The Enduring Relevance of Donald Schön

Last fall I was honored to to receive the Donald Schön Award for Excellence in Learning from Practice for my dissertation, Planning Support Systems for Spatial Planning Through Social Learning, at the 2014 Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning Conference in Philadelphia.

Donald Schön was a longtime (1968-1997) faculty member at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where I received my PhD. His ideas were very much “in the air” there, and I learned about his work from the faculty, especially Joseph Ferreira, Jr. and Lorlene Hoyt. A remarkably creative scholar, the website has a thoughtful overview of his ideas and work.

After learning I would receive the award, I decided to return to his only major work I had not read, his 1971 book Beyond the Stable State. At the time I was planning the #micities conference, a event focused on how new technologies could be used to improve urban management and planning. Although Schön completed a dissertation in philosophy, in the book I found a fascinating discussion of the role of technology as a means of social change (as well as an elegant critique of conventional innovation diffusion theory I wish I cited in my dissertation!).

Here is a lightly-edited version of my opening remarks from the conference:

We are all experiencing the pressures for change created by new technology, regardless of where we work. One theorist who wrote about these topics in 1971 is Donald Schön, in his book Beyond the Stable State. He observed that although we talk about change so much, things tend not to change very quickly or easily. The reason is something he called the stable state — that we all believe the world will not change both as a psychological defense and also as a practical step to run our lives. At the level of the organization, these tendencies resulted in something he called “dynamic conservatism,” which he described in the following way: “A social system is a complex of individual which tents to maintain its boundaries and its pattern of internal relationships. But given internal tendencies towards increasing disorder, and external threat so stability, energy must be expended if the patterns of the system are to be held stable.”

He believed that as a result of dynamic conservatism, resistance to change was not due to stupidity or conservatism but psychological factors. Because individuals’ roles provide them a sense of identity and self-worth, change requires people to take a leap into the unknown about who they are and what their role in the organization – and life – is. This resistance to change is a big problem in government, since problems change. He quoted an old adage, “a government agency is a monument to yesterday’s problem.” Furthermore, as I think most of us know, Schön reminded us that “social and technological system interlock. An apparently innocuous change in technology may emerge as a serious threat to an organization because it would force it to transform its theory and structure.” As a consequence, reformers could choose to tackle the structure, theory, or technology of an organization, but should expect to face resistance on all fronts. “We discover the complexity and depth of a system’s dynamic conservatism by seeking to change it.”

I think in academia, we tend to think that the way to change social systems is through theory or maybe structure. But I know many of the people here today are interested in technology. When we sent around the call for proposals for this event, I was a bit apprehensive that we’d get proposals from engineer types who see technology as an ends in itself, and present on new sensors or algorithms. Happily I was proved wrong, and I think they all reflect a sociotechnical perspective.

Given this landscape, how do we make change? Schön argued change is needed if our institutions like government can keep up with changing problems and issues. The most logical answer uses the metaphors of invasion and insurgency, maybe some of you are entrepreneurs heroically foisting a new tool on us, or you are a change agent (or “intrapraneur”) battling that dynamic conservatism in a city bureaucracy. Shön wasn’t satisfied with these models. First of all, they require us to adopt a “missionary stance,” at great personal cost. These individuals put themselves in positions of discomfort and personal risk. Secondly, disruption can have negative consequences that could be avoided, since it’s fundamentally an irrational and unpredictable process.

While we accept this type of disruption in the private sector, the public sector has higher responsibilities. We expect some firms to fail if they have inadequate products and the customers have no recourse, but if we allow cities or schools to “fail” we have a real ethical and moral quandary on our hands. Schön argued the answer was to create learning systems. And he argued “social systems must learn to become capable of transforming themselves without intolerable disruption. … A learning system, then, must be one in which dynamic conservatism operates at such a level and in such a way as to permit change of state without intolerable threat to the essential functions the system fulfils for the self.” And his book went on to explain how companies and government were evolving aspects of this learning system. If you’re interested in talking more about creating social learning systems, you can enroll in my Winter 2016 course on the topic. However I thought these ideas would help us set the stage for the discussions today. Here with us today we have all types of people, working across all sectors in cities. A common thread will be designing and implementing technology-led change in social systems of all types, as well as a frank discussion of the obstacles all change must face. So I look forward to discussing not only the various objectives, but also how people are overcoming dynamic conservatism to build cities that takes advantage of new technology to solve the problems of today, not the problems of yesterday.

Stay tuned for more on the course, and start here to learn more about Schön’s work.

Author: Rob Goodspeed