E2Conf Santa Clara 2011 – What Urban Planning Can Teach Social Business Design


On Wednesday morning at Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara 2011, a small group of people came out to watch Thomas Vander Wal and I try to do our best in describing some of the ideas that we’ve been kicking around for a while about social software and its relationship to the field of urban planning. Having been to a number of Enterprise 2.0 conferences on both coasts and having been critical of some of the content in the past, I figured it was time to put my money where my mouth is and try to provide a different perspective. This was not your “top 10 things you can do to drive E2.0 adoption” presentation. Far from it.

A few brave souls joined us for the first session of the day and I thank them for their attendance, attention, and participation (both in person and on twitter…)

The presentation was theoretical in orientation. And highly metaphorical. My part of the presentation (I will let Thomas write about his own perspectives on his blog) provided an entry point into thinking about urban planning through New York’s Greenwich Village, the battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the book that resulted from that battle; The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It was in this book that Jacobs took aim at the high modernist, “rational,” technocratic central planners of her time, who wished to engineer away the mess and slums of cities with their urban renewal efforts and concrete reveries.

In that book, Jacobs argues that thriving cities thrive because of their complexity, disorder and messiness not because of their pristine order and engineered efficiency. And while modernist architecture and large-scale centrally planned civic efforts fell mostly out of favour in the 1970’s and onwards (unless you’re in northern China in cities like Ordos today), my argument is that their principles and spirit found a happy home in a less material yet no less psychologically crushing environment; information technology.

Information technology and the systems of records that we’ve been building inside of organizations ever since the 1970’s have been bastions of modernist architectural design thought. The automation and digitization of the workforce and its corresponding mechanical metaphors, images, and language run rampant inside our institutions even to this day. They are embedded in our systems and therefore our thinking.

But this is changing. Slowly but surely, the mess and complexity is starting to be understood and not feared. It’s a slow road and has many long years ahead as people leave behind their metaphorical “organization as machine” thinking. But I do believe it is happening.

Others believe it’s happening too. Dave Gray of Dachis Group has written extensively about this with his Connected Company efforts. It was his blog post in February 2011 that prompted me to get off my ass and finally put some of my thoughts down into a small burst of 3 blog posts on the subject. And that, plus some ongoing emails and conversations with Thomas turned into the presentation today.

So what’s Dave’s preferred metaphor for the organization, if not the machine? Well, it’s a complex system. And what better complex system to choose than a city.

My question is simple: if we are going to think about our organizations as cities, what can we learn from people who “design” cities for a living? Those “designers” are called planners and their profession is planning. Who are they? What do they do? How do they plan?

As I’ve found out through my readings and conversations, planning has a rich history – a 200 year old history dating back to the Enlightenment. Based on the definitions of planning and the types of problems that planners try to solve (often “wicked problems” in nature and form), I believe we have a great deal to learn from them.

Fundamentally, planning can be defined as a forward looking activity, one that takes what we know and turns it into action in a rational manner. And for most planners, their work is in the public domain; civic government, public sector activities – different aspects of society or public life where their knowledge, decisions, actions, and rationality play out. For social business professionals, our domain is the organization. While that sounds neat and tidy, the lines are blurring there and enterprise social software is playing a role. Customer feedback, internal collaboration and communication, not to mention the involvement of partners in the decision making processes mean that social business’s landscape is varied and increasingly expanding.

My pitch, while not elevator quality by a long shot, is as follows:

Knowledge (be it scientific, technical, and other forms) and its connection to the future through action, decision making, and the processes and practices whereby
we arrive at what we consider to be “rational” for our new fangled social businesses is at the core of the value proposition of the systems of engagement, of enterprise social software.

And if the Enterprise 2.0 conference attendees thought they were there to buy software, they were perhaps only half right. The value of that software, it’s purpose, is the reconfiguration of social relations, the way people work, and the way people create value and meaning inside organizations.

And the practice of social transformation is planning.

The audience of our talk were all planners. They just didn’t know it yet.

Due to this unawareness, I believe that the lack of planning theory in the Enterprise social software field represents a huge intellectual blindspot. One that I hope to contribute to shining a light on some more in the future.

The thoughts that I wished to share with the conference were appreciative in nature – that is, they were primarily used in order to, in planning historian John Friedman’s words, “construct a satisfying image of the world, pursued primarily for the world view it opens up.” If Gareth Morgan was to re-write Images of the Organization, or at least update it today, I hope he’d include a chapter on “Organization as City” (as an aside, I know I could do without the chapter “Organization as Game” which is another blog post in the making…).

After Thomas provided his ideas that had been informed by his background reading and schooling in planning and public policy thought, I wrapped up with a few references to some ideas that really resonate with me:

The differences of space and place, well articulated by Paul Dourish in his 2001 book on the philosophical aspects of software Where the Action Is, is one which borrows quite obviously from planning and architecture. Space is geometric in nature, place is experiential and social. So how do we great great places in our software? This is still a key question in UX that needs work to be done.

Networks vs. hierarchies – Christopher Alexander and his 1965 essay The City is Not a Tree is worth re-reading. As of course, is Alexander’s Pattern Language.

Dave Snowden‘s concept of safe-fail vs. fail-safe and the lightweight, low-cost urban traffic and street-scape interventions of people like Janet Sadik-Khan in New York is another one that I think we can learn from in our complex social software systems.

And finally, wherever we are thinking about the future, utopian visions aren’t far behind. We fall in love with our models and visions of the city from the air, when really we should be designing from the street level. Mind the Platonic Fold! How do we ensure that we don’t get too enamoured with our models and static representations of clearly dynamic, evolving, and changing social systems?

How this translates back into social software, its design, and our processes for integrating it with our day to day lives inside of organizations – that’s a work in progress. I’m a firm believer in the value of theory, not just for theory’s sake. I believe that through better understanding these concepts, we can have an impact on our technologies and our thinking.

(the E2conf braintrust enjoying some amazing Malaysian food – thanks Sameer, Suzie, and Megan for making it happen)

For now, it’s food for thought, a provocation, one that will get conversation flowing. I’m looking forward to many more conversations and conferences that lie ahead on this topic.


Join The Discussion

  1. pearl

    Very interesting blog, I would say, yes, the contemporary organization is like a mini-city, and Enterprise Architects are the city planners, planning for the future of business, planning for the optimized process & information (like real cities’ transportation., etc), planning for the business strategy (Like GPS functions), planning for the governance, planning for delighting customers (value-added service such as school, library., etc), and social business model via the enterprise 2.0 can actually better unite the business’s three purposes: economic value, social value and people value, even better perceive such a vision: like city, business need benefit the community and society. thanks.

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