Feet on the Ground; Eyes on the Horizon

This is a reprint of an article that long-time PlanSmart NJ President Dianne Brake wrote on the advent of her 25th Anniversary at PlanSmart NJ. The wisdom and perspective offered in this article is timeless and of particular relevance today as we face continued economic and environmental challenges and look to planning to help us invent a brighter future.

Planning can invent the future and inspire people to work toward it, transforming attitudes, conditions, and outcomes along the way. Planning can change the quality of community life.

To plan well means to plan big.

As former President Harry S. Truman once said, “You can always amend a big plan, but you can never expand a little one.” He went on to say, “I believe in plans big enough to meet a situation we cannot possibly foresee now.”

What plans would qualify as big enough? Reaching back one more time to the wisdom of our forebears, the answer could lie in the words of philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said: “The best way to predict for the future is to invent it.” Again, substitute the word “plan” for “predict” and you have another version of Truman’s “big picture, long-term, plan-well” philosophy.

Small plans are based on trends. This is not really planning at all; it is simply extrapolating what we can easily see today. Big plans are based on directing your actions toward the future you want, not the one you are doomed to get if you choose to do nothing. Big plans invent the future.

This does not mean that trends are not important. Far from it. Existing conditions must be understood because they describe special challenges, opportunities, and constraints. They describe the points of intervention where change can be started. Trends must also be understood because trends describe the future that will be ours if we fail to do anything differently.

So planning must begin by understanding existing conditions and trends. The next step is to relate the present to the future: plans should describe how today’s challenges will be met, and opportunities and assets will be leveraged, to create the better future the plan envisions.

This is a key area in which current planning practice fails. We collect too much data, often the wrong data, and then fail to use it in the plan.

Another key problem is that plans have too many vague goals, such as “promote a better economy” or ‘preserve rural character.” It is not clear what these phrases mean for the future in relation to the present. More jobs? Different jobs? Save farming? Save the look of farming?

Planning in order to “invent the future” means specifying a better future: it means identifying specific objectives for how existing challenges and constraints will be addressed and existing opportunities will be leveraged.

In addition, without clearly articulating the future we want, we will never be able to measure the gap between where we are now and where we want to arrive in the future. And without knowing how large that gap is, we won’t be able to design strategies that can effectively bridge it.

This is another key area in which current planning practice fails. Many fail to contain a plan of action designed to bridge the gap between the present and future. The more ambitious is our vision of the future, the more transformative our strategies need to be to achieve it.

This truth was demonstrated in the real-life story of recycling policy in New Jersey. Although New Jersey had been promoting recycling for years, it had relied on the fairly puny strategy of encouraging self-motivated people to sort it, prepare it, and drive it to the few recycling centers that existed. Needless to say, the amount of waste that was recycled was small.

Then, in the 1980s, there was a crisis created by a lawsuit that stopped each county from building a trash incinerator. If the State did not want incinerators, and had no room for more landfills, the Court said the State must find a way to recycle up to 60% of its waste within five years.

This turned out to be a transformative goal. There was such a huge gap between the volume of waste that was being recycled in the present and the amount that must be recycled only five years hence, that tinkering with the current strategies would not be enough. The State had to invent something new – so it invented free curbside collection.

The ambitious goal spurred the creation of a transformative strategy. The recycling story ends with success – the goal was met, ahead of schedule.

This is an excellent example of inventing the future we want. Although no one would think of this recycling story as describing a “plan,” it does meet the four prerequisites for “planning well”:

  1. It was based on an understanding of the challenge of existing conditions;
  2. It created a measurable target related to an “invented future” in which the problems were addressed; and
  3. It created a strategy that bridged the gap between them.
  4. It forged an agreement among all the parties needed to implement the strategy and meet the goal.

Applying President Truman’s insight, the recycling story represents creating a plan big enough to cope with unforeseen conditions. A mid-point correction could have been applied, if needed, during the five years given by the Court to meet the goal. If they had begun by merely tinkering with the existing strategies – a plan too little – they would not only have failed to meet the target, they would have wasted time by having to start over.

Those who believe we can’t “plan big” because we are at the mercy of the market do not understand the power of changing the rules of the game. For example, by now it should be clear that it was not the “unfettered market” that created our current Great Recession: it was the result of regulations and practices that interacted in ways that we did not foresee, or did not have the will to change.

Those who believe that it is “too late” for New Jersey, fail to recognize the opportunities that we continue to have every day. They imagine that the future will be much like the present. They fail to recognize that nothing is more constant than change. They fail to imagine how things could be better.

Every day there is an opportunity to take actions that will either make things better or make things worse. Surely, the desire to try to make things better for the next generation should be reason enough to cause us to reject a fatalistic view.

We know there are those who think that planning is a waste of time, time better spent on action. Some like to say, “I’m a doer, not a planner.” But who really believes that it is preferable to act without thinking? And it would be planning badly indeed if planning were not about action!

It is true that planning embraces the assembly of facts and the application of reason to the complexity of interacting open systems that control our shared future. Planning embraces the belief that reason and hope, expressed in a plan of action, can change the trajectory of trends and make things better for us all.

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