From ambiguity to empathy: How planners can collaborate to solve complex problems

February 01, 2018 | Posted by OPPI | Post Contributed by Adrienne Pacini | Collaboration, Community Design, Human-Centred Design, OPPI17, Supportive Housing, Systems Thinking
From ambiguity to empathy: How planners can collaborate to solve complex problems
Planners spend their days dealing with complex problems: from designing complete communities, to creating effective transportation systems, to realizing housing opportunities for all. In the affordable housing sector, at SHS Consulting we find ourselves applying our expertise as planners, policy-makers, and economists to help our public and non-profit stakeholder groups improve the lives of the people they serve.
While we can rely on our technical expertise to help us provide our best advice, we find ourselves drawing on methods to build empathy and systems-thinking mindsets to arrive at holistic and collaborative solutions.
We believe that planners can initiate collaborative relationship-building by applying a systems-thinking lens to work through complex problems in their communities.
Here is the why, when, who, and how

Why? | Rethinking the role of the planner 

Creating a collaborative environment
As planners, we are trained to take a wider, big picture view and consider how our actions and interventions will affect an entire system’s components (this is the first step towards using systems thinking!)
Our projects often touch many facets of a person’s life—housing, health, social stratification, environmental sustainability, and beyond. Often, our projects must create positive outcomes for as many people as possible. By leading the collaborative effort, we can bring a non-political point of view to the problem-solving process.

When? | Knowing when collaboration is necessary and when to lead

Collaboration is needed when we’re dealing with complex problems. There are no recipes for success, or protocols that work in every situation.
Part of understanding these problems requires dedicating enough time to finding and framing the problem space at the beginning of a project or initiative—this is where we can start to identify potential strategic collaborations.

Complex problems, adapted from the Spark Policy Institute's Strategic Backbone Toolkit

Who? | Knowing who to involve in your project

One tool we use to identify key actors and stakeholders in a system is the experience map.
The map describes a series of activities often related to a specific service or experience from the perspective of the people with whom we’re designing for.
We create these maps by:
  1. Setting a timeline for the experience or activity we are interested in
  2. Identifying the events, facts, and activities related to the person’s experience
  3. Describing the emotions or feelings that the person may have along the way
Here’s an example of an experience map that SHS Consulting created to describe a typical journey to accessing supportive housing in Peel Region:

Archetypal Journey to Supportive Housing. Region of Peel Supportive Housing Supply and Demand Analysis and Action Plan.
(provided by SHS Consulting, 2016)

From there, we ask ourselves what other stakeholders might be involved if the person’s situation looked a bit different.
In the supportive housing context, we thought about what the experience map would look like if the person has a mental illness, becomes a senior over the course of their wait time, or is living somewhere without access to public transportation.
How? | Strategies for collaboration

1.       Frame the project together
Sometimes the key to creating collaborative relationships with other stakeholders (whether they are elected officials, planners, citizens, community groups, or other agencies) is to involve them in framing the project problem.
Think about how the use of language can deliberately exclude or include a group in your problem space (e.g. think of how your project challenge can read like a call-to-action!). This approach requires bringing your potential collaborators into the process early on. Your stakeholders become people that you can co-design with, instead of people that you consult with once the problem frame has been set.
2.       Identify orthodoxies
Work with your team to identify the orthodoxies (these are generally-accepted theories, practices, and commonly-held wisdom) across organizations. This is especially important when working with individuals representing different sectors of the planning sphere.
This exercise helps remove some of the friction associated with working with new partners by building empathy for differing constraints and approaches.
3.       Map the system

Mapping Toronto’s affordable housing system

Help your collaborators understand the environment within which they’re working. Take some time to draw out the system together (think about including stakeholders, processes, outputs, and other elements)—this allows people to see their role and their potential impact on a problem space.

Remember, the goal is to create strategic connections and collaborations based on the outcomes that you want to create for the people you’re serving!