Stop and listen – to Self and city


There is great momentum in being busy, being distracted from who we really are and the possibilities we offer the world.  The result is that each of us, and the city habitats we create for ourselves, are not reaching our full potential.

Yesterday’s post, performance with purpose, articulated the phenomenon of performance momentum, were we find ourselves caught in a drive to perform.  In this state, we lose track of who we are and the inner passion that drives our work.  We lose track of the purpose of our work and dismiss the feedback loops that ensure our work is responsive to the needs around us.  The result is work that does not move the self, the organization, or the city forward.  There is no improvement; which is itself a fundamentally driver to our work.

In the work we do creates our cities, I concluded with two questions:

  1. To what extent is our work, even new work, blind to our changing habitat?
  2. How would we change how we organize ourselves to consciously choose to create habitats for ourselves that serve our present and evolving needs and desires?
The answers to these questions, or rather the exploration of these questions, are part of the city’s learning journey.  How each of us approaches our work has an impact on our cities.  How we collectively approach our work has an impact on our cities.  The cities we create, in return, have an impact on us.  If we are ‘busy’, missing the clues around us, then our cities will also miss the clues and not serve us well.  If we need healthy cities, and they are made by us, then we need to be well for cities to be well.  The development of our cities is a survival skill.

From time to time, it is essential to stop, to pause and have a look at the deeper inner self, the one that wants to be let out, free in the world.  As we each allow our hidden self to emerge, our cities will change to serve us better.  As our cities improve, they are creating the conditions for us to be better again.

It is hard to stop and listen – and we need to learn how to do this, for self and the city.  David Whyte, in The Three Marriages, has this to say:

… anyone who has spent any time in silence trying to let this deeper hidden self emerge, soon finds it does not seem to respond to the language of coercion or strategy.  It cannot be worried into existence.  Anxiety actually seems to keep an experience of the deeper self at bay.  This hidden self seems reluctant to be listed, categorized, threatened or coerced.  It lives beneath our surface tiredness, waiting, it seems, for us to stop.
Stopping can be very difficult.  It can take exhaustion, extreme circumstances on a wet, snowy mountain ridge or an intimate sense of loss for it to happen   Even then we can soon neutralize and isolate the experience, dismissing it as illogical, pretending it didn’t count, then turning back to our surface strengths and chattering away in a false language we have built around our successes. 
Success can be the greatest barrier to stopping, to quiet, to opening up the radically different form of conversation that is necessary for understanding this larger sense of the self.  Our very success can be the cause of greater anxiety for further preservation of our success (p, 154-155).
It seems the opposite of busy, performance momentum is to pause, to stop.  The lure of momentum, particularly if it is full of what we perceive as success, makes it difficult to slow down enough to give ourselves an opportunity to notice the purpose of our work, the meaning in our work and our innermost qualities of who we are individually and collectively.
How do you pause and stop to listen to your Self and city habitats?  

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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.

Performance with purpose


From 2005 to 2007 I had the best job in the world, full of challenges at a fast pace.  I was running the planning and development department for North America’s fastest growing municipality: the Regional Municpality of Wood Buffalo in the heart of Canada’ oil sands. Political, cultural, social, environmental and economic struggles were the norm, and in the middle our municipal government with a little department with few people to do the work that needed to be done.  I know now that the whole time there was something bothering me, a little itch that came and went.  W. Timothy Gallwey, in The Inner Game of Work, perfectly describes my itch: performance momentum.

Not all movement or action taken in our work actually moves me, or the organization I serve, forward.  Gallwey: “There is a kind of activity that most of us are very familiar with that is not done with conscious intent or awareness of purpose.  I call it performance momentum.”  Most often it is ‘busy’ work, work that makes us look (and feel) like we are doing something of value.  We get energized by the adrenalin and even panic to get things done.  We get galvanized by the drive to get things done.  And we lose sight of purpose and priorities.

I recognize this phenomenon in groups of people and individuals.  We each have moments when we have the foot on the gas regardless of whether we have traction, when we assume that having a foot on the gas is always a good thing.  We must always check to see if what we do is effective.  We need feedback loops and we need to be open to hearing the messages of the feedback loops.

A city, an organization, a person that is intent on doing things – without a clear and conscious purpose – suffers from performance momentum.  It could be connected to a need to be doing, or seen to be doing.  We collectively create this culture for ourselves and for each other.

When I get caught in performance momentum, I get tired and unable to do the work well for long.  Yet stepping out of performance momentum is not a license to not perform.  There is certainly work to be done – and work to be done in a timely manner.  The catch is knowing if the work taking place is the right thing to do at the right time, recognizing the work’s purpose.  It is about working consciously.

I didn’t reach this understanding until I gave myself time and permission to stop and look at what was bothering me – at what and why I was itchy.  I started to scratch this itch five years ago, and as usually what happens with an itch, it has become itchier and itchier.  My choosing to write and explore is a risk I welcome: I may find relief, or I may find that I set off deeper, longer lasting itches.

So what’s the opposite of performance momentum?  Performance with purpose, full of feedback loops that tell us when we are on track.  Noticing when we have traction, rather than wheels spinning, is part of our learning journey. 


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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.



Notice if it is time for change


Change comes about when it is ready.  Not when I am ready, you are ready, or we are ready.  When change is ready.

Back in June I noted Beck and Cowan’s six conditions for change: openness to the potential for change, the presence of solutions for the current problems, sufficient dissonance and turbulence with the present, the ability to overcome the barriers within self and others, insight into the patterns in play, and consolidation of understanding that leads to change.

These six conditions are not a recipe; just ‘doing’ these things is not enough to see change, let alone make change happen or last.  Beck and Cowan are very clear on this: even if all conditions are met, awakening new ways of thinking MAY happen.  It is not a given.

Change is a complex matter.  A small action (or realization) may have huge unintended consequences.  It is possible that all conditions could be met and no change would take place.  There might not be sufficient dissonance, for example. The potential intelligence might  not be there.  There could be barriers that can not be overcome.  It is possible that we are not even able to see and feel what is wrong with the current life conditions, let alone begin to imagine what new possibilities could exist.

When I look at our cities and how we live together, I see that collectively we are experiencing dissonance with how we live.  Everyone seems to be unhappy, some of whom see new ways of being and living together.  There seems to be a gap between what we ought to do and what we do that we barely understand as individuals or as a collective.

Changes needed to resolve tension in our cities will come when the conditions are right.

An essential practice: notice if it is time for change.  If not, be patient.  If yes, seek out the ways you can influence the conditions for change.   My next posts will explore other critical practices that support our uneasy journey.  


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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.



A warrior for healthy cities


Is everyone unhappy with how we organize our cities?  Citizens don’t like what city hall does.  Developers and builders don’t like what city hall does.  Civic advocacy groups don’t like what city hall does. I recently worked with a group of city employees who have been battered and bruised by colleagues in city hall, politicians, civil society, developers and builders, and citizens.  City hall isn’t happy either; every effort they make doesn’t seem to be right and they can’t see a way through to get it right.  They are miserable.  Everyone sounds miserable.

I am hungry for something other than fighting city hall.

I am hungry for civic practices that allow us to see what is working, so we can have more of what works.

I am hungry for civic practices that allow us to see what does not working and grapple with solutions in ways that leave everyone’s dignity in tact.

I am hungry for civil society that serves cities.

I am hungry for civic managers that serve cities.

I am hungry for civic builders and developers that serve cities

I am hungry for citizens that serve cities.

_____    _____

This is my quest: to see what it takes for a city to serve everyone and everything in and around cities well.

_____   _____

All aspects of a city need to be healthy for the city to be healthy.  We need to be healthy for our cities to be healthy.  If our cities don’t serve us well, it is up to us to make it better.  Each of us.  While some of us have more influence over others to make cities that work for us, no one has enough influence to make what they want happen.  Uncertainty is embedded in our cities.  How we react to the uncertainty is key; we can fight or we can choose to figure out how to figure it out.

The route we choose creates the conditions for more of what we put our attention: we can have more fighting, or we can figure it out.

City hall isn’t healthy when they constantly hear what’s wrong.  Developers and builders don’t build great cities when we don’t ask them to.  Civil society doesn’t succeed in keeping us honest to our ideals when we are not open to hearing them.  Citizens – at any scale – are not their best when defensively in trenches, sabotaging their best potential.

My fight is of a strange nature.  I do not ‘fight’ in a physical way, of course, but also not in mental or emotional ways.  I am a warrior of a different kind.

I create the conditions where the various perspectives of the city come out to play, integrating themselves, with give and take, for the purpose of creating a nourishing habitat for the beings that live in and around cities.  This will evoke a different sort of warrior in our cities: one who has the calm poise needed to welcome the feedback our world is giving us, who listens to it, who takes wise action.  Where cities become warriors for well-being themselves.




Notice (y)our response to the unknown


No matter how hard and smart we work, we can not shake the unknown.  It is always with us.  How we respond to the unknown, though, has an impact on how we show up in our communities.  Ben Okri plays with the contrast of choices in our response: we can be calm or frantic:

Notice (y)our response to the unknown
We only know two kinds of response
To the unknown
Awe, or noise;
Silence, or terror;
Humility, or paralysis;
Prayer, or panic;
Stillness, or speech;
Watchfulness, or myth-making;
Seeing clearly, or inventing what we see;
Standing, or felling;
Reasoning, or falling apart;
Courage, or cowardice.
From Ben Okri’s “Mental Fight”

The choice to be calm or frantic resides within each of us individually.  Our response affects others and at the same time it is always a choice that resides in me when folks are frantic around me.  I always have a choice.  Each of us always has a choice.  And this choice quite dramatically affects how I show up in my life, my work and my community.  I can cause a stir that distracts from what’s happening in the world, or I can cause calm that sees the stir for what it is: an opportunity, rather than a fight.

Noticing my, and our, response to the unknown is crucial for our uneasy journey as individuals, collectives, and as a species, in cities.  When conscious of what is going on in our internal worlds, we are better able to serve ourselves, others and our cities well.

An essential practice: notice (y)our response to the unknown.  My next posts will explore other critical practices that support our uneasy journey.  


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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.

Social habitat key to journey


I started this chapter with a reminder that cities are meant to feel uneasy.  And living in cities, and the process of creating and recreating them, is a journey in two senses: as we travel along in our evolution and as an act of learning.

The learning that takes place in our cities is a result of our drive to endlessly think, make and do new things to improve the quality of our lives.  The work we do creates our cities.  But getting improvement means we need to scratch the itch, for the itch is what tells us that there is something to improve.  It bothers us, compelling us to do something about it.

We are itching for improvement.  At any scale (self, family, neighbourhood, organization, city, region, nation, planet), we experience akrasia, the gulf between what we know we ought to do and what we actually do.  This tension serves as the evolutionary driver of cities and our own development.

Our response to our habitat (our surroundings) is what drives the creation of new work, and the development of new work is a survival skill.  But this only takes place if and when we are receptive to receiving feedback from our surroundings. Our ability to seek feedback and receive it is a survival skill – at any scale.  This practice is critical for our cities, for they are habitats we create for express purpose of improving life.  We shape our cities and they, in turn, shape us.

Our ability to evolve our cities is a survival skill.  Understanding that our cities, and all their inhabitants, are on a journey together is crucial.  We do not know exactly where we are going and we never will.  What we do know is that we are going on this trip together.  Ensuring a healthy connection between our work and our habitat is crucial, and this connection is dependent upon the social habitat we create for ourselves, for it is our social habitat that invites and allows feedback to flow.  If our social habitat is not well, our actions are ill-informed and possibly harmful.  If healthy, we are wise.  For our cities to be well, we need to create a social habitat where feedback flows.

It is time to embark explicitly on a journey together where we create a social habitat that brings the best out of us, that support each of us, and the collective, in the discomfort we find when we start to scratch the things that itch.  We need to organize ourselves to physically build cities that work for us, AND we need to organize ourselves to support each other in the uneasiness of city building.

This is tough work, and critical work.  And it will never end because we are forever recreating our world in city, creating new life conditions to which we adapt, creating new life conditions to which we adapt, creating new life conditions to which we adapt etc.

Tomorrow, on Wednesday October 24, 2012, I am spending the day with 18ish to 30ish year-olds in Edmonton to declare the impossibly awesome neighbourhood possible.  For this event, I am working with The Natural Step Canada to create a social habitat in which dreams come true.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  


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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.

Itchy patterns


My whole being knows when something is wrong.  Sometimes I know exactly what it is, and other times I can’t quite put my finger on it.  I can be conscious or unconscious of what is bothering me.  And the more I get to know myself, I see that I have a choice to make about whether I notice if something is bothering me.

Our work for improvement, at the scale of self, city or planet, requires an awareness first of what bothers me/us.  We need to notice the itch before we’ll scratch it with the express purpose of thinking, making and doing new things.

Many posts ago I described the work of Don Beck and Christopher Cowan on Spiral Dynamics (here’s a link to my first post on their work, evolving value systems).  Here’s a simple pattern they offer about phases of change and how the itch feels (see pages 85-92 of their book).

Beck and Cowan highlight five phases of change, each easily recognizable moments in life.   At Alpha (top left of illustration), everything feels good and comfortable. At Beta, we begin to sense that something is wrong.  At Gamma, we know something is wrong and feel quite confused about what to do and could be very angry.  Through all the discomfort of Gamma, we can emerge at Delta with a new sense of direction and enthusiasm that can lead to New Alpha – a new sense of stability.

The amount of time we spend in each of these phases of change varies – a moment or decades.  As things change around us, we may remain at Alpha, not yet noticing the uneasiness of Beta.  If open to learning, when we find unsettling conditions at Beta and Gamma, we will find ways to understand the discomfort and know it precisely.  If really angry and confused, we could be at Gamma for a long time.  If not well equipped to see how to formulate plans and implement New Alpha, we could be at Delta for a great length of time, or even revert back to Gamma.

Here’s the clincher – if we welcome and seek deeper knowing, we invite uneasiness.  As we look for new ways to think, make and do things – the which is the source of the city impulse articulated in Chapter 1 – we aim to improve our lives, and by doing so we are creating new life conditions to which we will again have to adapt. Time, immediately or longer term, will reveal new uneasiness with those life conditions for nothing is as simple as making everyone happy all the time forever.

This means that as we work to organize ourselves, in cities or anywhere, we must develop practices to recognize when we are feeling uneasy at Beta and practices to figure out what is making us uneasy.  We need to develop practices that will help us through Gamma.  We must develop practices that allow the Delta prototypes to thrive on their way to New Alpha.  Behind the scenes here, there are a series of other questions around the practices that we each need, individually, for self.  And how we practice as groups, communities, neighbourhoods, organizations, cities and for the human species.

We are on a learning journey together as we think, make and do new things to improve our quality of life.

I will explore practices that support our learning journey specifically in Part 3 of Nest City.  My next post will connect our learning journey with Chapter 1 – The City Impulse.

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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.


Tension – evolutionary driver of cities


When I have an uneasy feeling, my being is aware of something whether I am conscious of it or not.  If unconscious to what bothers me I end up avoiding the natural itch within me to do what I know I ought to do, or be the way I really want to be.  I may be able to avoid it for ever, or something just my jolt me to see fully the tension I am experiencing.

Tension is often a gulf between what I know I ought to do and what I actually do. This phenomenon is called akrasia (for more see my last post, our cities are itching for improvement.)  Feeling uneasy is often a clue that akrasia is alive and well.  I have a choice about how much attention to put to that tension.

So what is the nature of the tension that forms the akratic gulf?

  1. Living with the akratic gap is unavoidable.  We operate in a world where we regularly grapple with what we know we ought to do and what we actually do.
  2. Living with akrasia is hard.  Akrasia is unavoidable for most of us – if we are seeking improvement of some kind.  The result is that there are always, everywhere, ways and places that things could be better and are not.  This is a reality that can be hard to live with.  Akratic gulfs are everywhere, so our relationship with akrasia is what matters.  It can be friend or foe.
  3. Living with akrasia means accepting vulnerability.  As we choose to explore what bothers us, we welcome unwanted thoughts.  They are typically unwanted because they threaten the status quo, but deep down they signal what is really wanted.
  4. Akrasia can serve or paralyze.  We can beat ourselves up about what we don’t do, or we can explore what is wanting to emerge as a result of discomfort.  The choice is ours.
  5. It’s not about getting rid of the itch.  The best way to live with akrasia is to scratch from time to time.  Some itches are best left alone because scratching can sometimes cause more itch.  It is a decision to be taken seriously, considering how much more itchiness can be tolerated.
  6. Akrasia is about questions, not answers.  Exploring the gulf between what I know I ought to do and what I actually do is not a linear exploration where questions have immediate answers.  Or any answers, for that matter.  An answer, whether given to me or provided by me, is really a way for me to avoid the deeper questions that will lead to more itch and deeper exploration.  Living with akrasia is a way of being where asking and exploring questions are primary.
  7. Akrasia pulls us along evolutionary path.  As we constantly strive for improvement in self and in our collective endeavours, we are stepping individually and collectively into the future we create for ourselves.

Exploring the tension in our world is a purposeful act of being self-aware and awake to what is happening with self and around self.  This exploration is tough for each of us individually.  It is infinitely more challenging at larger scales of social systems, for the gap is really a span as wide as our collective consciousness.  Imagine a canyon, with a city’s action on one side and what we know we ought to do at the other side.  On the ‘ought’ side, however, there are many perspectives on what that should be.  The gulf is small for some and massive for many others and we discuss and debate what we should do.  The actual span of the collective gulf is as wide as the perspectives within the collective.

As individuals, it is imperative that we explore the gulfs in our lives constructively and in a supportive fashion, or they will paralyze us.  And the only way for our cities to explore their gulfs well is if there are enough of us with the ability to do this for our selves.  This is learning journey for cities.  It is not a simple matter of jumping on a bus and giving the driver directions.  We do not know exactly where we are going.  We have to figure it out yet.  And we have such varied perspectives on this that it is quite messy.

As we steer our lives as individuals, families, organizations, neighbourhoods, cities and civilization, we need to be well with each other, consciously choosing how to live with each other and our tensions.  The gulfs between us and with us do not have to be a hindrance.  They can serve us, for the tension we experience is what drives our economic life and the very creation and evolution of our cities.

My next post will explore ‘itchy indicators’, the things that tell us when something is bothering us.  

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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.


Our cities are itching for improvement


At the heart of our impulse to thrive (Chapter 3), is the essential itch in us all – to improve our quality of life.  What triggers this impulse is what makes us uneasy on the journey of life as individuals, as cities and as a planet of cities.

We are uneasy when we catch a glimpse of something that is wrong, especially when we see how that something could be better and some kind of change is needed.  We are uneasy when we see that there is room and possibility for improvement.  We are endlessly aiming to close the gap between what we have and what we would like, what we actually do and what we would like to do, what we are and what we would like to be.

The gulf between what we know we ought to do, and what we actually do is called akrasia.  This never-ending gulf is the driver of improvement and it requires that we live with unease and consciously allow our unease to be full of meaning.

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines akrasia:

The Greek word ‘akrasia’ is usually said to translate literally as ‘lack of self-control’, but it has come to be used as a general term for the phenomenon known as weakness of will, or incontinence, the disposition to act contrary to one’s own considered judgement about what it is best to do.  

The reasons for akrasia vary. Philosopher Donald Davidson notes that knowing that if A is better than B, and that if B is chosen, it can be because of lack of will, or due to consideration of a subset of consideration, not an all-things-considered judgement.  It can also be a result of conflict between reason and emotion (see this Wikipedia page on Akrasia for more).  Psychologist George Ainslie notes that akrasia can be a result of hyperbolic discounting; we make different choices depending on our proximity to a reward.

Another philospher, Amelie Rorty, see four forms of akrasia: akrasia of direction or aim, of interpretation, of irrationality, of character.  While we may ‘suffer’ from akrasia, it is actually serving us in a most essential way.  It is at the heart of  our evolutionary impulse to thrive.  It is what compels us to improve our work, which is at the heart of the impulse that fuels our evolution and the very creation and recreation of cities.

Regardless of definition or interpretation of akrasia, we experience a never-ending quest to cross (or close) the gulf between where we are and where we want to be.  Between what we see and what more there is to see.  Between what we understand and what more there is to understand.  Between who we are and who we wish to be.

Our reality is that as soon as we cross the gulf we see another.  This fuels our unease in the world.  This is why consciously embarking on a learning journey alongside our trek to a destination is so critical.  We need to be well individually and collectively to ensure we find a chosen destination.


It is not enough to simply say where we want to go and start travelling; that avoids the unease and discomfort.  It is time recognize that it is hard work travelling together and learn how to learn along the way.  In this way, we can take advantage of the akratic gap, rather than be paralyzed and fearful of uncertain future.  Because our cities are literally itching for improvement.

My next post will explore the role of the akratic gap in the city journey. 


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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.


Improvement means scratching the itch


Last week, I attended the Canadian Institute of Planners / Alberta Institute of Planners conference in Banff.  As I was there, I was noticing that I was very uneasy, itchy.  While there, I posted a blog about scratching the itch, recognizing that 800 of us were there to collectively scratch an itch – to find and implement better ways of organizing ourselves and our cities to work better.

This is a universal itch for humanity, to make our world a better place, at any scale.  I observed at choice last week about what to do with the itch.  Sometimes it is best to ignore the itch and let it go away.  Other times, the best thing to do is scratch,  inviting the discomfort that comes with learning something new.

At the conference, I chose not to itch.  Today I do.

For the last 15 years I have had great difficulty giving my full attention to speakers at conferences.  I am often, but now always, physically unable to sit and listen to any length of time.  The reason for this is becoming more clear to me.

Over time, I have begun to choose very carefully where I spend my time.  At conferences, I choose to go to sessions that call me.  I take time to generate the issues that I was tackling with at work.  It may have looked to others like I was not paying attention, but I was exploring what was working for me, and not, allowing the words of presenters to pop in and out of my head.  It is a wonderful opportunity to generate a plethora of ideas and ways to improve my work.  It was time well spent.

As I became older and started to meet more people, the conference also became an opportunity to connect with people.  My itch this week was how little opportunity there was to connect with each other.  A professional conference is a room full of professionals engaged in parallel play.  Each of us is taking in what we find of value for our personal, individual work.  We are a collective because we do the same work.  We do not have the power of a collective that engages in deepening our work together, learning how to create the social habitats our cities need to reach their full potential.

Planners work out of a passion for our cities.  As our last speaker went overtime, allowing no questions from the audience, I was acutely frustrated.  And many of the audience rose to their feet in ovation.  We celebrated a one-way transaction.  No interaction.  No feedback.  In fact, we celebrated this one-way information delivery.

This stopped me in my tracks.

I see the value in the presenter’s message.  I see it was appreciated, for it articulates our shared understanding of city life, and a shared intention to improve city life.  And I see that the presentation also, in its delivery, was anti-itch cream.  It maintained the status quo of our shared frustration, slowly-paced change.  We didn’t scratch.

The maintenance of the status quo takes place because there was no opportunity for the interaction of our minds, hearts and souls as we work to similar purpose – the well-being of our cities.  We are able to hide in ourselves because in traditional conference settings there is no, or minimal, opportunity for:

  1. the audience to ask questions and help the presenter share insight relevant to their work
  2. the audience and presenter to hear what resonated with the audience
  3. the audience and presenter to hear what the audience struggled to understand
  4. the collective to make collective meaning
  5. the collective to discern, together a collective course of action

Just as our cities need quality feedback, so too does any group of people wishing to take conscious action together.  Conscious action does not come from hiding.  In fact, as I moderated a session on public engagement strategies, I noticed a further challenge: while together, we do not practice our practice.  We spoke about engaging the public in new ways.  And we did not engage the audience in new ways.  So the audience did not experience something new.  They only heard about it.

And here I am writing about it, telling you about what I see, but not giving you the experience of what it could be.

There is value in simply receiving information, and sitting to get it.  The value of this diminishes, however, when we do not create opportunities to digest individually and collectively the information that comes our way.  I itch for balance.  To hear what others have to say, and to figure out what WE think it all means, and what WE and I ought to do about it.  What we need is no different than what our cities need.  There is a big gap between what we want to do and how we go about learning how to do it.  Just as you can’t learn to ride a bicycle hearing about it, we can’t learn to work with communities, stakeholders, citizens and cities hearing about it either.  We need to practice what it means to live, work and serve our cities.  We need to practice active citizenship, rather than excessive, passive downloads of information.

I love this irony: I figured out the language for this tension as I sat and listened to a plenary speaker at a 2008 planning conference.  My body snapped up straight as Bill Sanford said these words: ‘Akrasia – Greek for the gulf between what we know we ought to do and what we actually do.’

Akrasia implies a gap, a space for improvement that compels us to work to make things better.  The conventional conference has its time and place to share information, but let’s not mistake it for the development of citizens, or professionals.  From time to time, it is the right thing to do, to receive information and hide ourselves.  I am wary of when it tucks us away from working for what we want.

What we need more of: stepping into the uncertainty and unease of living in community and dreaming together explicitly about what our cities are and can be for us, and what we need to be for them.