Oct 9 2012

PLANNING WITH COMPLEXITY by Judith Innes and David Booher

Reviewed by Shafiqul Islam, Tufts University

This book presents a new theory of collaborative rationality to help make sense of the new practices.

Planning With Complexity: An Introduction to Collaborative Rationality for Public Decision-making, by Judith Innes and David Booher, Routledge, 256pp

In Planning with Complexity, this scholar-practitioner team looks at planning and public policy through the lens of complexity science. They explicitly recognize that many social policy, planning and management problems are “wicked” as defined by Rittel and Webber (1973). They argue that there is no consensus even on the definition of the problem, much less on goals to achieve. The uncertainty inherent in such complex systems means that even powerful actors and knowledgeable experts cannot predict how uncertainty in information, action and perception will manifest itself on a particular policy prescription. A central aspect of their argument is that for wicked problems, there is no solution that can be shown to be predictable and optimal.

They propose a new form of planning and policy called, collaborative rationality. This is a welcome departure from traditional instrumental rationality for decision-making. Their collaborative decision-making theory – Diversity, Interdependence, Authentic Dialogue (DIAD) – is based on three conditions embedded within it. It is theoretically elegant and grounded in the work of Habermas (1981) and the notion of communicative rationality. When all of the ordinary constraints on the free exchange of ideas (such as differences in status, power, etc) are lifted, Habermas believes that good faith discourse between individuals will allow them to reach a consensus about the truth. Authors explicitly recognize that collaborative rationality requires an equalization of power among all stakeholders (P. 111).

It is not clear, however, how pragmatic such an equalization of power is for planning and management of wicked problems. This is partly because rationality based on scientific method and positivist approach is a highly contested notion, while collaborative decision-making relies heavily on interpretive, pragmatic and experiential way of knowing. How to make these apparently dichotomous ideas into collaborative decision-making process in a politically real world is a practical challenge. Authors are pragmatic in acknowledging that “dialogues cannot directly change the deep structure of power (P. 110)” but actions can have second or third order effects. Their observation that planning has to proceed independent of trust  is somewhat puzzling. Recent literature on planning and management of common pool resources (Ostrom 2011, Susskind and Islam 2012) suggest creating trust and values to be fundamental in this regard.

To summarize, Innes and Booher have provided a fresh look and theoretical foundation on how to think about planning and managing wicked problems from complexity science perspectives. Hopefully, their future contribution will provide more insight on how to practically manage wicked problems within the context of collaborative rationality.

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