COMMUNICATION | Informed action

Posted on 02/01/2013

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As a postcript to my earlier post about urban writing, I recalled a recent essay by Bent Flyvberg addressing how research can impact public deliberation, policy, and practice (see ‘Why Mass Media Matter to Planning Research: The Case of Megaprojects’, Journal of Planning Education and Research, 32(2) 169–181). He draws on his formulation of “phronetic planning research, which is an approach to the study of values and power in planning based on a contemporary interpretation of Aristotelian phronesis, variously translated as practical wisdom or judgment”. He states:

The aim of phronetic research is to inform public deliberation and practice. Such research is focused on the following four value-rational questions, asked for specific instances of planning practice in a particular context: (1) Where are we going with planning? (2) Who gains and who loses, by which mechanisms of power? (3) Is this development desirable? (4) What should be done, if anything? Communicating research results to the public and to practice is an integral part of phronetic planning research.

The article therefore asks and answers the question of how planning research may gain impact in public  deliberation and practice through media exposure. I might go a step further here and consider the question of whether an embedded kind of planning research is possible through various forms of media and journalism. That is, planning research – broadly understood – is maintained as a media or journalism practice. An obvious site of this is in the practice of criticism, which is underpinned by a kind of knowing critical engagement or experience and recognises that the experiential dimensions of urbanism and writing may be constitutive of research. In phronetic research, according to Flyvberg who draws on Aristotlean philosophy, there is a clear knowledge-action relationship resulting in “reason capable of action”.

The drive of research should be to create knowledge and the drive of planning should be to create the future, not just gather data or reproduce the present. I’ve seen numerous planning initiatives where the focus has been stripping ambition and aspiration by gathering data and reproducing the present (i.e. more of the same, sustaining the unsustainable) rather than creating dynamic and flexible frameworks for change that will realise a more sustainable and equitable future. The ideological and governance approach underpinning much planning work continues to be the kind of economism and neoliberalism that Flyvberg, among others, is highly critical of. I’ve been dipping into Alex Lord’s The Planning Game: An information economics approach to understanding urban and environmental management, which interrogates the very question of information and planning informatics. There are similarities in the positioning of this work and that of de Roo and Porter’s Fuzzy Planning in that Lord describes the ambition of his work as “a theory of planning that seeks to explain in a value-free manner the ways in which agents relate to one another and the strategies they might employ in playing the planning game”.

Flyvberg’s study specifically addresses “how planning scholars may gain impact on planning practice via mass media with their own publications and research results”. So there is some disjoint between my proposition and these findings and work needs to be done to reconcile these ideas. However, I am considering a notion of research that while engaged in phronesis may not wholly conform to Flyvberg’s phronetic planning research despite a sense of dealing with planning as it is. Flyvberg has undertaken some bold initiatives, such as exposing corrupt planning practices in Denmark. This exposure catalysed much needed reforms. As he notes, “The experience was almost too good to be true. If this was how phronetic planning research worked, I wanted to do more.” For sure, this is the kind of expose that many journalists aspire to as investigative and long form journalism. More journalists perhaps need to engage with these kinds of public policy and political interventions rather than simply appoint a cadet to the local government or urban affairs reporting rounds. While Flyvberg is addressing the need for planning scholars to engage media to seek public impact, I am stating that the media itself needs to be attentive to planning issues. However, as my previous post indicated, I am tilting at a particular kind of urban writing – a kind of critically engaged practice that is not necessarily criticism – that brings expertise, practical knowledge, effective truth etc to bear.

Phronesis matters for journalists and the media, despite a prevailing attitude of distrust of the media, the proliferation of pundits and the sense that opinion is a substitute for research. Journalists do acquire and exercise knowledge – gained through years of experience and working in the field or on a ‘beat’. So it seems that this particular modality of journalist and methodology of journalism can be as researcher, not just reporter. Phronesis, as Flyvberg argues, has social and political action at its heart. It also has the public in its embrace:

People were tired of the repeated cost overruns, benefit shortfalls, and the endless excuses and false promises made by project promoters and their planners … The public seemed delighted that somebody was doing research that exposed and explained this type of behavior and called for accountability.

The collaborative dimension here is nuanced, narrative driven and communicative: not just collaboration for research but collaboration across sectors and professions to realise the potential of phronesis across research and media, where the public is centrally positioned in governance. In some ways, this resonates with ideas of ‘right to know’ though it is equally concerned with questions of professional ethics and practice. Just as journalists are mistrusted, so too are planners, with a seeming shadowy servitude to colluding political and property interests, something that planning practice and the profession needs to address.

For Flyvberg, there is “a need to do research that matters to the communities in which we live and … make sure that the research results are effectively communicated to the public sphere”. Importantly, as Flyvberg concludes, there is a need to communicate planning research in a way that stimulates public debate, deliberation and decision making. What I believe is necessary here is the media or journalism perspective on Flyvberg’s proposition, rather like the struggles of journalists, such as Graham Readfearn and Margo O’Neil, to pursue climate change stories. My proposition here in support of what I am reading in contemporary planning theory, as in my earlier post, is that transversal approaches to communication and research are required. Felix Guattari defines transversality “as a dimension that strives to overcome two impasses… [and] tends to be realized when maximum communication is brought about between different levels and above all in terms of different direction.” Transversality requires movement to initiate new connections and openness while resisting constraining forces.

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Posted in: planning, writing