One of my son’s favourite television shows is Mayday, chronicling the events leading to and resulting in airplane disasters – or in the case of a recent episode, what should have been a disaster.We found big lessons for the pilots of our communities, cities and towns.

In “Panic Over the Pacific” (Episode 6, Season 4), ChinaAirlines Flight 006 is bound for San Francisco.After an engine failure (one of four engines on a Boeing 747) that should cause no significant issues, the plane plunges 10 km in just 2 minutes.The undercarriage doors and horizontal stabilizers are ripped off the plane under the force of the plunge, yet the crew land the plane safely.By many accounts, they should not have been able to save the plane, then we find out that the plunge need not have happened in the first place.

The conclusion: the pilot caused the plunge by focusing on the one instrument that was telling him the plunge was starting and choosing not to believe it.Due to massive fatigue and jet lag, he was spatially disoriented and unable to simply adjust as needed to the engine failure.The investigators confirmed all instruments were in working order.All the pilot needed to do was look at the other instruments to see that the plunge was indeed beginning, disengage autopilot, and put his foot on a pedal.The corroborating evidence was on hand – as well as a simple solution.

The investigators offered two significant observations about this event that relate to the survival of humans on an airplane:

1.Focus on the “dashboard”, not one instrument. Attention to only one instrument – whether we believe it is right or wrong – provides us with only a sliver of information.A dashboard of instruments will send us more complete information and tell us if we are on the right track or not.Nothing is fully dependent on one instrument.

2.There is a reason why there is a human at the front of the plane. Autopilot is designed to solve the problems that we have come up with so far, but the creative human mind is needed when new problems arise that Autopilot can’t handle.In the case of our pilot over the Pacific Ocean, the pilot needed to intervene – just put a foot on a pedal.He didn’t, and they plunged to earth.

Compared to a human community, an airplane is a simple system.There is a chain of command and it is clear who is in charge.If we take a town, city, region, province, country, continent or even the planet, we can see that it is less clear who the pilot is – there are many.There are many destinations and modes of travel, but the investigators lessons still resonate and raise the following questions for a community of any scale in any setting:

1.What brings us together?What is important to us?

2.Who are we? Who has the power to get us to our destination?

3.What is our destination?What will it look like when we get there?

4.What are the wise ways to get to our destination?

5.What are diversity of skills and gifts we bring to get us there?

6.How do we knit all of the above together through the messy process of community?

In exploring the above, we find that there are many things that catch our attention; homelessness,residential densities, economic development opportunities, transportation and education systems, health care delivery, ecological impacts, parks and open spaces, opportunities for recreation, community development, energy generation, clean technologies, telecommunications, food security, urban design, emergency services, etc.There are many systems in place currently that monitor each of these.The question then is, are we watching all of them, or just one instrument like our pilot.Perhaps we do not all need to watch all of them, but we need to find ways and places to still do so.A collective sense of piloting is crucial to our survival.

This is ultimately about integrating pieces of information throughout a community system.It is about creating the time and places to connect the silos in our communities that look after the well-being of so much that makes our communities complete.A high school principal comes to mind who recently had a significant first experience: he was in the same room as people working for municipal and provincial government that were not in education.He pointed out immediately the value of this – they share interests, insights and information.How could this go further?What are the ways and places where we can attend to collectively noticing what the silos that serve us are noticing, so that we can share a common sense of direction?I offer the following:

1.Create the conditions for conversations that cross silos with the express purpose of noticing a larger picture and shared intention

2.Cultivate a common destination

3.Create a dashboard of instruments that monitor our progress to reach the destination

4.Create a culture of resilience and adaptability where change is welcome

In the case of our pilot above, his misjudgment was attributed to fatigue.I am curious about the frantic nature of work that seems so predominant these days.What are we missing by moving so fast?Are we noticing our instruments?Are we misreading them?Are we afraid of them?Are we mistakenly on autopilot? Do we have the right instruments?

How and when will we know if a Mayday call is legitimate or not?

I dream of growing and learning in new ways

When planning practitioners reflect on their practice, they notice that their own behaviour is unusual when their communities find success – they seek and embrace challenges, they are aware of strengths and weaknesses in themselves and others, they endlessly seek opportunities and the place trust in others.  There are, indeed, emerging essential non-technical competencies that make a planning practitioner effective.

As an effective individual planning practitioner, the following elements are emerging as essential:

  • Find your passion and spend your time there
  • Be self aware
  • Be open to any communication
  • Be comfortable with being uncomfortable
  • Seek to understand

Further, it is useful to consider what could make a  collective planning practice effective.  The following elements are emerging:

  • Get on the radar vs. duck the radar
  • Be political and get political
  • Build coalitions
  • Generate allies and advocate
  • Step forward

There is a gulf between what we know we ought to do, and what we actually choose to do.  The Greek work for this phenomenon is Akrasia. The leadership challenge for the planning profession is to step through and over the gap – to what is possible for us in service to Alberta communities.  As individuals and as a collective, we will find our voice if we dare to dwell on what we dream.  While the collective voice for planning practitioners is unknown, it will only emerge as we seek our collective leadership capacities.  This is our challenge for 2010.

I dream of growing and learning in new ways.

The full article can be found at  –

Cities: A Needed Part of Alberta’s New Story

As the United Nations Climate Change Conference draws to a close this week, there is parallel summit that is of significance for Alberta political decision makers: the Copenhagen Climate Summit for Mayors.

In Canadian and world politics, the buzz around the Copenhagen UN gathering is Alberta’s oil sands – for which we are tarred and feathered.  But there is a parallel, and perhaps more dramatic issue at hand that we ought to pay attention to: 75% of global CO2 emissions come from the worlds largest cities.

In Canada and Alberta, it is time to recognize and support the role local government has in creating a future where Albertans will thrive – economically, socially and culturally.  To do that, consideration of our development practices, and the impacts direct and indirect on the environment we rely on, is paramount.  A new political will in Alberta is needed that creates partnership between the Government of Alberta and its “children” municipalities.  A new Alberta that will meet the needs of generations to come starts with a new political climate that allows mayors, reeves and councils (and all other forms of local government, like school boards) to thrive. This is whole new conversation for Alberta, and one that I am committed to supporting.

The opportunity before Alberta – create a new story.  If interested, check out Reboot Alberta, an endeavour to cultivate a new political compass –

(For a snapshot of mayors of Copenhagne, you may be interested in the Mayors in Copenhagen Panel –