The field will shift from having lone 'technologists' at organizations to everyone having a base level of knowledge and awareness of technology, so that all staff members can be on the lookout for opportunities."
What is it?
Tech Savvy Planning is an approach to technology in cities that involves three aspects. First, as the newest type of urban infrastructure with a large amount of complexity, it is deserving of its own focused work and strategy. Technology is not an afterthought or something used to solve problems intermittently. Second, there are a variety of technology types in cities that need to be considered in their own right and integrated for a holistic approach. More details are provided in How to Focus, Categorize, and Integrate Your Urban Technology. These days, many technology products generate their own data that is not only useful for one purpose, but many. In addition, some technology products have features and functions that are useful for both primary and secondary purposes. One example in the transit space is leveraging automatic vehicle location (AVL) data for fleet management (i.e., real time data on the location of vehicles to estimate on time arrivals) for public-facing real time transit data apps, such as One Bus Away. Agencies need the AVL data for operational purposes, but they can plug that data into public-facing apps to provide public information as well.
Third, technology in cities should actually improve the quality of life and basic city services. It can be easy to get distracted with the latest and greatest, but particularly where technology is concerned, it is critical to have clarity on the “why.” Some level of piloting and experimentation is always useful to test assumptions about what technology might be able to help vs. what it is actually able to help. You don’t need to know all the details right at the beginning, and it can be an iterative learning process. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that with cities, taxpayer funds tend to be involved, and that raises the stakes for ensuring effectiveness. With so many challenges in our cities, there needs to be clear documentation as to why the technology in place is worth the cost vs. using the funds for other pressing needs. There is a level of financial accountability that is front and center when working on urban improvements of any type. More details are provided in How to Evaluate Technology According to Potential Impact.
After working in transportation technology with Atlanta Regional Commission 2012-2016 and after serving as the Smart Cities Program Manager with the City of Atlanta 2016-2017, I’ve been in a position to observe how challenging this space can be and thinking of ways to make it better. More about my smart cities, transportation, and data-driven decision making work is here.
For whom is it?
Tech Savvy Planning presents technology in a way that can be understood by most any urban planning and management professional. In fact, that is key these days. The field will shift from having lone “technologists” at organizations to everyone having a base level of knowledge and awareness of technology, so that all staff members can be on the lookout for opportunities. Particularly since the field has so many specialists in niche areas of planning, they are the ones who know their sub-area or niche the best, and thus, are best positioned to apply effective technology to it. Expecting a technologist to understand every in and out of an organization is not feasible, but coupled with a broader staff understanding, can be a great strategy.
How is it useful?
Tech Savvy Planning communicates technology in plain terms, which means a special vocabulary is not required. There should be no translation aspect. Urban planning and management professionals know their field and work, so understanding how to apply technology is simply the next step for many.
Technology for cities currently can be, frankly, overwhelming and confusing. First, there is the issue of everything changing so quickly. It can feel like there is no solid object around when trying to make decisions about technology. Second, there is the issue of ambiguity and future unknowns. Sure, you can procure something today for this and next year well enough, but what about the year after that? Anything can happen by then, and yet, the hope is that the technology will last for four years. These are tough situations everyone in the field is navigating now. There are rarely clear answers, but there are strategic planning techniques that can be applied. More details are provided in How to Apply Strategic Planning Techniques to Manage Future Technology Unknowns. Third, there are few models and guides for how to navigate this process as an urban planning and management professional. Often such professionals are faced with a multitude of vendors presenting various products. Without a driving logic and vision of what the technology should do to focus these conversations, they can become a free for all. The mind may take in all the opportunities, but it does not have a framework for evaluating them or placing them in context with the greater “why” – why is this important and not that? Why are we focused on solving this problem and not that one?
Urban planning and management is a field where decision-making is core to most activities. There are so many challenges facing our cities, it is a constant battle in the mind and in reality to pick the best one. The truth is, we can’t improve everything, at least not at the same time. There are staff and budget limitations as well as bandwidth limitations. Tech Savvy Planning will help you and your organization have clarity that the decisions you are making are the best given current information and circumstances.
What are the articles in the series?
...the level-headed cousin is methodical, sometimes quiet and pensive, and works behind the scenes neutrally beginning work in cities with the question, ‘can technology help this challenge?’ ”
Smart = Technology?
“Smart cities” has become a popular phrase in the past 8 years or so, generally referring to the increased use of technology in cities. “Smart” and “technology” became synonymous somehow, and this movement mirrors what was happening in the domestic realm during the same period. “Smart” home devices for utilities, baby monitoring, and other purposes include connection to the Internet. This, in turn, enables remote access. Some "smart" devices even include an element of predictive capability, meaning past behavior is monitored and processed to arrive at likely future behaviors and consequent settings for such home devices. “Smart” for a smart city includes Internet connectivity, but is not necessarily limited to it. It could encompass other technological efforts with limited or no significant Internet-based component. Ultimately, “smart” pertaining to home devices has more to with the predictive capabilities, meaning the technology is processing past actions and making educated guesses about future desires, while “smart” applied to cities has become widely connected with technology in general.
Technology and quality of life improvements
The catch is, technology should never be thought of for its own sake. Technology is a viable and powerful resource to apply to problem-solving and urban improvements, but it should not be applied in cases where it won’t make a significant improvement or won’t solve a problem. Some urban challenges are so connected to human behavior or poor policy making, that technology won’t make a dent in the problem. If you don’t know the history of the challenge, it can seem as though technology is the way forward. Cities are funded primarily with public dollars, often have major budgetary constraints, and tend to have a lot of subject areas that are in need of improvement. Zeroing in on technology as a primary solution, in some cases improperly applied and demanding a large amount of public funding, can be a danger zone. Technology requires experimentation and testing, and it makes sense to have trial projects and see how things work, but scaling up projects with a large amount of public funding must be treated with care. Some technology works well only in a network effect. In short, only if it is deployed on a large scale does it have a chance of being impactful. Further, with the myriad needs cities face from the poor state of transportation infrastructure maintenance and gaps in services for the homeless to critical needs for senior citizens and balanced, attainable, and affordable housing, cities have their work cut out for them. And sure, technology has a role to play that should absolutely be explored, but it is not the single silver bullet cities need for an improved quality of life.
Pitfalls of defining urban challenges too narrowly
Professionals who come from other domains and are new to the city and urban domain have a lot to learn about how cities function and the nature of urban challenges. In some cases, professionals, including urban planning and management professionals, can be guilty of defining urban problems too narrowly or simplistically, either because they don’t know better yet, or because the the off-the-shelf technology they had in mind would fit the bill if the problem were at such a scope. In other cases, they may not have had enough time working on city issues to understand the complexities involved. You can rarely make a change in one area that does not impact another, and this is when unintended consequences occur. They may simply lack the experience to understand how these ripple effects could occur.
Can technology help this challenge?
As opposed to smart cities, which is a loaded term that means different things to different people and equates technology with smart with good, let’s use something like Tech Savvy Planning. This is a simple notion that expresses that technology becoming increasingly integrated in our cities is inevitable. Understanding what technology can help, in which situations it can help, and how and when to apply it are the key questions to ask. I think of Tech Savvy Planning as the level-headed cousin of smart cities. They share some family connections, and they see each other at family reunions, but the level-headed cousin is methodical, sometimes quiet and pensive, and works behind the scenes neutrally beginning work in cities with the question, “can technology help this challenge?” To learn more about applying Tech Savvy Planning to your work, see How to Focus, Categorize, and Integrate Your Urban Technology.
At this point, it is not about being right or wrong, it is about getting started and capturing thoughts that may remain highly relevant as you build your tech strategy. You’ll continue to add on additional layers, but this initial brainstorm is the best place to begin."
How to focus initially
The educational article series introduction mentioned, “What do you want to do with tech? Without a driving logic and vision of what the technology should do to focus these conversations, they can become a free for all. The mind may take in all the opportunities, but it does not have a framework for evaluating them.”
Starting an urban technology journey, as with many journeys, begins with focus. As stated in the same article, “understanding what technology can help, in which situations it can help, and how and when to apply it are the key questions to ask.” Think, alone or with colleagues, about what technology can help and in which situations it can help. Sketch or map out these areas to collect your initial, fresh insights. At this point, it is not about being right or wrong, it is about getting started and capturing thoughts that may remain highly relevant as you build your tech strategy. You’ll continue to add on additional layers, but this initial brainstorm is the best place to begin. We’ll refer to this later as the “focus sketch.”
How to categorize to build awareness and depth
Now, let’s get into the functional categories of technology in cities. After we’ve run through these, you’ll have additional thoughts to add to your focus sketch. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of categories, but an illustrative one. First, there are analytical products. These tend to be software that are used for certain purposes such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for mapping and data analysis and specific functions depending on the agency. Take a transit agency for example; they often use route-planning software customized for such a purpose. Second, there are operational products. These are common for service-oriented organizations or those requiring real time data collection for various purposes. Again, thinking of transit agencies, they tend to have fare payment systems, automatic vehicle location platforms, and asset management software.
Operational products tend to have a mix of software and hardware as well as Internet connectivity to process extracted data in real time. Other common examples are traffic congestion monitoring and bike and pedestrian data. While there have been separate “counters” for each of these items (cars, bikes, pedestrians, etc.) in the past, it is becoming increasingly common to capture data on these items through one single piece of hardware, a well-positioned device with a video camera and connected algorithms to track such items, count them, note the direction of their movement, assess if collisions occurred, and other functions. Third, there are public-facing products, such as apps and websites that provide the public with information they need such as traffic conditions, service notifications, utility payment platforms, and real time transit data. Of course, there are other technologies for office functions such as talent management and payment processing, but our scope is focused on how the organization serves the public.
Now that you understand the categories, create a new “categorization sketch” that illustrates all the technology product types you think might be useful. Perhaps you captured them all already through the focus sketch. If you identified some new ones, go back to the focus sketch and see if any of the new ones in the categorization sketch are worthy of focus. If so, add them to your focus sketch.
How to integrate and approach holistically
For this step, you’ll create a basic diagram of the categories with the technology components core to each category branching from it. In this diagram, you’ll bring any strong ideas from the focus sketch and categorization sketch into one big picture.
You’ll tag the technology product types with terms including “current, soon, and long term” to differentiate between what you already have (current), should deploy in the near future (soon), and what comes later down the line (long term). Then, you’ll look at each technology and map connections between them and add tags for “existing and future” for cases in which a) there is an existing connection between two current technology product types (existing) or b) there should be a connection made in the future (future). From the educational article series introduction, “One example in the transit space is leveraging automatic vehicle location (AVL) data for fleet management (i.e., real time data on the location of vehicles to estimate on time arrivals) for public-facing real time transit data apps, such as One Bus Away. Agencies need the AVL data for operational purposes, but they can plug that data into public-facing apps to provide public information as well.” Some integration concepts will be less obvious, so its important to think deeply about all the ways connections could be useful for a variety of purposes.
What these results can provide
The integration diagram can provide a base for various types of documents and decision-making guides, at the strategic level and tactical level. These could include a Technology Strategic Plan, Technology Vision Plan, Technology Tactical Implementation Plan, and others. Furthermore, it could provide a base for a technology component of a broader plan that spans topics outside of technology, such as an Organization Strategic Plan and others. Learn more in How to Evaluate Technology According to Potential Impact to take your Tech Savvy Planning to the next level.
...consider how impactful the result would be, if it were achieved. What would it do? What would it change? Does it help solve a big problem? Does it put a dent in a major challenge?"
While How to Focus, Categorize, and Integrate Your Urban Technology covered key topics, it did not get into the details of evaluating technology product types for potential impact. How to Combine Mapping and Results for Holistic Organizations states, “The impact your organization makes is the combination of the proven results across the three levels – functional, cross-functional, and outcome-based. Each level is important in its own right, but it is the combination of all three that holds real power for exponential impact.” Further, potential impact is the likelihood of successfully moving from anticipated results (AR) to proven results (PR). Review the second link above and How to Map for Outcomes for an explanation of functional, cross-functional, and outcome-based levels as well as for AR and PR. This is a framework you’ll use to evaluate potential impact.
Pinpoint each technology’s anticipated result
First, alone or with colleagues, build out a table that lists the technology product types under discussion in the left column. For each technology, decide where each one best fits - functional, cross-functional, or outcome-based. In some cases, a technology that is multi-faceted could belong to more than one of these types. In such cases, describe the detail according to the appropriate column. Explain the anticipated result in each box, as you currently understand it. This will evolve over time as you learn more.
While there are many ways to evaluate and prioritize, I’ll share a fairly simple, subjective approach for you to consider using. To evaluate, use three subjective criteria for scoring including 1) ease of implementation, 2) potential impact, and 3) organizational focus. Ease of implementation encompasses a multiple of subfactors such as cost, internal/external support, staff skills, set up and maintenance, and others. It could vary depending on the potential for partnerships in cases where implementation would benefit from external collaboration. Potential impact is the likelihood of successfully moving from anticipated results (AR) to proven results (PR). Take a look at the anticipated result table you created. Whether the AR is functional, cross-functional, or outcome-based, consider how impactful the result would be, if it were achieved. What would it do? What would it change? Does it help solve a big problem? Does it put a dent in a major challenge?
Then, consider the likelihood of the AR becoming a PR. Sometimes, we have a great technology idea, but there are reasons it is highly unlikely it will get off the ground. Some barriers are surmountable, and others are not. As a professional or group of professionals, it is up to you to understand such implications. If a technology with an AR is very impactful, but with a low likelihood of success, it should probably either be removed or placed on a low priority. The last criterion is organizational focus. This pertains to the organization’s core delivery areas, but it could also relate to its core competencies. This may be formally stated in the organization’s mission, goals, and tactics, or it may be a fuzzier concept worthy of more thought. Once you are done, you’ll end up with a table to summarize the evaluation. You could have actual numeric scores or “low, medium, and high” categories.
From here, you will prioritize the technology product types in terms of low, medium, and high. There are a few rules of thumb to follow here. If a technology is “low” across all 3 criteria, it should be removed or put on a low priority. If a technology is “high” across all 3 criteria, it should be put on a high priority. If a technology is “low” on potential impact, it should be removed or put on a low priority. If a technology is “low” on organizational focus, it should also likely be removed or put on a low priority. If it is “high” on impact, regardless of the score for the other 2 criteria, it may deserve to be on a high or medium priority, unless it is also “low” on organizational focus, rendering it infeasible. And the list goes on until you have each technology associated with a low, medium, or high priority. After this step is complete, you can build the technologies into other planning efforts for budgeting and phasing. Keep in mind, this is a highly iterative process. This is just a first pass at bringing together a large and complex amount of decision-making information. You’ll continue to refine these steps as you move forward. Some of them may even be left grey while research is conducted to have a realistic idea of how the technology would perform or to understand its value to your mission.
Ecosystem and network effects
After you finish an initial pass at evaluation and prioritization, consider that some of the technology product types may be mutually reinforcing. What that means is that some might be stronger together than separate. Take a look at the integration diagram you created through How to Focus, Categorize, and Integrate Your Urban Technology. Are there connections between some of the technologies that warrant a note on your prioritization table that they should stick together? Perhaps two highly connected technologies are on different prioritization levels and should be brought onto the same one and thought of as a complementary pair. Think of how you can translate insights you gained from the integration diagram into your prioritization table. Learn a few new tools in How to Apply Strategic Planning Techniques to Manage Future Technology Unknowns.
...make sure 'success' is defined clearly and up front prior to the pilot or first phase. Design an experimentation component to test the assumptions within the success definition."
From Getting Started with Tech Savvy Planning, “…there is the issue of ambiguity and future unknowns. Sure, you can procure something today for this and next year well enough, but what about the year after that? Anything can happen by then, and yet, the hope is that the technology will last for four years. These are tough situations everyone in the field is navigating now. There are rarely clear answers, but there are strategic planning techniques that can be applied."
Focus on the what the product does, not the brand
Try and find a general description for what you need done, and use that language when planning for technology, not a brand, even if you already have it selected. For instance, for fixed route transit planning for bus and rail, route planning could be seen as a general analytical need. Ten years ago, fixed route planning involved data analysis across a number of platforms to understand destination patterns, housing patterns, and key locations for employment, health, and other day-to-day functions. Today, more and more agencies are using route-planning software such as Remix to automate those functions, enabling the professional to focus on evaluating options vs. creating the options. I’m a big fan of Remix and have been for years, but if I were advising an organization on their technology planning, I would suggest they always use the term “route planning.”
Here’s why – technology stays in a pattern of evolution. That’s just what it does. If you focus on the brand, you’ll always feel like you are chasing a moving object over the decades. Who knows how fixed route planning will work 5 years from now? It will likely merge into a hybrid analytical platform of fixed route, on-demand/microtransit, bike/small vehicle share, transportation network companies (TNCs such as Lyft and Uber), and pedestrian networks into a “shared use system planning software.” (I can’t wait to see that!) The general function is known, but the brand is unknown.
Understand your role and your options
There is a current debate in the connected vehicle and autonomous vehicle (CV/AV) space, will the infrastructure run on Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) radio, 5GLTE wireless technology, or both? As urban areas prepare for their growing role in this space, they are faced with this fundamental question. While this is a particularly tricky one, it too can benefit from a few strategic planning techniques.
Stay informed on these trends, understand them as deeply as you can, and pinpoint the options you have now and later. Ask yourself, what types of products am I responsible for exactly? How do they pertain to this issue at hand? What options will I have? What are the partners in the ecosystem planning to do, and how does that relate to what I should do? What information am I missing? Some ways forward seem mutually exclusive as first, and then as you dig deeper, you see there is some middle ground or a way to straddle the options.
Delay major decisions as long as possible
Government procurement, in particular, requires budget programming sometimes well in advance of the actual implementation. For fast-changing technology, this is a major hurdle. I think at some point, it will prove too challenging and a newer approach to procurement will take root. Until then, we need to deal with the reality. If you can, use general terms for procurement like “route planning” to allow for flexibility as you get closer to the time to select a product. Look into all the options you have to select products as late as possible and still get projects implemented on time. This will allow the maximum time for technology maturity before the decision is made. Every little bit of time can help.
Phasing and experimentation are your friends
Do not go all in at once with a new technology. Would you marry someone you just started dating? Pilots and phasing are great tools in the toolkit to dip your toe in the water before you’re fully submerged. Further, make sure “success” is defined clearly and up front prior to the pilot or first phase. Design an experimentation component to test the assumptions within the success definition. Make sure you have a staff member or a consultant looking at these data and monitoring the performance. It may seem ancillary, but in fact, this is a core need for new technology. Establish minimum standards the first phase or pilot must reach in order to progress to the next phase. If they are met, that’s fantastic. If not, research why and find out if there is any way to adapt. Rerun the analysis, and see if the result is any different. In fact, go ahead in the early planning phases and plan for these alternate routes. You’ll be grateful later in the project that you did, and you’ll have tons of documentation about your process in case of an audit or assessment at a later time. Check out all the articles in the Educational Article Series: Getting Started with Tech Savvy Planning.
If you have a nagging thought or sneaking suspicion that your organization operates in a 'siloed' manner that is not holistic, lacks clarity regarding how its parts connect, and struggles with issues of overlap, redundancy, and fragmentation, this series is for you."
What is it?
What is 360 degree planning, and why is it important for urban planning and management professionals to practice it? It is a systems thinking approach that involves thinking holistically about the wider system an organization and its efforts are involved within, so that professionals can take action after understanding the big picture, how the parts connect, and their role. For urban planning and management, the urban “system” centers on the soft and hard infrastructure elements that combine to make it work, but it also includes all the people inside the system and leading parts of the system. People make individual decisions each day, which en masse manifest as larger trends. Leaders, formal or informal, may hold power and influence over various elements of soft and hard infrastructure. The terms "soft" and "hard" infrastructure refer to the degree to which the element depends upon built (i.e., hard) components to complete its purpose. For example, transportation infrastructure relies primarily on built components, such as roads and bridges, while education infrastructure leans towards non-built (i.e., soft) components such as teachers and lesson plans. While they both have aspects of soft and hard, they tend to depend on one more than the other, which helps to classify them in general. The educational article series will be focused on the soft and hard infrastructure elements that combine to make an urban system function.
For whom is it?
The primary audience of this series includes executives and managers working on urban planning and management in the public sector. Though others may benefit, the series is targeted at such an audience because they tend to hold decision-making authority and often operate at a level that oversees multiple departments or divisions. Alternatively, they may have the power to set the direction of an individual department or division as a manager. In short, they are well-positioned to address silos and integrate systems thinking into the organization. The strategic direction executives and managers take for an organization correlates with the organization's specific role in the urban system, actions taken to change the urban system, and how funding is spent in pursuit of such changes. This is why the series is focused on the professional and their strategic, high level approach. To shape our urban areas, we must first shape our own minds and thinking in order to take holistic, big picture actions.
If you have a nagging thought or sneaking suspicion that your organization operates in a "siloed" manner that is not holistic, lacks clarity regarding how its parts connect, and struggles with issues of overlap, redundancy, and fragmentation, this series is for you. If you think that urban systems and interdependencies within your work areas exist, and you’d like to carry your work forward in a more holistic manner, keep reading. If you are not sure which work areas to protect in times of a budget crunch or how to talk about the parts of the organization feeding into a united vision, you’ll appreciate this series. If you hear talk of government “silos” reducing effectiveness and nod your head in agreement but are thinking, “yeah, but what can I actually do about that,” you’re in the right place.
How is it useful?
Executives and managers often work on strategic plans to set the tone, vision, and priorities of the organization. They may also track their performance and progress according to performance measurement systems for monitoring and evaluation purposes. They may be considering reorganization, but are unsure where to begin or what logic a new organizational pattern should follow. This series can help with all of that and more. You may consider Civic Sphere for assistance on such projects, or you may leave the series with the information you need to move your organization forward. I hope you find the guidance useful enough to take action, transforming the way you think, your organization works, and urban systems thrive.
What are the articles in the series?
While specialization was a very natural response to the needs for deep knowledge, it has left us with a significant unintended consequence - a lack of clear, actionable knowledge about integration, interconnectivity, and interdependency across subject areas in urban planning and management."
Roles of various sectors in urban planning and management
The urban planning and management field, on the public side, is comprised of local level governments such as municipalities and counties, state level organizations, and federal level organizations, the latter two often having decision-making authority over funding allocation amounts and goals on the local level. On the private side, there are a host of private companies that support government agencies with products and consulting services. There are also nonprofits and philanthropies with growing influence and decision-making authority over how urban and rural areas are developed. Nonprofits and philanthropies often provide social services or urban management guidance that would otherwise not be provided. The academic sector produces students and valuable knowledge products that help move the field forward. The organization type of focus for this article is the public sector, since the public sector is the primary decision-making authority for urban planning and management in general.
Urban planning and management and the historical rise of the specialist
Urban planning, historically, has been closely linked with the engineering and architectural fields. A single professional often provided the direction for how all the streets and water infrastructure would be laid out as well as providing the engineering specifications for how each component would be built. Up until the 1800’s, this would generally have been the case. The Industrial Revolution changed the way that space was commonly used, as many Western societies shifted from mostly agricultural to a mix of agricultural and industrial. Industry thrives on close proximity to goods and services and requires a ready local population for its work. People moved to cities more and more frequently, and soon urban planning professionals were faced with many of the challenges that continue to this day in cities. Overcrowding was probably the biggest issue at this time. Concerns grew over tenement housing in places like New York City and London. Sanitation facilities were basic and in short supply. The field of medicine did not know the origin of all infectious diseases, but there was an assumption that close proximity contributed to the spread of disease and illness. Some would say this was a peak period for understanding public health concerns.
Public health challenges, such as the spread of cholera, were linked to cities. A remarkably engaging portrayal of this is through the book The Ghost Map, by Stephen Johnson, chronicling the process of Dr. John Snow understanding the reasons why cholera was being spread rapidly through 1850's London. Of course, we know now, it was due to people who had contracted the disease relieving themselves indoors and then tossing the contents of the receptacle onto the ground below. This is how the disease came into contact with the drinking water at nearby wells dug into the ground, by seeping through the ground and into the drinking water supply to afflict the next victim.
Probably some of the first urban planning specialists worked in multi-family housing, dealing with these urban housing-centric struggles in the 1800's coinciding with the Industrial Revolution. They would have been working with the zoning department on the density of housing, with architects on the quality of housing, with elected officials on policies for improved living conditions, and with the people themselves to understand what was lacking, to name a few tasks. Through such arising needs, urban planning began to have specialists - those who know deeply about one key area with a great amount of depth and less about other areas.
“Probably some of the first urban planning specialists worked in multi-family housing, dealing with these urban housing-centric struggles in the 1800's coinciding with the Industrial Revolution.”
Specialists and silos in the field today
Today, specialists dominate the field. Most planners are focused in a key area, or have been focused in different areas during their careers. Jobs in major cities for planners tend to require an area of focus, such as economic development, land use, transportation, and others. In addition, these areas get much more deeply specialized. For transportation, there are public transit planners, bike/ped planners, roadway and traffic planners, and the list goes on. While specialization was a very natural response to the needs for deep knowledge, it has left us with a significant unintended consequence - a lack of clear, actionable knowledge about integration, interconnectivity, and interdependency across subject areas. Some planners might refer to themselves as a "jack of all trades," which is a valid path to take, but knowing a bit about a lot does not necessarily equate to knowing how to integrate well. Public agencies, such as municipalities, are most often segmented according to the division of labor - planners in the zoning and land use department, traffic engineers in the public works department, information technology (IT) staff in their department, and so on. They tend to be divided not only by topical area, but also function. There are those leaning more towards the planning and strategy side such as city planners and environmental sustainability professionals. There are also those leaning more towards the implementation and operations side such as public works professionals and IT staff. In addition, there are those working on general administration and staff needs such as talent management, legal/contracts, and payroll.
For staff broken down into such divisions, what happens exactly? Day to day, they have staff meetings and team meetings, sometimes within the division, and sometimes outside of it if they have what is understood to be a "cross-functional” role. Many people do not have a cross-functional role, and as a result, largely remain within the confines of their department.
There is a general awareness of the existence of "silos," or organizational fragmentation, in planning agencies and local government as well as interest in reducing them. Some take this to mean that divisions and departments in their current form should cease to exist, since they are a literal translation of the silos. I don't necessarily see it that way. I believe that divisions and departments can serve a valid purpose to do what was originally intended - support the division of labor. What should be questioned is the notion of "labor" for a modern planning agency and local government.
They rise above the day to day of fixing potholes and processing utility payments, important in their own right, and work towards broader, more expansive conceptions of what it means for a place to serve its public well."
Seeing the big picture and acting on it, regardless of silos
If you take a look at the articles How to Map for Outcomes and How to Map for Cross-Functional Areas, you’ll note that although professionals are often described as housing and transportation specialists, for example, their work feeds into higher level outcomes such as economic development, equity, environment, and health. What most professionals are contributing to, albeit indirectly in some cases, are higher-level quality of life needs. They rise above the day to day of fixing potholes and processing utility payments, important in their own right, and work towards broader, more expansive conceptions of what it means for a place to serve its public well. It is not only that the trash and recycling get picked up on the right day, it is also that each individual can pursue economic opportunities, have the same chance at success as everyone else, and breathe easy, knowing that the day to day and the big picture are both being pursued actively, earnestly, and with gusto.
This higher “quality of life” level struggles sometimes because it is, by nature, indirect in some cases, rendering it more abstract and certainly challenging to see with the naked eye. How does equity tie into the current work? How do the initiatives all contribute to economic development? These are the questions that need to be answered up front in order to make holistic progress. To get started, check out How to Map for Outcomes next.
Mind mapping can help you create a visual depiction of interconnections, to extract from your brain how you see concepts and subjects connect."
Why Urban Management Silos Exist covers the basics of silos. But what can be done about silos, or if not the silos themselves, then “siloed thinking?” The opposite of siloed thinking is 360 Degree Planning, which means the professional looks at all angles to understand interconnectivity and interdependency, not only for a deeper level of understanding, but also to seed future actions taking this information into account.
Let’s say you are on the executive team or head of a division or department of your organization. Departments and divisions tend to be labeled according to their subject area, such as transportation, emergency management, and others. If you are on the executive team and oversee work across many different departments, it could be that lately you’ve realized you are not easily able to communicate the “why” of the organization. You know it contributes to outcomes such as economic development, equity and social progress, health and safety, and environment, but you are not sure how exactly. How can you present the organization’s work in such a way it resonates with the audience and rises above the basics? Perhaps eventually, you even want to be able to measure programs according to various outcomes, such as those listed above. It could also be that the organization is considering focusing its work more on a specific outcome, take equity and social progress for example, and you’d like to see the current status and reveal some initial gaps. Mapping this out is a great place to begin. Note that you can read more about this application of the term “outcomes” in How to Combine Mapping and Results for Holistic Organizations.
Why mind mapping?
Mind mapping can help you create a visual depiction of interconnections, to extract from your brain how you see concepts and subjects connect. Further, in most cases for urban management, multiple professionals need to work together and agree on how things work and what to do to make them better. Mind mapping as a group can be an amazing way to illustrate what everyone thinks, and how it paints a full picture. Keep in mind, the examples in this and other articles are fairly simplistic intentionally to show the process without getting too “into the weeds.” They are kept general for a wide audience; it is your experience and your mind map that will show you how you see reality.
Whatever the reason, mind mapping is a great place to start pinpointing connections. In order to mind map, you only need a pen, paper, and your thinking cap. There are a number of mind mapping software options out there, which a quick online search will reveal. For now, I’ll cover the basics completed by hand. Let’s get mapping!
Mind mapping for outcomes step-by-step
First, you’ll start off with the current basis of the organization, typically the departments or divisions of the organization. You’ll map these fairly equidistant from each other to give space around each one. Second, you’ll branch from the departments or divisions with the work they produce (see Figure A, D = department, P = Program). There is a wide variety, of course, but typically these are structured as programs (containing multiple projects and initiatives). Note that projects are likely at too small a scale to map with this step, unless they have an importance level similar to a program.
Third, you’ll map out the outcomes of focus or interest. These will be to the left and right of the main map to give them some space (see Figure B, O = Outcome). Make copies of the map at this point, if working by hand. You’ll want one copy for each program or initiative. If working in a software program, you’ll want to create a layer for each program or initiative with its name identified for tracking purposes. I’m using a graphics program, so that the images are as clear as possible.
Fourth, you’ll begin detailing the map for a specific program or initiative. Let’s take an organization that works on housing needs, and potentially other topics, and let’s say they have an initiative to analyze population projections and the current housing stock in order to estimate the amount of housing needed for the future. They may work on the regional or metro area wide scale and share this information with local governments, or they may be on the local government level and use it for their internal purposes. It influences zoning, incentives for housing development (on state and federal levels), and communication with real estate developers on the level of need. Three staff members work on this initiative, and it is called “a place to call home, now and in the future.”
Mapping your first program
Now, let’s map “a place to call home, now and in the future” as if you are one of the staff members (see Figure C). The first outcome you think is already strongly connected is economic development. There have been new employers in the area and existing employers scaling up their operations, all with implications for housing employees. You jot down a description to that effect and title it “employee housing” to reflect an anticipated result (AR) of the program. Note that you can read more about “anticipated results” in How to Combine Mapping and Results for Holistic Organizations as well as in the section below. Next, you draw a line to the environmental outcome. This one is about the density of housing. It turns out the new housing proposed would be at a higher density than in the past, using land more efficiently. You title this AR connection “higher density housing.” Another thought comes to mind; can the utility providers keep up with higher density areas? You make a note to speak with utility organizations, water, gas, electricity, and internet service providers, to understand if there are limitations to take into account. Below the AR, a question (Q) is mentioned, “utility feasibility & sustainability.”
Another line is drawn to the environmental outcome to highlight that the housing is planned to be transit connected for access to employment and commercial centers. This AR is titled “transit connectivity.” This item sparks a related thought. On past projects, sometimes the transit-connected neighborhoods end up being in such high demand that property values increase and rents rise, which leads to long-time residents moving from the area (i.e., geographic displacement/gentrification). A dashed line is drawn from the “transit connectivity” AR over to the equity and social progress outcome and is titled “plan for potential displacement,” which is labeled as a need (N). In addition, “transit connectivity for all” is added to reflect the need (N) for all income and housing groups to benefit. You wonder if there are protective policies to put in place early on in the effort to counteract this trend, should it occur. After thinking more about equity, you realize that no formal recommendations have been made regarding the balance of housing for various income levels, though it has been discussed. You decide more work is needed in this area and label the need (N) with a dashed line “plan for balanced, attainable, and affordable housing.” Along the same connection, “plan housing options for disability and older age” as an N is added.
Mapping your second program
The next program you tackle is the bicycle and pedestrian planning and implementation program. It is called “Getting place to place by bike and on foot” (see Figure D). The first line is drawn to the health outcome and titled “exercise during transportation” to describe the role of active transportation options in gaining more exercise, improving overall health, and reducing the likelihood for obesity and related health conditions as an AR. The next line is drawn to the environmental outcome and titled “environmentally friendly transportation options” to address the fact that these options have no related pollutants that impact air quality and climate change as an AR. A dashed line is drawn to equity with the title “plan for bike/ped improvements for all income levels.” In some of the lower income neighborhoods, it is well known that the bike and ped infrastructure is in worse condition than the wealthier neighborhoods; planning for this is an N. Another dashed line connects to the economic development outcome with the title “plan for understanding bike/ped benefits to the economy.” You are confident there is a connection, but not sure what it is exactly. You plan to address this later, also an N.
Anticipated results, needs, and questions
You see how the map begins to form and take shape. After building out all the layers and comparing them to each other, it becomes clear where the current concentrations of anticipated results (AR) are, in connection with outcomes, as well as where gaps are reflected as needs (N). The ARs provide clear targets, which can be coupled with more detailed qualitative and quantitative measurement of specific tactics, to help compare and contrast different aspects of the program according how they “score." This enables clear target setting through a methodical systems-wide approach. An AR accompanied with a question (Q) let’s you know that more research is needed. While the AR may be a good target, there could be some underlying issue that needs to be better understood. A need (N) identifies something that is crucial to a specific issue that is currently lacking. This means that while a general connection with the outcome is clear, the actual AR that connects the program with the outcome is not defined yet. A separate analysis should be undertaken to identify the ARs to pursue; you ultimately want to convert each N to an AR or multiple ARs. You can see both programs mapped together (see Figure E).
How you could use these insights
Once the drafts have been created, if working with pen and paper, one big map can be created to get a full view. If working in software, all the layers can be shown at once with adjustments to individual layers, allowing the full view to be shown at one time. As the map gets built, outcome subcategories start to form to further define the outcomes. How this information is used can be wide ranging, but here are a few options:
While this article helps you make connections between programs and outcomes, the next article, How to Map for Cross-Functional Areas, will help you make connections between functional areas such as housing, land use, and transportation. These are often the same topics that organizations use to determine organizational structure into programs, divisions, or departments. This can add another optional layer to the outcome method for complementary insights.
Although the staff members may be generally aware that these cross-department contributions exist, without mapping them and being as specific as possible, it is impossible to know how all the work across departments builds upon each other in specific ways."
For some organizations involved in urban planning and management, it is unclear what their strengths and weaknesses really are. What are they doing very well? Or poorly? What topics have thorough coverage? Or lacking? One way to gain quick insights, which can provide a base for further exploration, is through mapping for cross-functional areas. Keep in mind that How to Map for Outcomes can be combined with cross-functional mapping for a deeper analysis, though each is helpful in its own right.
Mind mapping for cross-functional areas step-by-step
Take a look at How to Map for Outcomes for the basics of mind mapping. We’ll keep the steps the same until we get to the third step. From that article, “First, you’ll start off with the current basis of the organization, typically the departments or divisions of the organization. You’ll map these fairly equidistant from each other to give space around each one. Second, you’ll branch from the departments or divisions with the work they produce. There is a wide variety, of course, but typically these are structured as programs (containing multiple projects and initiatives). Projects are likely at too small a scale to map with this step, unless they have an importance level similar to a program.”
Third, instead of mapping outcomes of focus or interest, you’ll map cross-functional areas. Typically, the functional areas (note we are not getting into the cross functional part yet) will be the areas of work or delivery areas of the organization, reflected in the structuring of departments or divisions. Some typical functional areas are emergency management, transportation, workforce, land use, zoning, and housing, and many others (see Figure A).
When we map cross-functional areas, we make connections between the functional areas, typically structured as departments or divisions. Let’s walk through an example process of someone in an executive position working to pinpoint cross-functional areas. Keep in mind, the lines illustrating connections can come from the department in general or a program or initiative that has been identified. For this example, we’ll focus on the department level, but both levels could be included and will reap greater and more accurate detail. The organization does a good bit of work on protecting key critical infrastructure elements for the purpose of emergency management, such as ensuring evacuation routes are the last infrastructure elements to fall into a state of disrepair or levees and other protective infrastructure are the first to receive maintenance funds. Some of these critical infrastructure elements are for transportation purposes, so a line is drawn from emergency management to transportation with the anticipated result (AR) title “critical transportation infrastructure protection.”
Shifting into the land use, zoning, and housing department, the work they do in housing involves a connection with transportation. Housing is planned with multi-model connections including transit, biking, walking, and driving to employment, commercial centers, and other key destinations. This AR connection is titled “housing development with balanced transportation access.” In thinking more about housing, some gaps come to mind. Housing is of course tied to workforce development, but there is not a clear connection the organization makes between these two currently. A dashed line for a need (N) is drawn with the title “plan for balanced workforce housing.” That is a big topic that could take many directions. It could pertain to ensuring housing is balanced, attainable, and affordable to all income groups for existing employers as well as new employers that recently moved to the area. It could tie into other needs as well. Housing is currently not a major focus for the emergency management work, though it could be strengthened. A dashed line is drawn with the N title “pinpoint housing needs within emergency management.” Another AR between workforce and transportation is “transportation with balanced workforce access,” and another N between workforce and emergency management is “plan for post-disaster workforce recovery.”
Quick way to understand work across departments
As the exercise proceeds, the filled AR lines begin to indicate where the current efforts are, while the dashed N lines indicate potential gaps. Though rudimentary, it is quick and easy to do by only one staff member as a start and is truly telling of the work products and their ultimate contribution areas. Although the staff members may be generally aware that these cross-department contributions exist, without mapping them and being as specific as possible, it is impossible to know how all the work across departments builds upon each other in specific ways.
How you could use these insights
As with How to Map for Outcomes, how this information is used can be wide ranging, but here are a few options:
Now that you have a strong foundation for both cross-functional mapping and outcome mapping, move onto the next step, How to Combine Mapping and Results for Holistic Organizations. In addition, see if other resources can be helpful such as How Operational Level Staff Can Get Involved .
As operational staff, your role is to influence new ways of thinking and doing which may require the acceptance of some members of the managerial or executive staff. On the other hand, you may control a domain that you can exert control over, such as at the program level. You could follow the same exercises and consider improving or restructuring your program according to outcomes or cross-functional areas."
While the previous articles in the educational article series were explained for the executive and managerial levels, this article leverages the content from the articles but orients it at a different and extremely impactful audience - operational level staff. To that end, make sure to review those articles first as a primer. Operational level staff are those in support functions to executive and managerial staff. They tend to be specialists in a given area and could function as project managers, program managers, and/or analysts. Their roles are wide-ranging and serve any number of functions.
How to get started horizontally
As operational staff, your role is to influence new ways of thinking and doing which may require the acceptance of some members of the managerial or executive staff. On the other hand, you may control a domain that you can exert control over, such as at the program level. You could follow the same exercises and consider improving or restructuring your program according to outcomes or cross-functional areas. To do so, you’ll likely end up needing to work horizontally with peers in adjacent programs with connecting functions or outcomes. If you follow these steps, you’ll see there is a way to begin from your own domain.
Working with managerial or executive staff vertically
Let’s say you don’t control a certain domain, or you do, but believe any changes or improvements you’d like to make require acceptance of some members of the managerial or executive staff. This involves another set of steps.
Keep in mind, you may end up completing both processes, one horizontally (with peers) and another vertically (with management or executives). They are not mutually exclusive, and it could end up that both are needed to a certain extent to institutionalize the changes you identified. The important thing is to keep an open mind, because even in small increments, institutional change can be a long and challenging process. The more convinced you are that the change is important, the more drive you’ll have to collaborate and convince your way to new way of working and doing.