Do it all, all at once


Do it all, all at once, as appropriate.

That is what is necessary to engage a whole system.

Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer, in their work Leading from the Emerging Future, describe four levels of social structures that have emerged as humanity grows and develops. The first three are very familiar to us: (1) where power is centralized at the top, (2) where power is decentralized at the top, and (3) where power becomes relational and networked.

Structure 1
Scharmer and Kaufer’s Structure 1.0
Structure 2
Scharmer and Kaufer’s Structure 2.0
Structure 3
Scharmer and Kaufer’s Structure 3.0

(For readers familiar with the Spiral of values I have previously explored (here’s a primer), Scharmer and Kaufer’s first structure is RED/BLUE, the second BLUE/ORANGE, and the third ORANGE. The fourth, below, is GREEN, with a hint of YELLOW.)

According Scharmer and Kaufer, the fourth structure we are growing into locates power in the social field. They see this clearly, and they see how to create habitats that will allow us to access new knowledge and intelligence that is not accessible with the previous structures.

Structure 4
Scharmer and Kaufer’s Structure 4.0


As the structures have evolved, our levels of listening evolve, along with transformations in our levels of awareness and how we coordinate ourselves. It is a journey that is facilitated by infrastructures to help us tap into our creativity, infrastructures to co-initiate, co-sense, co-inspire, to prototype and  co-evolve.

The journey they articulate is one where the locus of leadership shifts from ego (me-in-we) to eco (we-in-me). They name the journey we are making from self to Self, from me to we. The most important thing they name are the characteristics of habitats that support and sustain learning. The places we make and shape to nourish and foster the transformation under way matter.

Scharmer and Kaufer stop short of saying something important: all structures have value. 

And this leads me to a fifth structure of my own that reflects a leap past the first four to a structure that expects and accepts all structures that Scharmer and Kaufer have identified. We have evolved from structure to structure as they have described. They note that each earlier structure exists in the structures that follow, they leave the reader with a sense that as we advance, we leave the earlier structures behind; they are somehow lesser, no longer appropriate. Their work is incomplete.

My fifth structure, drawing on Spiral Dynamics, is a big leap past structures 1 to 4, because 1+2+3+4=10.  It looks like this.

Structure 5 or 10
How I imagine Structure 5.0 (or 10?)

This fifth structure is characterized by a flex and flow of all four of Scharmer and Kaufer’s structures (in Spiral-speak, this is YELLOW). As conditions dictate, all the earlier structures are appropriate. When there is an emergency and fire-fighters are called to action, structure 1 is perfect. When there is no emergency, structure 2 may be appropriate. The fire chief and his personnel retain their hierarchical expectations and organize themselves to make sure the resources are in place for the next emergency; their power is decentralized. Even further behind the scenes, fire department personnel (can) work collaboratively in a network of city builders to make sure that the design of new neighbourhoods meets the needs of citizens and various other needs that need to be met in our city habitats. Their “turf” gets mixed in with that of many other stakeholders in structure 3.

Structure 4 is appropriate when the context allows the players to sit back and contemplate what they are doing and why. It might be a strategic planning session at the fire hall that involves a diverse range of expertise and experience to make wise choices. From structure 5, we see that the time and place varies for each approach, that they all happen, naturally. Where Scharmer and Kaufer characterize structure 4 as eco-in-me, I characterize structure 5 as all-in-me.

Drawing again on Spiral Dynamics, I sense a sixth structure (TURQUOISE), yet again more complex, that encompasses the expanse of systems of systems at work in life. This structure again builds upon the previous structures, taking into account the field in which all systems work, at every scale.

 Structure 5 or 15


There is a pattern at work in these social structures and within us. What has our attention is expanding. How we organize ourselves is transforming. Here is a summary of these structures. The first 4 belong to Scharmer and Kaufer, the remaining two mine, drawing on the lineage of Spiral Dynamics:

  1. State-centric – hierarchy and control – traditional awareness
  2. Free market – markets and competition – ego-system awareness (ego-in-me)
  3. Social market – networks and negotiation – stakeholder awareness (we-in-me)
  4. Co-creative – seeing and acting from the whole  – eco-system awareness (eco-in-me)
  5. Co-generative – embodiment of the whole – flexibility/spontaneity  awareness (all-in-me)
  6. Holonic experience of being –  expansive planetary connections – global cosmic awareness (Gaia-in-me)

To engage the systems in which we live and work, it is not sufficient to engage only the most recent structure. They all need attention because they all need to be healthy and they all have valuable contributions to make to the system as a whole. We must do it all, all at once, as  conditions require. They are all necessary, in the right time and place.

What social structure are you growing into?


______ ______ ______

Need to know a bit more about how all this works? Here are 7 principles that frame the emerging spiral, and 6 conditions for evolutionary expansion.

Some friends and I started a book club to explore Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Katrin Kaufer’s new book. This is another piece, on Chapter 8. Here’s what came from my exploration of earlier chapters:

_____ _____ _____

Conditions for evolutionary expansion

Our impulse to work to improve our world is an impulse to evolve.

I suspect that you recognize a deep impulse to survive and thrive in you, in other individuals, your family, your community, your nation and in the whole of us as a species. When faced with hardships and challenges, we do what it takes to protect ourselves and our clan, to survive.  We don’t often think of this, but it is ever present in our actions.  What is also present is our impulse as a species to thrive –to learn how to grow and change and adapt constantly.  Survival alone is not good enough.  We are always seeking more of what is possible in the world.  This is an impulse that even drives the creation of cities.

The last two posts, A primer on the emerging spiral and 7 principles that frame the Spiral, lay out one way of seeing how new value systems emerge within us as we evolve:  Spiral Dynamics.  As we move up the Spiral, our awareness and understanding expands as we meet ever more complex challenges in life.  Clare Graves called this movement up the Spiral a never ending quest.  Our evolutionary expansion, however, is not a given.

Potential for expansion – six conditions

Beck and Cowan outline six conditions that need to be in place for upward change on the Spiral to be possible.  Keep in mind that this is not a recipe – it is possible that most conditions are met and change does not occur.  It is also possible that only some conditions are met and change occurs anyway.  This is a pattern that offers some insight into how change happens, but more specifically, about the conditions in place as we move upward along the Spiral, at various scales – individuals, families, groups, organizations, nations, species.

1.  Openness to the potential for change.  Beck and Cowan are very clear that not all people are equally open to, or even capable or prepared for change.  Normally, humans are in a potentially open system of need, values and aspirations, but “we tend, however, to settle into what appears to be a closed state wherein we operate in a consistent, enduring steady way.  Once reached, we tend to stay in these zones of comfort… unless powerful forces induce turbulence.”[1]  So the potential for change revolves around three elements: thinking that is open, or at least arrested; having the appropriate intelligences, ie the ability to operate under more complex life conditions; and being free from restrictive patterns, ‘sink-holes’ and ‘baggage’.

Beck and Cowan distinguish three states in which we may find ourselves relative to potential for change[2] that I have organized as follows:

Openness to the potential for change

2.  Solutions.  Change will not occur if ‘serious, unresolved problems or threats still exist within the present state’.  Satisfying this condition involves: adequately managing the problems at their vMEME level creating comfort and balance; and direct excess energy to exploration of the next, more complex system.[3]

3.  Dissonance.  “Change does not occur unless the boat rocks.”[4]  The sensation of dissonance is stirred when the waves of some kind of impact jostle the steady-state system.  The factors that create dissonance are (verbatim)[5]:

  • Awareness of the growing gap between life conditions and current means for handling those problems.
  • Enough turbulence to create a sense that ‘something is wrong’ without so much chaos that the whole world seems to be falling apart.
  • Abject failure of old solutions to solve the problems of the new life conditions may stimulate fresh thinking, release energy, and liberate the next vMEMES along the Spiral

4.  Barriers[6].  Beck and Cowan discern two steps in this process. The first is recognizing the barriers, which typically are external.  ‘It’s their fault.’  ‘The bloody establishment holds us down.’  The second step invites exploration into why the barriers are effective obstacles, which reveals both internal and external obstacles. In the end, we have to clean up both the world outside and inside.

So barriers need to be eliminated, bypassed, neutralized or reframed into something else to provide the needed solid foundation on which to build change.  But all this is to be done conscious of risks, consequences and the pain of barrier removal, as well as exposure of the excuses and rationalizations for not implementing change.

5.  Insight.  When leading change, it is critical to understand the thinking systems in play, and discern the different patterns, models and structure that come with those ways of thinking.  Further, “alternative scenarios must be active in the collective consciousness before they can be considered.  Too often they are guarded in the minds of an elite few ‘planners’ or ‘decision-makers’.  People need mental pictures of what things might be like for them in their own real Life Conditions, not for some distant Hollywood start or textbook case-studies.”[7]

Change is ultimately about changing patterns, and Beck and Cowan offer the following ways to initiate change in patterns[8]:

  • Greater insight into how systems form, decline, and reform – particularly one’s own.  People must accept the possibility of change as well as the means.
  • Put a stop to wasteful regressive searches into out-moded answers from the past which simply cannot address greater complexity in the present.
  • Consider optional scenarios, fresh models, and experiences from applicable sources.  Scout the competition and demonstrate concretely what alternatives look like.
  • Quickly recognize the appearance of new life conditions and the vMEMES required to shift into congruence. Custom tailor for best fit.

6.  Consolidation.  Beck and Cowan say this best: “When significant change occurs, you can expect a period of confusion, false starts, long learning curves, and awkward assimilation.  Those who change – either as individuals or as organizations – may be punished by those who do not understand what is happening and now find themselves left out, misaligned and threatened.  Old barriers may be rebuilt in the form of punitive rules, turf battles and power tests.  New obstacles might be set up.  Sometimes, you will have to go around, let the bridge burn and not look back.”[9]


There is a gap that sits between how we experience the world and how we see the world could be that propels us forward.  This is not a gap that we all see in the same way at the same time.  It is not a gap that we are all even able to see, nor are we all required to see a gap before making attempts to cross it.  But there is always a gap, should we choose to notice it, examine it, explore it and cross it.  We are always at a threshold.

My next post will explore the word “change” from a Spiral perspective, and the difference between changeability and adjustability.  When at a threshold, when is it appropriate to change or adjust?


[1]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 76

[2]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 76-82.  The text.

[3]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 82

[4]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 82

[5]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 83

[6]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 83

[7]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 84

[8]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 84

[9]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 85


7 principles frame the emerging spiral

New value systems are emerging as each of us as individuals, and in our city life, evolve.  In my last post, A primer on the emerging spiral, I described Spiral Dynamics, a way of seeing the pattern in our emerging value systems.  Seven principles describe the core intelligence of Spiral Dynamics and frame the emergence of new patterns, paradigms, theories, etc.  As Spiral Dynamics authors Beck and Cowan put it, the principles uncover the deepest trends that generate trends.

The seven principles are[1]:

1.  Humans are able to create new vMEMES.  Looking back over the history of the human species, Beck and Cowan track the emergence of each vMEME[2]: 50,000 years ago PURPLE emerged as we formed tribes, experienced magic, art and spirits.  10,000 years ago the RED world emerged with warlords, conquest and discovery.  5000 years ago BLUE emerged with literature, monotheism and purpose.  1000 years ago ORANGE mobility, individualism and economics came to the fore.  150 years ago the GREEN vMEME emerged as human rights, liberty and collectivism.  YELLOW emerged 50 years ago with complexity, chaos and interconnections.  TURQUOISE emerged 30 years ago with a new discourse on globalism, eco-consciuosness and patterns.

2.  Life conditions awaken vMEMES.  VMEMES are a product of our interaction with the life conditions that we face in the world.  This is not a scripted biology, but rather a result of dynamic interaction between our internal states and our external world.  The age we live in, the place we live in, the problems we face and the social circumstances we find ourselves in shape our beliefs, ideas and values.  For example:

3.  vMEMES alternate between ‘me’ and ‘we’ focus.  Imagine a pendulum that swings between two poles.  As the pendulum approaches each pole, it generates life conditions that can only be addressed with solutions from the other.  Here are the two poles and their characteristics:

4.  vMEMES emerge in waves.  Beck and Cowan describe this best: “New vMEME systems come in like waves to a beach.  Each has its own ascending surge… At the same time, each also overlaps the receding waves of the previous system as they face.  Sometimes the interference generated as the new systems compete in their ascendancies slows the overall Spiral’s momentum, even shoving it backwards.  At other times, the vMEME waves resonate and reinforce one another to speed the evolution of thinking along.”[3]
5. Higher levels of complexity emerge along the Spiral.  There are four characteristics[4] of this flow:
  • Expansion of psychological space – toward more multifaceted personalities, diverse organizational forms, and a much more complicated planet
  • Expansion of conceptual space – toward bigger picture views, wider span on influence, and extended time frames
  • A progressive increase of alternatives – toward more choices to make from a broader menu of ways to do a thing
  • A progressive increase in degrees of individual freedom – toward more possibilities in terms of how to be, ways to display emotions, acceptable kinds of human interrelationships
6.  vMEMES co-exist.  We have the capacity to think in many different ways about many different things all at the same time. While I may be very competitive (RED) on the soccer field, I am also conscious and respectful of the rules (BLUE) and the diversity of skills (GREEN) of my teammates.  I notice the strategic (ORANGE) choices our coach makes about who plays where, how and when on the field, and I appreciate the sense of belonging we have created as a team (PURPLE).  How bright each of these vMEMES shine depends on the life conditions – at a game, RED will be brightest.  As I write, PURPLE is surging as I notice the fond connection I have with my teammates.
7.  There is a momentous leap after the first 6 tiers.  The first six vMEMES, BEIGE through GREEN, are the culmination of our primate nature.  They are the 1st  tier of human development and focus on human subsistence.   The 1sttier vMEMES have very little tolerance for each other.  They conflict and clash, and these are the seismic battles we experience in the world.The leap to the 2nd tier offers a shift from subsistence to ‘being’ – which means appreciating the wisdom of each of the first six vMEMES.  Beck and Cowan advise that the momentous leap is characterized by a dropping away of fears and compulsion, an increase in conceptual space, an ability to learn a great deal from many sources, and a trend toward getting much more done with much less energy or resources.[5]  The words of Clare Graves:
After being hobbled by the more narrow animal-like needs, by the imperative need for sustenance [BEIGE], the fear of spirits [PURPLE] and other predatory men [RED], by the fear of trespass upon the ordained order [BLUE], by the fear of his greediness [ORANGE], and the fear of social disapproval [GREEN], suddenly human cognition is free.  Now with his energies free for cognitive activation, man focuses upon his self and his world [YELLOW, TURQUOISE, etc.].[6]

Summary of the principles

The seven principles provide insight into how the Spiral works.  We are able to create new vMEMES and we do so in response to our life conditions – our habitat.  As we do, the focus of the vMEMES swing back and forth between ‘me’ and ‘we’.  New vMEMES arrive like waves on a beach – always in relation to the other waves – with each wave upward bringing a high level of complexity.  As these vMEMES awaken, all the previous vMEMES  remain in tact.  And until such time that a momentous leap is made from the sixth (GREEN) to the seventh (YELLOW) level, where we recognize the value of each perspective, there is great conflict between the vMEMES.
The emerging value systems highlighted by the Spiral are so clear in city life at many scales – self, family, neighbourhood, organization, city, province, nation, continent, world.  Readers interested in an example may be interested in the series of posts on St. John’s, Newfoundland:  Is the unplanned city unplanned? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.  In the meantime, the next post will look at how we move up and down the Spiral.


[1]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 50-67

[2]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 50-51

[3]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 59

[4]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 62

[5]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 66

[6]   Clare Graves as cited by Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 274.  Graves’ use of the masculine in this explanation is indicative of his life conditions and the times.



Pause for evolutionary understanding

Figure 1 - City Habitats

If the purpose of cities is to grow and evolve the human species, then it is necessary to understand the evolutionary forces in play.  There are huge implications for our relationships with each other as we create cities that support our efforts to learn both as individuals and as a species

In today’s world we are in the process of recalibrating how we relate with each other.  We are adjusting our relationships with smartphones, texting and social media.  We are in contact with each other, both locally and globally, in whole new and unforeseen ways.  Information is distributed very quickly. We are both more informed and misinformed.  We are deeply engaged in life and rewiring the nature of our engagement with self and other and the city in our city life.

The advent of social media does not remove our desire to create cities that serve us well, or minimize our desire for face-to-face contact.  We still hunger for it.  We use social media to organize ourselves – to share information, to rally, to have fun.  Ultimately it is a form of connecting.  As communication sparked an evolutionary burst in humans 60,000 years ago, and with the printing press more recently, we are sparking another evolutionary burst now – where do we need to put our attention to ride it out safely? 

Figure 2 - City "Nestworking"

Organizing ourselves into and within cities is a process of organizing human intelligence.  Looking back at Chapter 1 – The City Impulse, we can see that we are organizing our economic life in the context of our physical habitat.  We are doing this by creating a social habitat that allows for feedback and integration (Figure 1). There is no ‘plan’, per se, but as my colleagues Don Beck and Marilyn Hamilton would say, there are patterns in the life conditions. One of the patterns is the activity of planning our cities. In Chapter 2 – The Planning Impulse, I propose that planning is one of many activities we undertake to organize ourselves.  The Venn diagram in Figure 2 articulates the planning of our cities as an activity that is non-linear, messy and uncomfortable work for an uncertain future.

Our attention needs to be on cities –  because cities are a source of innovation.  The development of cities is a survival skill for the human species.  Moreover, as we organize ourselves in cities, we need to pause and learn about ourselves and our evolutionary trip before diving further into the Nest City model (Figure 2).  That is the focus of the upcoming series of posts that form Chapter 3 – The Thriving Impulse, where I will describe and explore:

  1. Evolutionary intelligence
  2. Evolutionary intelligence in the city
  3. Protocols and practices that support the evolution of the city

Conclusion of The Planning Impulse

The purpose of planning is to support a city’s efforts to notice, adjust and organize to ensure the city is able to integrate the needs of its citizens with its context.  As we build cities, our work is to ensure that we create a habitat for ourselves in which we will thrive.

This second chapter of Nest City explores where the impulse to plan comes from as our cities become more complex. The first four posts that form the second chapter of Next City build on  my experience in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where Mayor Dennis O’Keefe invites visitors to a planning conference to explore the ‘unplanned’ city.  My exploring continued after my visit there.  The first four posts that make this chapter are:

  • Is an unplanned city unplanned?  Part 1  Life conditions – the times we live in, the geographic place, the challenges we face and the social circumstances – shape the purpose of a city.  
  • Is an unplanned city unplanned?  Part 2  The shape of a city is determined by its geography, its purpose, the activities within and in connection to other cities – it’s life conditions.
  • Is an unplanned city unplanned?  Part 3  As life conditions change, cities shift and adjust. The purpose of the city evolves.  Planning is an activity that supports our collective work to organize ourselves to ensure our habitat – our cities – serve us well.
  • Is an unplanned city unplanned?  Part 4  Along with evolving purposes of the city come corresponding evolving modes of organizing.  One of the new ways of organizing was the planning profession.

The subsequent posts tease out the complexity of planning now – it is not a simple linear, mechanical process:

  • City – a dance of voice and values  The evolving city purposes and modes of organizing are part of an evolving value system.  There are four integral ‘voices’ in the city: city managers, city builders, civil society and citizens.  These values and voices are in the mix as we organize ourselves to thrive in cities.
  • Integrating voices and values  Many purposes, modes of organizing and purposes occur all at once, creating a messy and uncertain world.  No one entity has control of the city.  Planners do not have a recipe – let alone all the ingredients.
  • Recalibrating the purpose of planning  As an activity, planning has to hold a destination in mind, allow for learning and adjustment along the way, and recognize that we do not know exactly where we are going to end up.
  • A new era of planning cities  Planning now is about have a clear, collective sense of intention and purpose to drive our work.  Cities are growing and we are growing with them.  The opportunity is to grow purposefully.
Two conclusions arise.  The first is that the overriding purpose of a city is to integrate the needs of its people, with its context, to create a habitat in which people will survive and thrive (Is an unplanned city unplanned? Part 3).  The second is that the purpose of planning is to support city efforts to notice, adjust and organize to ensure people survive and thrive (Is an unplanned city unplanned? Part 4).
The activity of planning is in the process of recalibrating, in order to integrate the new and emerging voices and values of the city.  This is necessary for planning to respond to today’s life conditions, rather than those of decades or centuries ago.  To meet the needs of  citizens, cities must adapt.  In order for cities to adapt to the evolving needs of citizens, citizens need to adapt as well.
The next series of posts will form Chapter Three – The Thriving Impulse.  They will explore what it means to thrive, from an evolutionary sense.  Part Two – Organizing for Emergence and Part Three – Nest City will get into the details of how we can organize ourselves to serve ourselves better.  
Sources –

Beck, Don Edward and Cowan, Christopher C., Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford (2006), particularly pages 52-56.

Hamilton, Marilyn, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, New Society Publishers Inc., Gabriola Island (2008)

Sanders, Beth, “From the High Water Mark to the Back of the Fish Flakes: The Evolutionary Purpose of Cities,” Vol 51, No. 4, p 26-31, Plan Canada.  Print publication of the Canadian Institute of Planners.

A new era of planning cities

I keep asking myself if planning is the right word any more to describe this organizing activity that takes place in our cities.  It is the right word if it can hold a lot more than a tidy, linear, mechanical, rational practice.  There is a time for this kind of work, but planning can and should be much more to accommodate the messy, uncertain, complex world we live in.

Of all the organizing we do, planning can simply be act of declaring a destination and the steps it will take to get there.  At the end of my last post, Recalibrating the purpose of planning, I left you with a diagram (Figure 1) noting that planning also involves the ability to learn and adapt along the way (journey) in order to accommodate a future that we have know way of knowing will actually be (emergence).  Our planning work shapes the future but does not define our future.

Figure 1 - City "Nestworking"

A new era of organizing our cities is emerging that is much more conscious of collective intention and purpose to drive our work.  I see a different kind of planning that doesn’t reject the work we already do, but adds to it and informs it.  It is time to build upon the mechanical processes and plans we have created.  There is a time and place for them, but like any tool, just because we like the took does not mean we ought to use it everywhere.  When we pretend to have control we thwart our ability to thrive as both citizens and as whole communities.  We sabotage the potency of our collective wisdom.  It is time to learn how to live with the messy, uncertain world – an plan accordingly.

We are not comfortable in a messy world, so our tendency to seek control actually reduces our ability to reach our destination.  We choose to ignore feedback that tells us something we would rather not hear.  This new era of planning is complex yet very effective – if we get out of the way.  Every day, every moment, we live with tension as we discern what we can control and what we can not.  This work is as much about our inner selves as it is about the work we do in the world.

Cities are growing and we are growing with them. We are organizing ourselves in response to life conditions, which are as varied as the purposes of a city are varied.  In fact, being in service to a city’s varied efforts to organize itself in response to life conditions is a role for the people that build the city, the people that manage the city, civil society and citizens. There is a role and responsibility for everyone to support a city’s efforts to notice, adjust and organize for the purposes of creating the conditions for citizens to survive and thrive.

I will next tackle Chapter Three – The Thriving Impulse, to explore what it means to thrive, a foundational piece before presenting how Nest City thinking works in Parts Two and Three.

I leave you today, at the end of Chapter 2 – The Planning Impulse, with the wise words of Ben Okri.

My own work snuck up on me


That is the message I left in my manuscript to describe Chapter 3 – The Thriving Impulse.   Chapters 1 and 2 had been written and rewritten over and over again, leaving them in a state that seemed to make turning the text into smaller chunks for blog posts relatively easy.  I had to rewrite and reorganize things, but the frame was in place.

I am getting organized to start blogging Chapter 3.  Funny that the guiding text for Chapter 3, from John O’Donohue’s blessing, For the Time of Necessary Decision, is this:

For time gathers its moments secretly.

Time does gather its moments secretly.  I thought it was a scary chapter, though now when I look at it after a few months, the emerging outline seems clear.  My own work has snuck up on me over time.  I have a frame on which to hang the next series of posts:

  1. What is evolutionary intelligence?
  2. How does evolutionary intelligence shape the city?
  3. What are the protocols and practices for an evolving, emerging city?

Recalibrating the purpose of planning

Figure 1 - Evolving City Purposes

The activity of planning cities is a kind of work that has emerged with cities.  It is a mode of organizing that began in Canada with land surveyors and engineers. The work of planners and planning in Canada is recent; Canada’s Commission of Conservation hired Britain’s Thomas Adams in 1914 as its Town Planning Advisor. His work supported the creation of town planning legislation across Canada, and a whole new area of work distinct from that of surveying and engineering.  For Adams, the additional focus of planning was to improve civic conditions[1].  This was the beginning of a structure (legislation) and a profession dedicated to contributing order to settlements across Canada, work that emerged with the fourth purpose of the city (Figure 1), and the fourth level of organizing (Figure 2).  (For more on the evolution of city purposes and modes of organizing, please see Is the unplanned city unplanned? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4).

Figure 2 - Evolving Modes of Organizing

The activity of planning our communities – even just thinking about planning – has played a critical role in the shape our communities today.  Gerald Hodge and David L. A. Gordon, authors of Canada’s primary text for students of planning Canadian communities, note:

…the regard for planning and making plans is strong.  Even in… contentious situations, the essential debate is not about the need for planning, but for better planning – not whether but how it should be done.”[2] 

Citizens, developers and builders, civil society and our various public institutions and politicians are always ready to tell planners about needed improvements. And they are right – there are many improvements to be made.  What we ought to be wary of is the assumption that it is up to planners to make the changes.

Today’s challenge – recalibrating the purpose of planning, plans and planners

This is the challenge that faces planners, citizens and decision-makers today: our communities function with an extended focus, broadened purpose and less concentrated decision-making processes. The formal act of ‘planning’ as we recognize it today, with zoning by-laws and area structure plans, is in response to life conditions of a certain time, geography, challenges, and social circumstances.  It is as set of activities that fits the era in which Thomas Adams worked. In today’s world the work of organizing a city belongs to many.  The planning profession is simply one of many kinds of work.  The work of organizing ourselves to thrive belongs to all of us.  In 1922, Thomas Adams stated: “Cities do not grow – all of them are planned.”[3]  It is as though we build them as we build a building, with a complete set of plans.  That just doesn’t happen with cities.  They do grow.

None of this means that plans and planning are not relevant.  Plans do have a purpose. Having a plan means that we know where we are going and what it will take to get there.  A plan documents our shared purpose, intention and intended actions to reach our goals.  In every aspect of life, this is a critical function.  Specific to city planning, Hodge and Gordon describe it this way: a plan is “for the purpose of achieving a goal desired by its citizens… community planning is about attaining a preferred future built and natural environment.”[4]  They cite two reasons why a community makes plans: to solve some problems associated with its development; and/or to achieve some preferred form of development.[5]  This is work that makes a meaningful contribution to cities.

In conventional planning circles, the professional planners are charged with this work.  Citizens, civil society, civic builders and developers along with politicians provide feedback to planners through formal public engagement activities.  Yet we are growing into an understanding that city hall is not the only player who organizes a city, but that there are many others involved.  Numerous organizations, activities and events shape the city without city hall’s direction.  Environmental groups have had an influence on our tolerance for weeds.  Arts foundations find the funds to build new museums and art galleries.  Business leaders join forces to advance technology research and innovation.  The university hospital chooses to emphasize health research and expands its facilities.  School boards decide to allow families to choose their schools.  Citizens choose where to live in relation to employment/schools/services.  All and each of these players shape our complex cities.

Citizens, civil society, civic builders and developers are increasingly demanding a role in the process of planning our communities.  Even departments inside city hall are hungry for ways to integrate their work with planners.  As a result, the role of the plan has evolved into something new.  City plans are no longer simply the blueprint early land surveyors and engineers prepared for orderly development.  A new kind of work is being called for that supports an expanded view of what it takes to make cities that are healthy habitats for citizens.

The value of plans is in their intention and common direction.  They are now more about shape and spirit, rather than control.  There are times when control is important, but the scope of planning is widening and more and more aspects of planning are about much more than control.  As an activity, planning has to hold a destination in mind, allow for learning and adjustment along the way, and recognize that we do not know exactly what we are going to end up with and we can’t control that.  Part Two and Part Three of this writing endeavour will flesh out how to organize ourselves with kind of understanding.  For the moment I offer this:

Figure 3 - City "Nestworking"

The next post will conclude Chapter 2 – The Planning Impulse with a question: Is planning even the right word any more?   Chapter  3 – The Thriving Impulse, will be a theory side trip into what it means to thrive before thoroughly exploring the City Nestworking model above for the remainder of the book in Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence and Part 3 – Nest City.  

[2]   Gerald Hodge and David L.A. Gordon, Planning Canadian Communities, p. 3

[3]   As quoted by Hodge and Gordon

[4]   Gerald Hodge and David L.A. Gordon, Planning Canadian Communities, p. 5

[5]   Gerald Hodge and David L.A. Gordon, Planning Canadian Communities, p. 5


Other Sources –

Beck, Don Edward and Cowan, Christopher C., Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford (2006), particularly pages 52-56.

Hamilton, Marilyn, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, New Society Publishers Inc., Gabriola Island (2008)

Sanders, Beth, “From the High Water Mark to the Back of the Fish Flakes: The Evolutionary Purpose of Cities,” Vol 51, No. 4, p 26-31, Plan Canada.  Print publication of the Canadian Institute of Planners.

Integrating voices and values

A city is made up of multiple perspectives, purposes and modes of organizing.  In Is an unplanned city unplanned? Part 3 and Part 4, I showed the purposes for cities that emerge and the ways we organize in accordance with each purpose.  In City – a dance of voices and values, I made the connection between purpose/organizing and Hamilton’ four voices of city life: citizens, city managers, city builders and civil society (Figure 1).

Three cities, or three different points in time in the same city, could have completely different ‘maps’ of where their values lay.  Imagine dropping the spiral of city purposes on the four quadrants of city voices (Figure 2).  Instead of spirals, imagine concentric circles, radiating out from the center, illustrating the emergence of city purposes and modes of organizing.  The values in play can be seen and mapped for all four voices of the city.

Here are three examples (Figure 3):

On the left, most city builders value competition and prosperity while a good portion of citizens and city managers have a focus on authority and rules.   A portion of civil society puts emphasis on equality.  In the center illustration, the City Managers are in “turf mode”, with little power in authority.  In contrast, citizens, civil society and city builders appear to be in a position to take advantage of a lack of authority.  In the city on the right we see citizens valuing authority and moral codes while civil society and city managers are seeking much less formal structure with value systems that flatten hierarchy.  The city builders appear to be in turf-oriented competition.  Each map presents a different picture of what is valued in that city, from the perspective of those voices.


Varied purposes of cities, along with their associated levels of organizing that correspond with those purposes, coexist. This means that many modes of organizing are occuring simultaneously.  As we organize ourselves in cities, there are people attending to our various collective needs: individual organizations might be in survival mode due to budget cuts; new immigrants assemble to cultivate a sense of belonging and identity in a new place; the fire department responds to emergencies in ‘do’ mode; municipal governments establish order with by-laws regulating on-street parking; the Chamber of Commerce seeks strategic economic advantage; social justice groups demand participative decision-making processes.  As a whole, these are activities we undertake to organize ourselves and create habitats in which we will thrive.  One of the ways we organize is to plan, where we document where we intend to go and how we think we’ll get there.

When our basic survival needs are met, we organize ourselves with the aim to thrive.  As our cities began to grow, there was a point where we saw a need for order.  Eventually, we saw a need to create a new profession: city planning.  We saw a need to articulate, and document, a desired goal to improve our cities (no one plans for things to be worse) and the details of how to get there.  We aim in the direction of making things better, and we identify the steps we need to take to make things better.  This is planning in its simplest form.  It is work we are all engaged in, as profession planners and as citizens.

Planning our cities is work that belongs to all of us at once.  The Integral City model reminds us that we all have a role to play in city life.  The city builders organize themselves to physically construct our city and they make plans to do so.  Civil society organizes the social and cultural life in our cities; they look after various non-physical qualities of our cities.  Citizens, in our day-to-day life bring life to the city with every choice we make, particularly when we follow our passions in our work – whether paid or unpaid.  City managers have a role to play to create the minimal critical structure on which cities sit: our municipal government, health services, education, etc.  Each of the city’s voices shape the city, all at once, creating a world of messiness and uncertainty because no one entity has control of a city.  This understanding is critical for citizens and professional planners alike.

Planners used to be (and some still are, as appropriate) the people that write the plans for political approval.  As policy writers, they take direction from city council or propose policy to city council.  They ask the public and stakeholders what they think and make recommendations to Council.  The policy may be a transportation plan, a facility plan for a school division, a plan for future subdivisions.  We, as the public, assign great responsibility to this profession.  We also miss-assign this responsibility because professional planners shape and influence our cities, but it is a co-creative process.  Professional planners are expected to have the answers – and the recipe – but that is not how planning happens.  Planners do not have a recipe, let alone all the ingredients.

In my next post I will explore this question:  What is the purpose of plans and planning in today’s context?


Sources –

Beck, Don Edward and Cowan, Christopher C., Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford (2006), particularly pages 52-56.

Hamilton, Marilyn, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, New Society Publishers Inc., Gabriola Island (2008)

Sanders, Beth, “From the High Water Mark to the Back of the Fish Flakes: The Evolutionary Purpose of Cities,” Vol 51, No. 4, p 26-31, Plan Canada.  Print publication of the Canadian Institute of Planners.

Wilber, Ken, A Brief History of Everything, Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston (1996, 2000)

Work at scale to serve the city

In Wednesday’s post, Dynamically steering cities into the future, I reached the conclusion that it is only with feedback that we can adjust our path appropriately when needed.  Without feedback, any adjustment is simply uninformed action.  The world is changing in so many ways, it is not even possible to know what is changing and what it will turn into.  The true work at hand is learning how to dynamically steer our cities into the future.  We need to know our destination and then find the adjustments that will get us there.  It means being open to feedback and willing to take action – at any and all scales.  There is lots of work for us to do.

Figure A

The intelligence of the city lays at many scales, and each of us work at many scales in each moment, each day, in each of our lives.  In two posts (The development of cities is a survival skill, and Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat) I have referred to Marilyn Hamilton’s nested hierarchy, or holarchy, of city systems (Figure A).  This is one of four key maps Hamilton uses to chart the intelligence of a city.  This particular map articulates the city as a human system made up of a series of systems that are each, themselves, whole.  (If you would like to read more please explore her book, Integral City, or the Integral City website.)

I recognize each of these ‘wholes’ in my economic life as I work (paid and unpaid) at several scales:

  1. As an individual, I follow my passion and look for people with whom I can exchange my passion for what I need for my livelihood.
  2. As a family, we work together to create a social and physical habitat that will support us, right down to this summer’s project: a new roof.
  3. My extended family goes for a backcountry hike each summer.  This takes a lot of work to organize, and the payoff is time spent with each other and reconnection.
  4. I work as a consultant to a variety of organizations: cities, NGOs, corporations.
  5. I serve my neighbourhood organization as a volunteer.
  6. Much of my consulting work serves the whole city and its well-being.
  7. I am conscious of my actions that strengthen the connection between my city and its eco-region in my consulting work and our spending choices as a family.
There are three additional scales at which I serve cities: I serve as president of the Alberta Professional Planners Institute, a body of 903 professionals serving human settlements Alberta, Nunavut and Northwest Territories.  In a year’s time, I will be serving as APPI’s representative on the board of the Canadian Institute of Planners.  I also serve as a founding member of a fledgling group, the Center for Human Emergence: Canada, part of a global constellation of organizations aiming to create the conditions for human understanding of, and responsibility for, the health of people and the planet, recognizing that everything and everyone is interwoven.
At each scale, I can tease out the size and character of my habitat.  As the scale grows, my habitat becomes larger and more complex.  While the illustration in Figure A conveys that each city system is nested within larger systems, it does not convey that each larger system includes several, many, or thousands, or millions of the smaller systems.  As the scale increases, the complexity increases. Over time, as our cities become larger and larger, they become more complex, but the importance of smaller city systems does not decline.
Our work as individuals remains as critical as it ever was, for this is the scale at which we make our contributions.  The city is only as healthy as each whole system – including each of us – that make up the city.  Our work at every scale matters.
My next post will tie back in to where this first series of posts began – cities and innovation – and conclude this series of posts on the city impulse with these questions (at two scales):
  1. What can my city do for me?
  2. What can I do for my city? 
  3. What can our city do for us?
  4. What can we do for our city?