Planning vs action

Want to make sure you stay human when doing changework? Read Nabeel Hamdi

Back in the 1970s, Nabeel Hamdi worked at the GLC on a series of award-winning housing projects, kick-starting a hugely influential career applying participatory methods to urban design for communities and NGOs across the world. For anyone still enamoured by ideas of “transformation”, or who finds themselves stuck in conceptual conversations about abstract strategies for change, his books are short, sweet and supremely human reminders of how to stay human when you tackle change.

In some ways, his approach is a precursor to the recent explosion of design thinking’s emphasis on human-centred design and test-and-learn. But it goes further, embracing the messy, the incremental and the collective as a defining part of any meaningful activity. His series of books on Earthscan are all great, but here’s a paragraph from “The Spacemakers guide to Big Change” that we’ve found ourselves returning to repeatedly over the last few months: 

“There is a pervasive dilemma that occurs in research, in planning, and in politics. How much can you afford to know before you act? How much time can you afford to spend making sure that you will all act together? How far can people share power without destroying the power they share? 

It's easy deciding on purpose, given all the issues we confront and our passion to change worlds, to do something big and lasting. It's easy to be worthy, to stick to the high ground, to exercise one’s moral authority in deciding the way forward. It's easy to decide what should be done, to find answers to generic problems based on the wealth of research and experience and all the casework we bring. It's much more difficult to sort out what can be done in the face of all the constraints, to search our significance in seemingly insignificant daily routines, to find meaningful beginnings. It's expedient to scope out comprehensively the problem as one sees it or has seen it before, before we start to find solutions. It's much more difficult, less tidy, less predictable in outcomes to “learn about the structure of a problem in the process of solving it”, to get a good enough sense of its scope to get one going, to move from understanding before action to understanding in action.”

You’ll never know everything. Sometimes it costs more to wait.

David Gunn is co-founder of Something More Near. Participation specialist. Major projects for Tate, World Health Organisation, Museum of London and Franco Manca. Co-founder of Something More Near.