Posted: December 17th, 2012 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: eGovernment, Technology | No Comments »
Eight Theses on the Civic Technology Movement
In recent years, an exciting movement has been building in cities across the U.S. and around the world. Public officials, nonprofits, activists, and companies are experimenting with new ways to use new digital technologies to improve urban life by expanding access to data, upgrading government systems, and developing new apps. These loosely coordinated efforts have been dubbed by some a “civic technology” movement.
Recently the nonprofit OpenPlans and foundation collaborative Living Cities published a “field scan” of how the use of digital technologies and social media “has the potential to transform cities and the lives of their low income residents.” The report is based on interviews with 25 people and has a self-professed goal of sparking a broader dialog about the present and future direction of this movement. This blog post is a response to the report, and is intended to be critical and constructive.
What is the ‘civic technology’ field that is surveyed? It includes several components:
- Public officials working towards technical innovation in government, such as Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (where I worked in 2010).
- The creation of city data portals, and associated events such as application programming competitions and third party apps they encourage.
- The rise of nonprofits, such as Code For America, a group that pairs programmers with cities to produce useful technology.
- The development of private initiatives that work within this “space” such as websites that re-use government data, integrate with service delivery systems, and collaborate with public agencies to create new technologies.
- An emphasis on open technology standards, open source software, and interoperability as key values that should influence civic technology.
Assessing such a large and diverse set of activities is no small feat, and this report is a laudable effort to identify some of the key issues. The report also takes a particular interest in how these developments are (or could) impact the lives of low-income residents. My reactions below are somewhat impressionistic and presented as a list for discussion. Because of my background, I emphasize issues around government agencies, which I believe play a crucial central role in the civic technology discussion.
1. Technology Will Not Necessarily Help the Poor
While it may be true technologies could be used (and maybe are in some cases) to help the poor, technology does not exist separate from society. To the extent its design and use is shaped by dominant economic and political forces, technology won’t necessarily be transformative of existing relations. In the scholarly literature there is a debate between those who view technology as an independent force, imposing its will on society (epitomized in the title of the book “What Technology Wants“), and those who view technology as merely the servant to existing interests (much of mainstream social science). I take a moderate approach advocated by some scholars in the general field of “science and technology studies” (STS). Technology does matter because it can influence our individual choices, available knowledge, and collective action. Information systems always contain policies and values, and therefore their design is an opportunity to push in one direction or another. However, using technology for “good” requires deciding on our goals and pushing technology to pursue them, sometimes against substantial opposing forces.
2. The Poor Are Moving to Suburbia
The report largely assumes the poor live in central cities, and the report informants include participants from large cities including New York, Chicago, Boston and Newark. While historically these cities contained large poor populations, increasingly the ongoing revitalization of core cities mean that now the majority of the metropolitan poor live in suburban areas. How these areas will handle these changes is a major social and policy issue, one being tackled by one of my doctoral classmates at MIT, Christa Lee-Chuvala. This doesn’t mean inner-city poverty is obsolete, only suggests we may need to shift to regional perspectives or be attuned to different contexts. Big cities are typically more sophisticated at providing services and have more resources at their disposal than suburban or rural communities, impacting the types of technologies that might help in each place.
3. Cities Don’t Necessarily Want to Help the Poor … Or Might Not Agree on What to Do
There is also an assumption in the report that helping the poor is an unambiguous public goal. I’m not so sure. One doesn’t have to push very far to see where a consensus on this point might exist breaks down. First, even liberal cities aren’t exempt from political claims about who government should help and what constitutes a fair distribution. Even scholarly research on what interventions “work” to address poverty is remarkably varied. A great article by Teitz and Chapple that reviewed some of the scholarly theories about why inner-city poverty exists and found that while some have stronger evidence than others, the issue is sufficiently complex there may be several valid perspectives, meaning “fixing’ it is a tricky proposition. Foundations like those involved in this report are eager to push aggressively on issues of poverty and equity since they are usually only accountable to a board of directors. But cities operate in the real world of democratic accountability. While I believe professionals and leaders have a responsibility to lead, they must work within a broader civic landscape to get things done.
4. Changing Technology in Government is Hard Because it Requires Changing Government
Everybody knows there are some things money can’t buy, like love of happiness. It turns out another is often organizational change. The New York Times last week ran an article about an Air Force computer system that was cancelled after $1 billion had already been spent on it. $1 billion! For a presentation to earlier this year, I found this list of high-profile “IT project failures” costing companies billions of dollars. To be fair, the civic technology report does note to “ensure that civic tech solutions address real problems” technologists should use incremental and agile development methods. This is sensible advice but it was created in private sector contexts, where there can be tremendous impetus for organizational change and the market will impose strict discipline on firms. But governments are largely monopolies, and the larger issue isn’t lost funds (although that is important), but the ability to make changes at all, as seen in the Air Force example.
These large-scale “failures” occur establishing organizational technology doesn’t merely involve purchasing a tool, but instead requires developing a complex sociotechnical system. Implementing or changing technology therefore requires organizational changes (of roles, processes, values, etc), something that is so difficult it has sparked a mini-industry of scholars, consultants, and methods. Technologists often assume organizations with readily replace existing technology with new tools because they are clearly superior — faster, cheaper, easier to use, etc. While this is sometimes true, the inherent conservatism of organizations present an invisible barrier that must be overcome. And resistance to change may not be a bad thing, given the history of technical fads and unjustified hype. The known system that works adequately may be a better choice than the new one associated with unknown risks. As an example of this, I remember technologists advocating governments use mongoDB for open data portals several years ago, arguing it is technically superior than relational databases. Although it might be clearly superior along some dimensions (open source, more flexible, faster, etc), these are not dispositive in an organizational settings. Also important is interoperability with other systems, staff capacity and skills, and perhaps even the skills of citizens. The lesson to draw is that technology cannot be evaluated without considering the specific context in which it will be used, or implemented successfully without considering the necessary organizational changes.
5. Civic Technology is Hard Because Governments are Diverse … and Don’t Just Fill Potholes
Implementing civic tech means deciding on what goals it should help achieve. The report doesn’t dwell on the precise nature of government, and for good reason: governments are involved in a a bewildering variety of activities. When civic technology advocates do talk about governmental functions, they often focus on service delivery. Providing public services is an important and highly visible function, but governments do much more: establishing and enforcing regulations, administering grant programs, planning events, running facilities, orchestrating economic development, etc. These functions evolve in unique local contexts, and therefore what they do and their exact legal powers vary widely. (See Frug’s City Bound for a discussion of municipal legal powers). The diverse nature of governments has baffled scholars for years, and the best theory on the subject I have found is the one John Dewey’s sketched out in his classic The Public and Its Problems. In his view, government is by definition an ill-defined institution under continual change, as the democratic public deliberates about what problems exist and how they should be resolved.
More narrow views focusing on inputs and outputs, popular in some branches of public administration and popular discussion, can often lead to dead ends. For example, the high profile See Click Fix famously focuses on filling potholes and other discrete service requests. What is the broader public goal this achieves? What if the government just refilled potholes over and over, instead of determining a more durable or better pavement? Would pothole money be better spent a pavement management system that could avoid potholes, or should it be spent on other things, like public transportation? Given constrained resources, what services should government provide, exactly? It’s tempting to avoid these issues and their associated debates about the role of government. But any argument for change in the public sphere, even in the name of mere efficiency or services, is inherently political.
In light of these difficulties, what should we be doing? I will only suggest some ideas here.
6. Find Allies for New Partnerships
Amid the tremendous hype of civic technology, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they constitute just a small interest group contending for resources and power in cities. Plenty of others have equally laudable goals, and therefore this community must consider critiques seriously and seek out allies. Partnering with domain-specific allies could lend much-needed legitimacy, expert knowledge, and resources. These could include groups working in fields as diverse as vacant property, public safety, public health, or education. Although collaborations can flop, where they work the result can be greater than the sum of its parts.
7. Involve More Scholars and Community-Based Organizations in the Civic Technology Discussion
As a first step, continuing a self-reflective discussion is a constructive step. However this must involve a broader set of people, and include more scholars and representatives from community-based organizations. I couldn’t help but notice only only academic was interviewed for the report (U. of Albany’s Theresa Pardo, Judith Kurland only recently moved to a university after a long career in government). Most informants were city officials and technologists. City officials, especially elected officials and their aides, have a powerful interest in seeming innovative and effective, but are loath to tell you want they can’t achieve or what seemingly unsurmountable obstacles they face. Technology advocates also have specific perspective, and are often wedded to particular approaches or technologies and lack detailed knowledge of what cities need. I recognize there’s a supply problem as well involved in reaching out to these groups. A vanishingly small group of academics take any interest in the field, for a variety of reasons, and plenty of public officials don’t “get” new technology and so will require education and engagement. One encouraging development was the consultation of Kathy Pettit for the report, a leader of the Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP). This group of community-based practitioners has been working with data and technology in poor urban neighborhoods since the 1990s, and the network could provide rich experiences from this experience.
8. Focus on Building Long-Term Capacity and Infrastructure
Second, I think there should be a focus on building government capacity and infrastructure in the long term. This means engaging more deeply with existing IT staff, and focusing on efforts to institutionalize changes. The change strategy in many cities in this area has been to get some “quick wins” with unambiguous positive effects. However, these efforts are vulnerable to being swept away with changing administrations or shifting priorities. More lasting reforms have been the result of small groups working within government, often with limited resources, and not from “hack day” events or short-term fellowships, however important these can be as part of a larger strategy. Focusing on capacity will also require deeper engagement with the existing “government technology” ecosystem, understanding the existing tools in the marketplace and nature of the public purchasing process. Recent interest in focusing on the Request for Proposals (RFP) process is an exciting step in this direction.
Civic technology efforts represent a spirit of innovation and social hope, but one that should be combined with humility and a long-term perspective. Many fields can contribute insights to smooth the way and anticipate pitfalls. In many cases, there is no one “best” way forward. Despite Obama’s recent victory, there is no identifiable government reform movement in the United States, and existing institutional structures and bureaucracies are often viewed as hopelessly ossified. (The last visible effort in this area, Reinventing Government, was during the Clinton administration). For good or ill, today’s technology reformers are the vanguard of public sector reform in the U.S. In his prescient 1927 work The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey foresaw how modern technologies would “create means which alter the modes of associated behavior which radically change the quality, character, and place of impact of their individual consequences.” If social media has done anything, it is powerfully transformed our “associative behavior,” as Dewey predicted. Urging we avoid “short-cuts of direct action” Dewey argued the state is and should be always under debate, advising that “formation of states must be an experimental process … Only through constant watchfulness and criticism of public officials by citizens can a state be maintained in integrity and usefulness.” For these reasons, the civic technology field bears an importance beyond its important but modest achievements so far, since the field embodies the potential for a better democratic society that harnesses technological change as it is transformed by it.
Posted: October 9th, 2012 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Biking, Transportation | Tags: Data, visualization | 2 Comments »
Curious about how people are using the new bike sharing systems that have been popping up in cities around the world? The bike sharing system in Boston, Hubway, has released detailed data for roughly half a million trips as part of a data visualization challenge. Sponsored by Hubway and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, competition winners will receive a free Hubway membership and original system maps installed at stations. Submissions are due by October 31. To submit or learn more, visit hubwaydatachallenge.org.
Posted: July 11th, 2012 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Infrastructure, Transit | 5 Comments »
“Crowdfunding” refers to the use of the internet to raise money from a large group of people for a cause. The canonical example is Kickstarter, whose donors have pledged over $230 million since its founding for a variety of creative projects. Although most Kickstarter projects seek only a few thousand dollars, seven have raised over $1 million in donations to go towards projects to create new products, record music, print a comic book, and design new video games.
With the political climate in many places remaining hostile to new taxes, and cities in need of infrastructure investment, many are considering whether the principles of crowdfunding can be applied to urban infrastructure investment. Two projects I have heard about are doing just that, and I suspect many more are waiting in the wings.
An entrepreneur working in Boston is developing an idea to create a crowdfunding platform for “urban improvements.” Designed to be deployed at a small scale, the target could be small-scale neighborhood improvements or loans to local businesses. The entrepreneur is exploring connections with neighborhood groups and refining his business model before going public.
A project that launched this week is already collecting donations for urban infrastructure in the heartland. A friend of mine in Kansas City was frustrated when a public meeting about a planned streetcar line devolved into a debate about the proposed funding mechanism — a property assessment along the streetcar’s route. He’s launched neighbor.ly, a civic crowdfunding platform launched this week with two initial projects: $10 million for the streetcar and $1.2 million to expand the city’s bike sharing system. In exchange for giving money, donors can receive tokens of appreciation which include “pixels” on the side of the light rail cars (illustrated to the right), or a variety of free perks to use or advertise on the bikes. Donors have already pledged over $400,000 towards the bike system, although most is apparently from a large health insurance company.
Only time will tell whether these initiatives will raise the “real money” needed for public infrastructure. I suspect naysayers will be proven wrong and they will meet with some success for two primary reasons. First, they’re part of an ongoing revolution in public finance towards funding sources closer to the direct beneficiaries of public investments and away from federal and state sources. This interesting article notes more and more transportation infrastructure is funded by “local option taxes” and many of the new light rail systems have been largely funded by local or regional sales taxes (Including in Denver and North Carolina).
The second reason civic crowdfunding will succeed is that it follows a broader ideological shift away from taxation and traditional public finance. The right will like it since it reduces the reliance on mandatory taxes, and the left will like the ersatz grassroots character. Although decentralized, crowdfunding will inevitably result eventually result in tension between donors and elected officials, who presumably will retain permitting authority. This issue can be seen in Detroit, where private donors who pledged $80 million for a new streetcar argued for a curbside alignment while planners sought a more efficient alignment in the center of the street.
The logical culmination of postmodern public finance may be aided by the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act. Up until now, crowdfunding payments have been nothing more than donations, although the JOBS Act liberalizes federal rules to allow for equity crowdfunding for private startups. This will usher in an interesting period of financial innovation, and will theoretically make possible crowdfunded public private partnerships (PPP).
Like with fee-for-service and local donation schemes I discussed in a previous blog post, these ideas inevitably raise equity concerns. Will only wealthy neighborhoods — and cities — be able to fund public investments? Will funders only give to flashy investments (like bikes and streetcars) while the prosaic (and hidden) infrastructures like water and sewer lines crumble? To a certain extent, existing funding mechanisms already results in these problems. Perhaps public agencies can get ahead of the trend, requiring a portion of all crowdfunded donations be reserved for investment in low-income areas, or spent on agency-determined needs.
Only time will tell whether projects like neighbor.ly will result in a major new trend for funding urban infrastructure, or remain a whimsical footnote only useful in certain contexts.
Posted: March 21st, 2012 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Urbanism and Planning | Tags: Planning, planning theory | 1 Comment »
I attended a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) last night where Robert Yaro from the New York Regional Plan Association (RPA) presented about his organization’s intention begin a new plan for the New York region. (See a video). GSD professor Jerold Kayden introduced Robert Yaro. After a brief synopsis of the early history of American city planning, Kayden made the observation that “the notion of a comprehensive plan that would govern a city, let alone a region, occurs far less often than even the law would appear to demand. Cities and towns in the United States are not normally preparing, and keeping up-to-date, plans for the entire city.”
Is this true? If so, it ran counter to my sense that while the implementation of plans lagged behind, planning itself was a lively profession continuing to produce plans nationwide. I thought I would answer the question by looking at two samples: the nation’s 25 largest cities by population, and the 101 municipalities in metropolitan Boston.
Do Big Cities Plan?
I decided to begin by reviewing the top 25 incorporated U.S. cities by 2010 population. For each, I found the website of the city’s planning office, and recorded the date of the most recent general or comprehensive plan if one existed. Although there is some variation (in particular, some do not contain future land use maps but only emphasize general policy and strategy), in no case was there any ambiguity about whether a plan aspired to be comprehensive.
Out of these 25 cities, 23 (or 92%) had a general or comprehensive plan. Four cities are currently preparing new plans or major plan updates. I then calculated the number of years since the plan was approved (plans currently underway were scored at 0 years). For the group, the with an average time since adoption is only 7 years. Ten cities, or 40%, had plans that were underway or approved less than five years ago. Seventeen cities, or 68%, had plans underway or approved less than 10 years ago.
The two cities without plans approved in the last 20 years were Chicago and Boston, however incidentally both metropolitan regions recently completed regional plans.
Cities with plans underway
Plans approved <5 years ago
- San Antonio
- San Diego
- San Francisco
- San Jose
Plans approved 6-10 years ago
- Washington, D.C.
Plans approved more than 10 years ago
- Charlotte (1996)
- Columbus (1993)
- Detroit (1992)
- El Paso (1999)
- Los Angeles (1995)
- Memphis (1981)
Cities with no plans in the last 20 years
Do Smaller Cities and Towns Plan?
If big cities produce plans, what about smaller places like cities and towns? After all, big cities have large, sophisticated planning departments with the resources and capacity to produce comprehensive plans.
Last year I completed a similar survey for the 101 municipalities in the state-designed Boston region served by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. In this case, I reviewed and updated an existing database listing the year of the last master or comprehensive plan.
Among this group, 73% had completed plans, with an average time since adoption of 10.2 years. The towns in the Boston metropolitan region vary widely by size. Perhaps the larger cities are planning, but their smaller neighbors are not? Surprisingly, the data show the reverse is true. Among municipalities with populations less than 40,000, 76% had completed plans. Only 59% of towns over 40,000 had plans (including Boston itself). Among the towns that had completed plans, many were within the last 10 years.
Sound and Fury … Signifying Nothing?
A grand theory explaining the purpose and function of these plans has eluded the urban planning field. Although, as Prof. Kayden implied, cities do have legal incentives to create and update plans, this procedural requirement does not explain the lengthy and elaborate processes and plans that are produced.
One naive view holds the role of planning is to design the physical form of the city. Although critics point out many of their proposals are not carried out, those who look carefully find that some of their ideas are eventually implemented (see for example Brent Ryan’s careful analysis of plans in Providence, Rhode Island). However, ideas not proposed in plans are also implemented (including dozens of stadiums, ballparks, and porkbarrel infrastructure projects), lending credence to the political scientists’ focus on power and decisions, not the source of the ideas.
Others have analyzed planning from an economic point of view, arguing planning can increase welfare by providing information to coordinate private land development, or address issues like public goods, externalities, prisoners’ dilemma conditions, and distributional concerns. (See Klosterman 1985)
Finally, contemporary planning theory has stressed the ability of deliberative processes to change individuals’ views and perhaps also institution through “collaborative rationality.” However, this approach can soon stray from the subject of planning — cities and the human and natural systems they encompass. Another strand emphasizes the “wicked” nature of problems addressed by plans, and argues problems like these need to be addressed with a combination of analysis, deliberation, and design.
Planning’s remarkable persistence, extent, and diversity suggests planning activities are serving some purpose. With cities facing great uncertainty and unprecedented problems, it seems more important than ever to untangle the origins and effects of planning to maximize the benefits from this widespread activity.
Posted: March 14th, 2012 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Smart Growth, Technology | Tags: big data, Planning | No Comments »
I thought I should note here two blog posts I recently published elsewhere.
I discussed some of the challenges involved in making “big data” accessible to low income communities in a post on Planetizen: “The Democratization of Big Data“.
I posted a guest post on PlaceMatter‘s blog about an innovative planning process for transit-oriented development in Metro Boston that used CommunityViz for indicators and 3D visualizations: “Planning for Transit-Oriented Development with 3D Visualizations.”
Posted: January 9th, 2012 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Transit | Tags: fares, MBTA, transit fares | 1 Comment »
In order to close next year’s budget gap, Boston’s MBTA transit system is planning to raise fares and cut service. This will be the first time since 2007 fares have been changed.
A detailed analysis released by the Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS) last week considered two scenarios with sharp increases. (The report, along with other materials and a listing of planned public meetings is available at http://mbta.com/jointhediscussion) This analysis includes the specific bus routes considered for elimination, a topic I won’t discuss here but one which deserves close scrutiny.
Under Scenario 1, which contains fewer service cuts, the regular Charliecard fare would increase from $1.70 to $2.40 (paying by cash would be slightly more expensive, as now). Under Scenario 2, with more service cuts, the fare would increase only to $2.25. Although large increases in percentage terms, these fares are reasonable when compared with other major U.S. subway systems. The combination of fare increases and service cuts will help the agency keep pace with the agency’s skyrocketing costs of employee health insurance, energy, and system maintenance. Of course, additional revenues from the state government is always a possibility.
However a large number of riders don’t pay the cash fare. Instead, they purchase the unlimited local bus and subway “LinkPass” that was introduced in 2007. The price of this pass will increase also, from $59 per monthly currently to $80 for Scenario 1 and $78 in Scenario 2. The overall logic of the fare structure was only subtly modified, and CTPS notes in their study that “the cash-fare equivalent would decrease or remain virtually the same in both scenarios” for all types of passes — including the LinkPass.
The cost of the current pass is worth about 34.7 single trips on local buses or subway lines. Since the typical month has about 20 work days (40 trips), taking into account a few weeks of vacation, holidays, and personal days, averaging about 34.7 trips per month seems like a reasonable point to incentivize buying a pass for most riders. Put it other terms, current pass holders pay about 87% of the full cash fare for a month of commuting (40 trips). This would stay the same for Scenario 2, but drop to 83% for Scenario 1.
There’s only one problem with this analysis — LinkPass riders use their passes much more than that. With the introduction of the new fares in 2007 the MBTA introduced an “Automated Fare Collection” system, which means raw data about ridership patterns are available. In an analysis I completed last spring with CTSP-provided data, I found that in that year each LinkPass sold resulted in 52.13 subway trips and 12.79 bus trips per month that year. This means the effective price per trip is significantly lower than the “regular” cash fares. The average rider is getting a $26.62 discount per month on the subway alone, paying roughly $1.13 per trip. Of course, many are paying much less — or much more.
Having such a low-cost unlimited pass is unusual. Washington, D.C.’s system charges time- and distance-based fares for each trip, only offering limited passes. New York City’s pass is $104, and Atlanta’s is $95.
Of course, such an inexpensive monthly pass can be justified on several grounds. It could be interpreted as a liberal concession to the city’s large transit-dependent population. However if it is, it is an inefficient one indeed, since LinkPasses are also owned by a large number of well paid professionals. Political logic may also suggest avoiding a detailed analysis of the complete fare structure. Perhaps an across-the-board increase is conceptually simpler to discuss in the 20 public meetings that are planned. However, since increases happen so infrequently and the trouble of 20 public meetings are planned, shouldn’t all aspects of the system’s fares and operations be up for negotiation?
This issue is only one that will be discussed in the coming months. Others include which routes should be changed or eliminated, what additional reforms are possible to reduce the MBTA’s expenses, and what other sources of revenue are possible including a plan for more regular fare increases. Hopefully the process will result in a plan to put the MBTA on a more sustainable financial footing, with sensible trade-offs among the multiple public objectives involved.
> See my previous post “Raising Fares on Boston’s Subway for Safety and Reliability”
> See supplementary information at www.mbta.com/jointhediscussion
Posted: December 21st, 2011 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Books | 1 Comment »
A few years back, I was asked to name the books that had made the biggest impact on me. Three came immediately to mind: Jane Jacob’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, and Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Beyond those, I struggled to think of more -– it was a short and idiosyncratic list.
One of the benefits of being a PhD student is that you get to do a lot of reading, guided in various formal and informal ways. As a result, over the last two years I’ve read a number of books that will likely go on the “life list.” Given the tradition of writing year-end lists, I thought I would post the titles here. Some of these are books I “should” have already read at some point, and others are relatively obscure. A classmate pointed out recently that the “tolerance for theory increases with time spent in academia,” and I must admit some of these are quite theoretical. However, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell we are often “experience rich and theory poor.” Despite the word’s negative associations, theories are crucial for understanding, research, and practical action.
So here they are: ten books worth reading. They are organized roughly thematically. A treatise could be written about each book, but for the sake of brevity I tried to limit myself to a few sentences.
1. Nicomachean Ethics and Politics (c. 330 BC)
I was assigned the works of Socrates and Plato many times in my education, but never Aristotle. Unlike Plato’s Republic, which sought to deduce the form of a perfect society from first principles, Aristotle’s Politics is refreshingly empirical. The book is a a thoughtful synthesis of how various constitutions worked out in practice, and Aristotle’s analysis of the relationship between democracy and inequality is relevant today. The Nicomachean Ethics is an introduction to the notion of classical virtues, but in my view the most important part is only a few pages long. Book 6 proposes a tripartite division of knowledge that has sparked debates in epistemology still underway: science (episteme), art (techne), and practical wisdom (phronesis).
2. The Public and its Problems (1927)
By John Dewey
This classic work in pragmatic political thought contains Dewey’s theory of democracy and the democratic state. Acutely aware of the radical and damaging impact of technology (for him, mass media, but could also be the Internet) and the vast scale of modern life on traditional democracy, the book ends with a call for greater attention to the creation and dissemination of knowledge and also the “method and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion,” starting at the local level.
3. Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (2000)
By John Dryzek
Much more than a book merely about ‘deliberative democracy,’ this is a lucid and masterful synthesis of social theory. In it, Dryzek explains and critiques Foucault, rational choice theory, democratic theory. It closes with a thoughtful speculation for how democracy can be reconciled with environmental values.
4. Collaborative Planning: Shaping Places in Fragmented Societies (2006)
By Patsy Healey
In urban planning, “communicative rationality” has been a popular theory since the 1990s. Drawing on the work of Habermas, various writers have sought to use this theory to explain how planners actually work and how deliberative forums can be used to resolve problems. In my view, the best theoretical treatment comes not from the generally better-known US academics, but a British planner. Her book combines a “communicative” perspective with theories of institutions and social, environmental, and economic development.
5. Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies (1994)
By Donald Schon and Martin Rein
This book is a nuanced discussion of the nature of power and knowledge, and how the way we think influences the resolution of policy controversies. The book argues public policy should adopt a design perspective, and that thoughtful professionals can and should change the “frames” they use to understand problems.
6. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (1998)
By Etienne Wenger
Although often watered down by consultants, in this book Wenger presents a rich and wide-ranging theory of professional learning encompassing identity, communities, and the need for participation and codified systems of knowledge.
7. Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd Ed. (1996)
By Herbert Simon
A polymath and Nobel Laureate in economics, Simon’s work spanned many fields. One of his later works, this book is a classic in artificial intelligence, and also where he sets forth an argument for more rigorous methods in the design professions such as engineering and urban planning.
8. Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects that Changed the Modern World (1998)
By Thomas Hughes
A case study of four sociotechnical systems, Hughes argues each sparked important innovations. They are, with their unintended results, The SAGE air defense system (digital computing), the Atlas missile project (systems engineering), Boston Central Artery-Tunnel (new multi-stakeholder approaches to public works), and the Internet (new management ideas). The book is a readable description of not only specific projects, but also broader social and intellectual trends in U.S. history.
9. We Have Never Been Modern (1993)
By Bruno Latour
A wonderfully heterodox critique of modernity and modern social science, in this book the always-controversial Latour argues the rise of complex science and technology requires us to re-consider how we understand society.
10. Method in Social Science, 2nd Ed. (2010)
By Andrew Sayer
A book about the nature of social research, Sayer is a a “critical realist” who exposes a more nuanced view than simple positivism.
> See the complete list on WorldCat
Why I link to WorldCat: 1) It links to local library catalogs (however be sure to check all editions), 2) You can export citations for books or entire lists, 3) There are convenient links to major booksellers, 4) its database includes journal articles and other works.