Time for Transition to take a look at the rationalistic approach embodied in Energy Descent Action Plans (EDAPs). Are they worth the effort? Are they a straitjacket on the future?
Transition ally Vera Bradova ("leavergirl") gives her thoughts below. To round out the picture, I've included a few comments from the original.
I've omitted discussion about the side-issue about whether Transition movement is losing energy.
– Joseph R. Myers
... [the Transition Town movement] went ‘whole hog’ for planning, and it is my carefully considered, worry-tinged opinion that the hog will do them in if they don’t come to their senses.
At the heart of the current TT process is the creation and implementation of the so called Energy Descent Action Plan for each locality. The Totnes group spent two years — 2 whole years! — on creating their EDAP. I am not the first person to wonder if the time, effort and money could not have been more profitably spent on actually “doing energy descent.” But it gets worse. The depressing secret is out: step #13 (sic) of their 12-steps is — groan — yet another plan (viz these documents from Dunbar, Scotland, for example).
Contemplating what to me looks like a bizarre cul-de-sac, I decided to poke my nose into the maze. The Transition Handbook tells us that those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Is it really so? Rob Hopkins, one of the founders, has in a recent interview been once again advocating “that intentional, design-led, strategic approach. The whole idea is that you’ve got a limited amount of time, limited resources, limited financial resources. Just running out and just starting to do stuff not in a strategic overview, in a strategic framework, could be a complete waste of time. ” Hm… — what if it’s the other way around? For help, I turned to the history of planning, which, before the advent of the planning craze in our time, meant mostly urban planning.
While the planning impulse probably harkens all the way back to Plato and his ideal forms, it came into its own by mid-19th century when “blueprint planning” formed a preamble to leveling town walls and historical neighborhoods in European cities, to be replaced with broad, straight thoroughfares, massive rows of new apartment buildings, and other monumental projects. In blueprint planning, the planner has an end-state in mind and seeks to achieve it through high levels of codification and control. All subsequent planning systems are variations on this theme. Adding embellishments like closer attention to goals, prediction and analysis, public participation, advocacy for the underprivileged, or lately, dressing up this process in hip, spiritual, green-friendly garb does absolutely nothing to change the underlying logic of control.
Next, I looked into planning literature, seeking evidence that planning works as advertised. Next, I looked into planning literature, seeking evidence that planning works as advertised. Lewis D. Hopkins, the author of Urban Development: the Logic of Making Plans — a lifelong professional planner — examines the rationale behind planning and finds it wanting. He notes that plans are seldom updated despite exhortations to the contrary, that people don’t make and use plans the way planning lit says they do, and that “the lack of estimates of net benefits of plans is a major gap in research about planning.” In the end, he recommends that plans only be used as adjuncts to decision making, and specifically warns away from their deliberate implementation. After all, he tells us, human beings generally want to focus on issues, decisions and solutions and not on plans.
Is it then unreasonable to wonder whether those 19th century planners were so in thrall to their own egos and so worshipful of their own rationality that the entire planning concept is fundamentally misbegotten? What but an arrogant sense of their own superiority would drive them to trample and wantonly destroy what had evolved over centuries of human habitation, as countless people through the generations negotiated each other within the intimate intricacies of local spaces? Like hostile aliens they swooped down to raze all that well-loved, well-worn richness, all the irregularities, surprises and nooks that make vernacular architecture such a delight. It hurts, remembering.
In the New World, towns were decreed, then forced upon the land. It never seems to work well. Roads and alleyways connect properties, not intuitive landmarks. Paths for those who would walk are missing. Right-angle street grids pleased some long-gone technocrat but fail to please the human spirit, and the land itself got carved up by geometry-minded surveyors like a slab of cheese. It hurts, living in its midst.
Isn’t planning one of the tools we use to bludgeon the world into submission? Why then do we act surprised when it lies bleeding at our feet? Living forms flow from one state to the next. Civilized humans push and pull, always wrenching, wounding in our scramble toward some vaunted future. Modern planning provides a battering ram, doing unto the world according to our will.
Sometimes I wonder if Lewis Mumford was a lonely man; his understandings were so far ahead of his time. He had an answer to Rob when he wrote: “Organic planning does not begin with a preconceived goal: it moves from need to need, from opportunity to opportunity, in a series of adaptations that themselves become increasingly coherent and purposeful so that they generate a complex, final design, hardly less unified than a pre-formed geometric pattern. Towns like Siena illustrate this process to perfection.”
Well, then, what does planning actually do, and why are people drawn to this way of ordering their thinking and doing? Here is my shot at it:
It really comes down to ritual and incantations, doesn’t it. We all long for a magic wand that would give us the power to manifest our desires. But planning is black magic, machine-mind magic. Clumsy, always at least somewhat coercive, heavy-handed, inflexible, and absurdly linear, it is one of the reasons modernity is imploding all around us. If we are truly committed to coaxing “the world to come” with gentleness and regard for its own moment-to-moment unfolding, shouldn’t we seek to use and embody a process that truly works with the world?
If only we set the goals right, if we find the logical steps to get there, if only we march resolutely enough! Then we look away, baffled, when this path reaches once-promising milestones at the price of unplanned, untoward consequences. A far subtler tool is needed to lead us away from civilization’s impasse.
Christopher Alexander’s call for us all to reflect on the damaging processes we have inherited and to search in our daily life for processes that make for wholeness and life, tugs at my heart. Can you feel it? Another way is possible. On a clear day, I can see it emerging within the goodness of the present moment.
If we examine a complex natural system evolving, each next stage of its evolution depends on its previous stage. Mechanistic 19th-century science created a thought-model in which the next stage would be easily predictable from the previous stage. But it turns out that the world is not like the mechanical thought-model. More sophisticated discoveries have made it clear that in a complex system the next stage is dependent on the current configuration of the whole, which in turn may depend on subtle minutiae in the history of the previous wholes, so “trace-like” that there is no way to predict the path of the emerging system accurately ahead of time.
To create a living world, successfully, we must again find ways of making all building processes move forward in [an] experimental, responsive fashion. That one thing alone, as a kind of bedrock for all design and all planning and all building, will change the world.
I requested pre-publication feedback from two friends who know Transition much better than I. I was hoping to incorporate their criticisms and additional points into the post but learned that it would make it grow three times as long, due to their generosity with their time and with thinking it through. The feedback can be roughly summed up as follows:
2) TTM’s planning process has moved on; this particular take on it is outdated.
3) There is planning and then there is planning; isn’t strategic thinking necessary given the magnitude of the challenges we are facing? Don’t we need to think before we leap?
... Re the second point, my friend wrote:
Transition experience has moved on a lot in the 4 years since the Handbook, which is why Rob doesn’t sell it any more. Last year’s replacement – The Transition Companion – does away with the 12 steps model altogether, as (despite exhortations to the contrary in the Handbook) we were being told that it was leading to a dogmatic approach from some people in some Transition communities. This leads to all the problems of top-down, prescriptive thinking that you discuss in your draft post, and hence we (and particularly Rob) worked hard to develop an alternative. The result, as I mentioned in my email, was inspired by Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language. Many of us found the term “patterns” a bit mysterious though, so after many suggestions we settled on “Transition ingredients” (Rob discusses this here: http://energybulletin.net/stories/2012-01-25/exploring-ingredients-trans... )
Interestingly enough, I guess the concept of EDAPs itself grew in much the way you advocate, with some students in Kinsale writing something essentially out of their own heads, then others (unexpectedly) grabbing it and running with it in various directions.
The existing EDAPs are a very diverse set of documents. As many have commented, even the Totnes plan (by far the most detailed, and funded!) is really more of an Energy Descent Invitation than a plan (and of course it didn’t take two year’s worth of time from the whole of TTTotnes – certain individuals felt drawn to that piece of work and did it, while the rest continued “doing energy descent”).
I have to admit that I have not seen the Transition Companion yet, and further addition of Alexandrian insights cannot but have helped improve things. But my sense from the (very recent) Hopkins quote embedded in the post has been that my critique remains timely because Rob seems to indicate that planning first is essential if you don’t want to be wasting your time. And the experience of the Incredible Edible Todmorden goes contrary to his claim… there, they barged ahead with guerrilla gardening in the absence of comprehensive plans, and have done very well.
Hi Vera :-)
And thank you for this stunning piece. And in fact for the whole unplanning thread, which has been a refreshing and clarifying read. Your thoughts make great intuitive sense and also resonate with my own (limited) experiences.
A couple of years ago I hit a slump after consciously admitting that the transition-type initiative I’d started in my (then) village wasn’t going much further. I should say that it had already achieved a respectable number of practical successes, of which the finest was a community-run and -owned shop (still going). One of the reasons (in my view, and on top of the hard work and dedication of many people) that we managed to fast-track what we did was because we consciously side-stepped planning wherever possible – including voting not to go the ‘official’ Transition Town route because of the required investment (time and money) in their training and registration processes, which we couldn’t justify on any level.
Nonetheless, the planning bug got us in the end. Of the projects other than the shop, some were themselves plans (including the parish plan) and one was a newsletter giving updates about plans (as well as the shop). It all became very … draining.
For me the darkest day came when I represented our little group at a wider gathering-of-the-groups in our area. At some point it dawned on me that the whole event was going to be a planning exercise. I walked out, quite impulsively, before lunch, although at the time I couldn’t explain my intensively negative reaction. (The navel gazing that ensued became some analysis here).
Just before I left, while watching the break-out sessions and group facilitation from my bleak perspective on the sidelines, I thought: “What the hell are we all doing in here? Ah, I know: we’re doing what we’ve been trained to do.”
I was thinking of schooling – specifically the schooling that takes able and/or middle-class students up to further education and beyond. As the inimitable and brilliant Ken Robinson says, “as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.”
These bright, educated people in the meeting were trying to solve problems the only way they (we) knew how – using pen and paper and left hemisphere, sitting down in a heated room, drawing up lists, plotting diagrams, mapping ideas and charting timescales.
I’m not saying that none of this had merit and I gather some of their efforts are showing signs of bearing fruit, for which they should be commended. But I agree with you that as a process, such a focus on planning inevitably lacks the spirit of, misses the point of, and will very likely produce results counter to whatever it is that’s needed in the end, because of the points you make so eloquently in your post.
As for a permaculture perspective – interesting one. I’ve done a PDC but have little practical experience as yet. Overall, I feel more enlivened by the permaculture approach than by Transition (even though the latter came from the former, I know). Permaculture seems more rootsy; it short-circuits people’s energies straight to the land. It seems to support intuition and action more than talk. But not all of us can (or should) get to the land. I guess the transition movement just shows how hard it is to shoe-horn permaculture thinking into a debt-laden, time-poor, disconnected, land-deprived, capitalism-driven, planning-obsessed community and have anything happen quickly ;-)
How interesting to question planning, which seems to be one of the tenets of our modern religion: progress requires planning! Yes, too often we seek plans that aim to meet all the needs of a system, but due to the complexity of the real world those plans ignore too many difficulties, unpredictable forces and events, individual peculiarities, and so on. My local Transition Initiative seems to have wisely (or accidentally) avoided such planning. On the other hand, many people trying to design the future using alternative energy sources would love to turn out grand plans, if only they could get their hands on the reins of power. Control of nature and society is awfully tempting!
Our perceptual field is tilted precipitously by urgency. We demand action! We don’t want to go through the puzzlement and truly hard – because it is unfamiliar, unmapped, and unplannable – work of getting out of the mindsets and world views we have been saddled with.
Eagerness, that “optimistic” side of urgency, leads us to always look for a way to plug any new insight back into the old plan, the old models, the old habits reasserting themselves and “healing over” any breach.
Planning is a limbo, as you say, where we can hover between desire and execution and pick at our sense of impending futility without letting go of our habitual patterns.
Every social signifier of import, of authority, of success; offers us a haven firmly within the old paradigms. These all obscure and hide any possibility of discovering another way. These draw us in to find a place either soaring above the crowd as “leaders,” or lining up to welcome the solace of following some prescription.
All of these short-circuits await us and draw us back into business as usual with some new flavor or novel trappings.
Without recognizing the extent of our traps, and finding a way to draw our attention away from failed striving, we cannot experience what it is to stand on solid ground – not teetering on the slope of urgency – and find the focus and the rigor to listen for the steps that present themselves without any of the magical incantations of “assurances” we are accustomed to – while knowing full well that studies and analyses do nothing but massage our discomfort with a false sense of security and certainty.
Your perspective on planning (or unplanning, or improvisation, or whatever it may be called) is great. Additional comments from readers are also especially worthwhile for breaking some entrenched mindsets.
You’ve taken the Transition Movement, urban planning, and architecture as your archetypes for the planning impulse. In the Information Age, knowledge management (KM) and project management (PM) are recent professional specialties that center on planning, and general systems theory arising in the middle of the 20th century all point the same mistaken direction: attempting to rationalize the irrational. Everything I’ve observed about group and organizational behavior give the lie to central planning. Facts on the ground, and for that matter, our sustained attention to problems, are rarely of a duration to make planning much more than a ceremonial activity — except perhaps in a few instances where significant force has been applied from above in totalitarian regimes.
Let me share a bit more of my conversation with one of my correspondents, and pop a couple of questions.
I think there is truth in what you quote Rob as saying – if we want a living biosphere, for example, we don’t have unlimited resources and time in which everyone can do whatever they feel like, so perhaps some strategic thinking is in order. You and I would hope that any conclusions/plans that emerge from that take place within a mindset of freedom and common purpose rather than one of top-down management, but it would seem equally inappropriate for us to decree that because of this concern nobody within a Transition initiative is allowed to think strategically! ;)
I am not against strategic thinking per se; I am against strategic thinking as a big preamble to doing. The way the business people conceive of the business plan. And I would ask… is crafting plans the best way to create common purpose, or are there better ways?
Let me make one more comment on what I am trying to express with the whole planning critique (quite apart from TT). The planning expert quoted in the post recommends that plans only be used as adjuncts to decision making, and specifically warns away from their deliberate implementation. That is at the root of my concern re plans. The pattern of a great big concept [a grand plan], then people having to fit their futures into it. It feels completely wrong in its essence and destructive to those very goals.
And he said:
Re: “the pattern of a great big concept, then people having to fit their futures into it” feeling completely wrong. My big question on this would be “isn’t that exactly what we face though?” The great big concept in question for TT being the reality of climate change, peak oil and economic collapse..?
Since this conversation took place, I looked into strategic thinking a bit more, and it seems to me to have been hijacked by the corporate and military types. I have a sense of some form of “… thinking” that helps with alignment and course correction. I am scratching my head as to what this might be called. I do think such thinking is sorely needed.
And then, what of his point regarding the need for a big plan in response to a big problem (the three big challenges he cites)? In order to conserve our limited resources? Your thoughts?
Angie, hello – and sorry you’ve found this thread unsettling. I’d like to respond by saying that as far as I’m concerned (previous bouts of soul searching notwithstanding) the Transition movement and its accomplishments are a Good Thing. Neither the concept nor the resulting actions are under criticism here, in my view, but rather the tendency for the process to get bogged down (sometimes, not always) in planning exercises – especially once the ‘low-hanging fruit’ (in terms of implementable projects) have been taken.
Leavergirl’s article is the latest in her series about plans and planning in general. It just happens that the Transition process throws into relief the diversion that plans and planning can present. Plan-making can also (in my experience) obscure underlying barriers to change – given the tendency to think “we just need a better plan and then we’ll be ready to go” (when in fact we’ve hit a road-block that will not be circumvented without, say, an economic revolution. Or land reform).
Also worth exploring are the deeper, as yet not fully grasped, impacts of planning (in general), which are arguable (and still being argued) but are surely important in the context of Transition too, exactly because some form of transition is such an important thing.
The positive observations here about Transition and its achievements are clear, if you read back through the comments. It’s a pity that they have not registered strongly with you and that you’ve been moved to anger as a result.
As it happens I devoted three years of my life to a substantial suite of Transition projects (although we didn’t go ‘official’) in my village. We achieved much, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had, despite the difficulties. I have also studied permaculture design and am currently working with a local school on a forest gardening and edible hedging project. This is not exactly sitting at home at the computer being negative.
The good stuff almost goes without saying (it’s widely celebrated elsewhere in any case). Less often explored are the elephants in the various Transition meeting rooms which, if they could be brought into the open and addressed, might just allow this movement and similar others to push past the energy-crushing sticking points that so many groups (including mine) experience, to the detriment of their own potential and their contribution to wider society.
Who knows: a free-ranging debate like this could even give rise to the constructive output you call for – a new approach, perhaps, impossible to anticipate now but that one day might be a useful addition to the Transition toolbox.
Fascinating discussion. Some last words.
I actually think Transition does the right thing when it comes to planning. It takes a look at general trends, such as peak oil and climate change, and comes up with a reasonable approach (localization and building community). It leaves the actual implementation to local groups.
The ideas and practices are constantly evolving. Information from far-flung Transition projects are disseminated over a loosely connected network. The central part of the network (Totnes, Rob Hopkins, etc.) have a common sense, flexible approach.
The Transition Companion represents the latest thinking of the movement. Rather than a centralized, detailed plan, it presents a portfolio of possibilities.
In fact, Transition seems to be evolving in accordance with the thinking in your column, leavergirl.
In a recent review of the Transition Companion, John Thackara writes:
"One of the many virtues of this awesome and joysome book is that the word “strategic” does not appear until page 272; a section on “policies” has to wait until page 281. It’s not that the book is hostile to high altitude thinking; on the contrary, its pages are scattered with philosophical asides on everything from Buddhist thinking and backcasting, to time banking and thermodynamics. But the rational and the abstract are given their proper, modest, place."
In contrast, the Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP) DOES lend itself to an overly rationalistic and detailed approach. As a planning exercise, it may be helpful, but it takes so much work! And inevitably they are soon obsolete.
It reminds me of a management book which advised, Go ahead and make that general plan. And as soon as you're finished, throw it in the trashcan, because the real value is what you've learned from the process.