the challenges that the public sector is trying to address is changing. For example, mental health is now a major public health crisis in many developed countries and is linked to other problems such as substance abuse, domestic violence and unemployment. In other words, this is a complex and varied problem that is being poorly addressed by existing approaches.”‘Enablement: how governments can achieve more by letting go’, by Adrian Brown – https://bit.ly/2Ykwkjf
The Place as a Machine Approach to Car Parking
Take car parking an example. In the ‘place as a machine’ approach, the aim is to ‘predict and provide’ – predict how many motorists would like to drive to a place (assuming there are no costs to park a car) and then provide the ‘required’ number of car bays to meet the predicted ‘demand’. Once this ‘scientific’ assessment is undertaken, it is then codified into regulations and applied consistently to all places, without regard to their context.
But, even something as seemingly simple as car parking doesn’t follow logical, linear, predictable outcomes. Because free car parking is basically enforced by regulation, driving is directly encouraged and subsidised, feeding traffic congestion and “parking problems”. Bigger roads are deemed necessary, which feeds further traffic congestion based on induced demand. Motorists think they can drive and park everywhere for free. The people who don’t drive end up subsidising the motorists who do drive. The approach delivers perverse outcomes and usually creates more problems than it aims to fix.
There is plenty of research to support the contention that the machine approach doesn’t work in complex systems such as cities and ecosystems.
The Role of Businesses and the Community in the Machine Approach
The role of businesses and the community is to passively fund the ever-more-complicated machine. Pleas for “someone to do something” about Issue X require more inputs (usually money) into the machine to “solve” the problem.
The focus on servicing customers also trains people behave as customers, demanding more for less. Relationships become transactional and superficial.
People assume that there is a rule to control everything. So they don’t try or even imagine that they can do something to improve their place. One of the hardest things to do in our work with communities is to get them to understand that they do have the ability to act and create positive change. Sometimes, it requires gimmicks such as a Get Out of Jail Free card.
So What? Why Does This Matter?
One of the main criticisms of the machine approach is that it delivers a consistent, standardised mediocrity. It does not handle change or innovation easily. It also contributes to environmental and social problems rather than helping addressing them.
As control and autonomy have been stripped away by layers of regulation and centralised control, businesses and the people have ‘outsourced’ their responsibilities to “someone else”. The expectation is that governments fix the increasingly evident chronic environmental, social, governance and economic issues.
People around the world are increasingly disillusioned. In Australia, only 35% of people trust governments according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report. A Lowy Institute 2018 survey found only 49% of 18-29 year olds and 45% of 30-44 year olds believe that democracy is preferable to “any other kind of government”.
For anyone who believes in democracy, these findings should be profoundly disturbing. The legitimacy of the democratic system itself is being questioned.
“The huge problem with citizenship today is that people don’t take it very seriously,” says Harry Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College.
“The two dominant frameworks for citizenship in political theory,” he explains, “are the liberal framework, where citizens are voters and consumers of goods, and the communitarian framework, where citizens are volunteers and members of communities. In other words, for most people, citizenship is doing good deeds, or it’s voting and getting things.
We need to develop the idea of civic agency, where citizens are co-creators of democracy and the democratic way of life.”
It is bewildering, when you take a step back, to realize how far we’ve gotten away from that last statement. We have completely divorced governance from citizenship, and built thick silo walls around government by creating an opaque, discipline-driven approach to problem-solving.
Busting those silo walls is imperative to creating more equitable communities. Rather than trying, haplessly, to solve transportation, housing, or health problems separately, as if they exist within a vacuum, government should be focused on building stronger place.
“Democracy is not a government, it’s a society,” argues Boyte. “We have to develop an idea that democracy is the work of the people. It’s citizen-centered democracy, not state- or government-centered democracy. That doesn’t mean government doesn’t play an important role, but if you think about government as the center of the universe, we need something like a Copernican revolution.”https://www.pps.org/article/stronger-citizens-stronger-cities-changing-governance-through-a-focus-on-place
Local Government Leading the Discussion
The local government sector is taking a lead in reforming the system. The Future of Local Government Declaration states that:
“This declaration rests on a belief that the state of the nation and the health of our society depend on community-driven action in the neighbourhood, not just decisions made in parliaments or boardrooms.
Across the world people are concerned about the apparent inability of governments, business and public institutions to address the economic, social and environmental challenges of the 21st Century. Our present ways of thinking and governing are neither coping with the pace of change nor meeting citizens’ expectations. There is an urgent need for a fresh approach and responsive leadership.
In some ways Australia remains the ‘lucky country’ but here too we are struggling with economic upheaval, rising inequality, loss of social cohesion, increased rates of mental illness and serious environmental threats, notably climate change. Many Australians are losing faith in our basic democratic institutions and withdrawing from active participation in civic and cultural life. Our reputation as an inclusive, tolerant and compassionate society is under threat.
It’s time to explore a new model of governance, one based on a re-energised civil society that draws on the strength and resourcefulness of people working together in diverse local and regional communities – a localist response.”https://www.mav.asn.au/what-we-do/sector-development/future-of-local-government
It is inspiring to see the work of local governments including the Town of Victoria Park and City of Vincent in Western Australia leading the place-led approach.
If the machine or service delivery model isn’t working, what is the alternative? We’ll explore a new approach based on ‘Places as Systems’ in the next blog post.
Note: We don’t profess to be experts in this subject or systems thinking. But we are having a go and providing a constructive contribution to the debate on how to create stronger communities and better places. We’ll update our thinking (if needed) as we learn more and refine these ideas.