Tuesday, 20 April 2010

IT and the Urban Planner - learning from the planning blitz

lewins mead, bristolPhoto of Lewins Mead by Synwell via Flickr

I love living in Bristol. It's a friendly city with so much life and culture. But Bristol is a vibrant city because of its people, not its infrastructure. It has beautiful architecture alongside monstrously ugly buildings. The city centre is choked by Byzantine one-way systems and gyratories. It has some of the worst traffic congestion and poorest public transport options in the UK. Why?
 A mate of mine is an urban planner, so he has the misfortune of listening to me winge about this. After the terrible devastion of World War Two there was a rare opportunity to rebuild our cities. Why, I asked him, did the planners get it so badly wrong?
His answer was to remind me of the context at the time. Think about Britain in the 1950s:
  1. Cities were still in a state of devastion after the war, and in urgent need of regeneration. There was a tendency to want change, and dismiss the immediate past. Bombed out buildings held too many painful reminders. Large grants from central government were available, but only if the money was spent quickly.
  2. There was excitement about new technologies. Concrete made it possible to build tall in a way and at a price which could never have been done before. The motor car was the future, and cities were planned around it. Everyone was captured by this vision. Pedestrians were removed from the ground, exciled to subways or aerial walkways where they would not impede the traffic flow.
  3. Above all, planning was a new profession. In the UK planning as a profession dates back to The Town & Country Planning Act of 1947. Planners were making it up as they went along. They had theories such as Modernism, and influential prophets such as Le Corbusier, but no benefit of experience.
Over time planners came to realise that many of their ideas didn't work out in practice. Concrete looked grey and grim in the British climate. Huge tower blocks were squalid and dehumanising for their residents. Pedestrians prefered to take their chances crossing the road rather than risk muggers lurking in dark subways.
Town planning today is rather different. Planners are not perfect, but they do now consider the human factors. They involve local people in their decisions at an early stage, paying more than just lip service to their views. Cars are no longer prioritised above pedestrians and cyclists. Zoning is out and mixed use is in. The streets come alive with pavement cafes. Sociologists work in planning departments alongside the geographers and engineers.
We are emerging from the global financial crisis but expect swinging cuts to HE and the rest of the public sector. A few relish this, from the viewpoint that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. They might be tempted to sweep everything aside and start afresh. This is what the post-Blitz planners wanted, and arguably they did more long term damage than the Luftwaffe.
How does this relate to IT? Look back again. Lets date the IT profession in the UK to 1957, the year in which the British Computer Society was founded. IT is also a young profession. Like planners, we have had no hindsight, and we made mistakes. We built inhuman systems, where the technology mattered more than the people who had to use it.
The mistakes of planners towered over us all for fity years. Each concrete block is a monument to failed ideas. They act as a constant reminder that we don't we know it all. Planners were forced to learn. In IT our mistakes are easily swept under the carpet, so we repeat them, time and time again. We haven't learnt. Don't like Pine email? Here, have Simeon. No, now we use Execmail. Here's Mulberry. Nothing really changes! We are still rolling out inhuman systems.
Things are getting better in some quarters. Consumerisation is the megatrend sweeping the IT industry, and this has introduced competitive pressures. The best private-sector firms have fast-loading easy to navigate websites. They employ User Centred Design principles to make their services easy to use. They have to. On the web your competitor is just a click away. The firms which don't make things easy don't survive.
In the public sector we have been shielded from this and haven't learnt. We are still building systems that make you tear your hair out, are full of impenetrable jargon, and require a training course before you can use them. We are getting a little better at the externally facing stuff. Our internal systems remain execrable. Do we hold our own students and staff in particular contempt?
How do we avoid this? Learn from experience. Be aware of the heffalump traps and we might not fall into them. Think about some of the mistakes early urban planners made:
Something is better than nothing. Must fill that bomb crater, doesn't matter what with. Got to spend the budget, or it will vanish at year end. This will be familar to anyone in the public sector. 
Dismissing the immediate past. Whether it is flock wallpaper or timesharing/thin clients, most generations dismiss their parents solutions but rediscover their grandparents. I'm guilty of this one. I am of the generation that has an instinctive dislike of Microsoft and am inclined to like Google. That is a form of prejudice that can blind me if not aware of it 
Overexcitement about new technologies. We are always excited about the technology at the top of the hype cycle. Is Cloud Computing our concrete? Just because we can adopt a technology doesn't mean we should. Consider when it is appropriate, and when it is not. Don't start off by thinking about the technology, think about what people actually need. 
Undue reverance for prophets. Perhaps Steve Jobs is our Le Corbusier? Question the established dogma of the future. What does "everyone know", which actually nobody knows? 
Paternalistic thinking. Involve those who will live with the systems at any early stage in your planning. Don't think you always know best, be prepared to change your plans in response to feedback. Design on a human scale. Do you even know what the user requirements are? Perhaps you are designing an email system when people really want a to-do list. 
Concentrating on grand visions. The theory may be good, but something always happens to stop us getting there. Small incremental improvements actually deliver, the future never arrives. Don't stick to an outdated plan, be flexible. As John Maynard Keynes said "when the facts change, I change my mind".
The IT profession is ten years younger than the urban planning profession. The planners were busy in the run up to the year 2000. Some millennium projects were a success, others were white elephants. That's the stage IT is at right now. Let's improve it over the next ten years.