On the basis of the author’s latest book, Systemic Planning, this paper addresses systems thinking and complexity in the context of planning. Specifically, renewal of planning thinking on this background is set out as so-called systemic planning (SP). The principal concern of SP is to provide principles and methodology that can be helpful for planning under circumstances characterized by complexity and uncertainty. It is argued that compared to conventional planning — referred to as systematic planning — there is a need for a wider, more systemic approach to planning that is better suited to current real-world planning problems, often characterized by complex issues.
On the basis of the author’s latest book, Systemic Planning (Leleur, 2005), this paper presents an overview of the ideas behind systemic planning (SP). The principal concern of SP is to set out — by making use of systems science — some principles and methodology that can be helpful for planning under circumstances characterized by complexity and uncertainty. The paper is arranged as follows: After an introductory overview, the second section gives the main ideas behind the SP approach, with an outline of different categories of change processes and of three principal types of complexities that can make a conventional planning approach inappropriate. Then systems science is used to formulate the basic SP principles. In this respect, the paradigms of simplicity and complexity thinking as set out by the French philosopher of science Edgar Morin are called on, and a generic, methodological framework for SP is formulated.
The following section presents SP as an appropriate multimethodological approach characterized, among other things, by combining “soft” and “hard” operations research (OR) methods to set up an exploration and learning cycle that can guide planners and decision makers in a real case. A comprehensive set of relevant tools is presented, and it is discussed how this SP toolbox can be made use of together with the general principles of SP. In the subsequent section an example is dealt with. This concerns the complex public decision whether or not to build the Øresund Fixed Link at a cost of €3.2 billion for road and rail traffic between Copenhagen and Malmoe. This ex-post study — carried out four years after the opening of the link in 2000 — has been found relevant to demonstrate a planning case where the planning environment can be described as complex and uncertain. The case is treated with the emphasis on presenting the applicability of SP in general; that is, as being of interest also for other societal sectors than transport and infrastructure. The final section gives some findings and a perspective on further work.
Simplicity, complexity, and systemic decision making
Based on work carried out by the British organizations and complexity researcher Ralph Stacey, change processes in general can be categorized as closed change, contained change, and open-ended change (Stacey, 1993; Leleur, 2005: 16—17). These processes, described below, will influence the kind of planning approach that should be made use of when dealing with planning tasks relating to specific change processes.
Planning methodology and problem solving can in many cases be reasonably well specified and developed so they can facilitate planning-based decision making relating to closed and contained change, whereas open-ended change remains a challenge for several reasons. One basic consideration in this respect is that the uncertainties involved in complex decision making are principally of a generic type that cannot be satisfactorily dealt with by detailing and refining conventional planning methods that work well in situations with closed and contained change. Specifically for complex planning problems the planning environment when approached by conventional planning thinking is seen to “complexify” along three dimensions, which is why the following complexity categories are relevant to deal with:
Basically we will associate detail complexity with “means” and dynamic complexity with “path,” whereas preference complexity relates primarily to “ends.”
The application of systems science for improving our problem-solving capabilities holds two promises (Leleur, 2005: 22):
The first statement above concerns what is sometimes referred to as systems analysis. In an almost generic process we commence by defining our problem and determining the objectives. After this we turn to envisage or model the consequences of various relevant alternatives. Then we appraise the alternatives to make it possible to select the best one. The final step concerns the implementation of this alternative and it may be decided to continue the process by monitoring it (Leleur, 2000: 18). Our ideal in this undertaking is to be rational in our decision making so that the analytical processing of complete information will lead to an optimal result, be it a decision, design, plan, and so on. We will see this as a systematic approach.
The second statement relating to the use of systems science expresses that wholeness matters and it can therefore be seen as a corrective to the first one. With the systematic The two paradigms of simplicity and complexity
The two paradigms of simplicity and complexity
No doubt the systematic approach is tied to the rational-analytical thinking well known to people educated, for example, as engineers and economists, whereas the notion of being systemic is more difficult to understand and come to grips with. In this situation the paradigms about simplicity and complexity by Morin become highly relevant, where a paradigm denotes a basic research orientation and pattern. Fundamentally, Morin sees classic scientific explanation as based on a simplicity paradigm. Although he recognizes the strength of the simplicity paradigm in many respects, he also identifies certain limitations to its explanatory models. As physics and cosmological thinking have always been major suppliers of ideas to other branches of science, it stands out that subnuclear physics is the main example that Morin uses to argue the insufficiency of the simplicity paradigm, as this branch of physics cannot satisfactorily explain new so-called The SP structure as four interrelated modes of exploration and learning. Different methods are indicated to illustrate some possible method choice.
SP Method Structure
Example: Critical systems heuristics
Example: Scenario analysis
Example: Futures workshop
Example: Multicriteria analysis and simulation
The SP structure as four interrelated modes of exploration and learning. Different methods are indicated to illustrate some possible method choice.
As concerns the development of systemic planning, we will see systemic thinking as rooted in the complexity paradigm and systematic thinking as rooted in simplicity thinking. The idea is not to replace systematic thinking with systemic thinking, but to make wider planning possible by applying both. As the conventional planning approach is tied to systematic thinking, we adopt the term systemic for such wider analysis in which we choose to include both systematic and systemic findings and not just the latter. In this way, systemic planning (SP) seeks to generalize the conventional well-known planning approach that in this context can be seen as relating primarily to systematic planning and problem solving.
Another basic complementary relationship behind SP concerns scanning vs. assessment. Dealing with planning and problem solving, exploration and learning will depend on alternating between these two modes; that is, they cannot both be problematized at the same time but will reciprocally influence each other. By cross-referencing the two pairs of complementary relationships we obtain the basic methodological structure behind SP shown in Table 2 (Leleur, 2005: 127):
|Current Methods Available for SP — Bold Type Indicates the Methods Made Use of in the Øversund Fixed Link Case|
|Analytical hierarchy process (AHP)Computer-aided design (CAD)Conflict analysisCost—benefit analysis (CBA) and cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA)Critical systems heuristics (CSH)Critical path method (CPM)Cross-impact analysisDecision analysis (DA) applying SMART and SMARTERDelphi conferencing techniquesEnvironmental impact assessment (EIA)Expert systemsForecastingFutures workshop (FW)Fuzzy set theoryGame theoryGraph theoryInput—output analysis||Interactive planning (IP)Intuitive exploration/brainstorming/metaphor and analogy buildingLinear programming techniquesMulticriteria analysis (MCA)Multiple perspectives (MP)Network theoryOptimization theory and heuristicsProgram evaluation and review techniques (PERT)Scenario analysisSensitivity analysisSimulationSoft systems methodology (SSM)Statistics, probability and queuing theoryStrengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats analysis (SWOT)Systems dynamicsTotal systems intervention (TSI)|
The tools of systemic planning
The SP approach is developed by making use of the generic structure shown in Table 2. Generally this is carried out by applying appropriate OR methods (see Table 3) in a self-organizing process that embeds conventional optimization in a wider process of exploration and learning (Leleur, 2005: 35). The ongoing search—learn—debate process moves on by contrasting and interpreting the different findings and insights. The process aims at converging into a satisfactory end result for the decision makers.
Generally, “hard” OR methods can be seen to provide first-order findings based on calculative rationality, whereas second-order findings (or even higher) are associated with “soft” OR methods — based on communicative rationality — that relate to the so-called subworld created around a complex problem by the various stakeholders and participants in the process (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1988: 76; Leleur, 2005: 72—73, 107).
The SP exploration and learning cycle makes it possible to deal with a complex problem in a much more explicit way. The example below describes some findings relating to the Øresund Fixed Link, where the set of four methods in Table 2 was applied (Leleur, 2005: 132—136).
Overview and application example
The Øresund Fixed Link — open since July 2000 — can be regarded as one of the most complex transport investment decisions made in Scandinavia (Leleur, et al., 2004; Leleur, 2005: 119—137). The case work demonstrated how the huge amount of information produced in studies and so on over the years could have formed part of an ex-ante examination of how to apply the SP approach. In this respect the case has functioned as a kind of evaluation research methodology laboratory (Leleur, 2005). The idea of the ex-post study, undertaken three to four years after the opening of the fixed link, is to consider and review the impacts and the ex-ante evaluation methodology to examine whether the latter was appropriate. Therefore, the study aims at informing planning and evaluation methodology and possibly updating it. However, the ex-post study cannot give certain results concerning the ex-ante methodology stemming from the beginning of the 1990s, with the decision to implement being taken back in 1994. Development could have been otherwise if, for example, new issues of high relevance of various types had arisen: Danish and Swedish legislation being counterproductive for integration across the Øresund, an oil supply crisis, and so on. However, saying that a narrow cost—benefit analysis for large infrastructure planning is at best insufficient is a generally relevant finding, which is exemplified by the wider approach presented below that makes use of systemic planning (SP) ideas, which are briefly reiterated.
With an emphasis on a search—learn—debate process that develops around contrasting and interpreting the upcoming intermediate findings and insights of the planning problem, a group of four complementary methodologies was selected after some scrutiny; see Table 2. These SP principles for guiding the search—learn—debate process do not draw on an overarching kind of rationality; in fact, applying German sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s view on selection and complex processes, the theme of rationality in the SP process,
“disintegrates into a typology of distinct rationalities, whose relations to one another can no longer be subsumed under the requirements of rationality — in, for example, some sort of ranking.” (Luhmann, 1996: 171)
Then in SP there is no general rationality blueprint when proceeding and doing this or that in the planning process. This is part of the theoretical underpinnings of systemic planning (SP); further detail behind the formulation of SP relating to, among other things, Luhmann’s perception of social systems and his contingency/complexity thinking — perceived as representing third-wave systems science — is given in the book Systemic Planning (Leleur, 2005: 40—48, 83—94).
The OR methods that were made use of in the Øresund Fixed Link (see Table 3) were critical systems heuristics (CSH), scenario analysis (SA), futures workshop (FW), multicriteria analysis (MCA), and simulation (SI). Basic methodology references are Jackson (2000); Midgley (2000); Flood (1999); Drewes, et al. (2004); and Goodwin & Wright (1999).
In brief, CSH mapped decision coalitions ( “players”) and their motives and different responses at certain stages, whereas SA and FW provided a set of interrelating framework and trend scenarios. In that way several future images were constructed and each of these was examined using MCA and SI. These latter methods produced some quantitative expressions that illuminated some aspects of the complex investment project. In addition, the application of MCA and SI also made it relevant to reconsider some of the CSH and FW analyses and results concerning, for example, the integrative role of the new bridge linking not just two major cities across a strait but also two countries and, furthermore, giving all Nordic countries access from Scandinavia to the central part of Europe.
There was general agreement among the participants — representing both researchers and (some of) the identified stakeholders — at a seminar in 2004 where the results were presented that the assessment insights found could not have been achieved by making use of the standard cost—benefit approach that would normally be applied for such a study (Leleur, et al., 2004). In this respect it should be noted that the SP approach has been conducted as a kind of comparative study as, among other things, it has been possible to make comparisons with the actual examination process before the construction work began in 1994. To illustrate the iterative, nonlinear planning process prescribed by SP, Table 4 presents some intermediate findings. As a general characteristic, it can be noted that certain insights gained with one of the applied methods in a particular category trigger new examinations in one or more of the categories. New stakeholder preferences revealed in the systemic assessment category may, for example, lead to new scenarios being relevant in the systematic scanning category and so on. In this way the total process becomes one of exploration and learning.
The outcome of the type of examination outlined above showed that the Øresund Fixed Link was a feasible project from a societal point of view if — as it turned out — different strategic impacts such as European and regional Intermediate findings and specifications based on SP exploration and learning
Some Intermediate Findings and Specifications that Can Feed Back into the Process Systemic scanning: Issues of identification and demarcationGeneral concerns:• Øresund region one of several spheres• The meaning of national barriers• Drivers: market, clusters, culture, etc.• Infrastructure and developmentSpecific concerns:• Limitations of cause-effect model• Interpretation of expressed expectations
Systematic scanning: Issues relating to scenariosRegional scenarios:• Economy, regulation, transport, etc.• Local integration vs. nonintegration• Baltic Sea development: trade etc.• Competitive transport developmentEU-wide scenarios:• Economy, regulation, transport• Trends: resources and technology• Trends: modal policies etc.
Systemic assessment: Issues relating to stakeholder preferencesEx-ante:• Local pro-coalition• Local environmental anti-coalition• National interest• International pro-coalitionEx-post:• National interest• Øresund region citizens• Øresund companies• International interest
Systematic assessment: Issues relating to multicriteria analysisNarrow feasibility (CBA):• Investment• Time savings• Cost savings• Local emissions and accidentsWider feasibility (MCA):• Network and mobility• Global emissions (CO2)• Employment• Logistics and goods effects
Intermediate findings and specifications based on SP exploration and learning
Findings and perspective
Below a summary is given of the general findings relating to the formulation of systemic planning principles and methodology (Leleur, 2005: 107—108, 76).
No doubt a systemic planning process should be expected to be demanding in skills, resources, and so on. For this reason alone, undertaking a systemic planning study should be contemplated ahead of its commencement. A general characterization as demanding, compared to conventional planning tasks where suitable planning routines and methods are available, follows from the successive establishment of the necessary subworld around it; from applying and combining different methods it needs to be seen how they perform and provide formation of meaning and understanding in the particular context consisting of the planning problem and its environment, stakeholders, planners, concrete interpretations, narratives, suggestions, paradoxes, and so on.
If a kind of epistemology should be sketched on the background of generalizing planning thinking, we have to move from a hierarchical, well-ordered input—output process toward a wider process that also contains what we may see as networks or heterarchies. What characterizes a heterarchy is that there is no single “monitor” and no single “highest level.” The instrumental reason for conventional planning has, furthermore, been embedded in a wider communicative rationality, which can be seen as a move from a foundational hypothetic-deductive orientation toward a non-foundational perception; that is, the communications-based agreement.
In Table 5 a new outlook for planning as systemic planning is presented in an overview by comparing issues that characterize it — ranging from problem type to the view above on epistemology — with those of conventional planning. In this respect it can be noted that a consequence of applying the thinking of Morin, Luhmann, and Habermas leads to biperspectivism based on both simplicity and complexity orientations as concerns the paradigm of thinking, and to a nonfoundational, so-called sympoietic orientation based on communicative action as concerns epistemology. The concept of sympoiesis — inspired by seeing autopoietic systems forming co-evolutionary networks — has been introduced with the formulation of systemic planning to indicate the phenomenon and outcome of reciprocal relationships between individual entities and ensembles (Leleur, 2005: 97). Whereas Habermas is well established in current systems science theory and practice — see for example Midgley (2000) and Jackson (2000) — the reception and application of Morin and Luhmann are less so. To point to this situation — and to the fact that a Comparison of conventional planning with a new outlook for planning
Issues of Characterization
A New Outlook for Planning
Simple, defined as noncomplex
Complex, not just complicated
Paradigm of thinking
Simplicity representing monoperspectivism
Both simplicity and complexity representing biperspectivism
Rationale of planning
Mainly proactive and optimizing, with emphasis on models
Mainly enabling and mediating, with emphasis also on learning
Engineers, economists, geographers, etc.
Also sociologists, political scientists, etc.
A linear process of activities ( “tasks”), dominated by first-order findings that can be combined to produce a plan
A nonlinear (self-organizing, autocatalytic) process of activities ( “events”), both first- and second-order findings
Foundational, hypothetico-deductive ( “hierarchical input—output”), based on instrumental reason
Nonfoundational, sympoietic ( “heterarchical networks”), based on communicative action
Comparison of conventional planning with a new outlook for planning
Whether systemic planning is warranted or not depends on the actual circumstances and our interpretation of these. Clearly, there have been cases where conventional planning has failed as conditions were not right for a systematic approach; and clearly also there can be no guarantees that widening planning into what we have called systemic planning, comprising both “hard” and “soft” methodologies, will be successful. The applications so far, however, are promising. Therefore we argue that SP holds potential as guidance for planning in a context of open-ended, complex problems necessitating proactive decision making. Increasing complexity in society in general and in the professional spheres of administration and business more specifically, combined with the flexibility and adaptability of SP, make it relevant to pursue a further development of the current SP principles and methodology.
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