Sunday, May 28, 2017

We Need Science Diplomacy!


 My colleague, Professor Paul Berkman, has launched a Science Diplomacy Center at Tufts University. This is a campus-wide initiative coordinated through the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  I look forward to working with him. We are going to offer a two day workshop this August for PHD students in Boston area universities interested in learning more about ways of ensuring that their dissertation findings are presented in a compelling way to policy-makers. To do this, we will try to equip them (including natural and social scientists) to function as “science diplomats.”  There has been lots written about the need to enhance the “policy literacy”of technical specialists; we are not talking about that.  That is mostly focused on the clarity and understandability of technical communication.  Rather, science diplomats jump into the PROCESS of managing change, particularly when common resources are involved (i.e. oceans, the atmosphere, the Arctic, Antarctic, outer space, ocean floor, great rivers, and more), especially those that cross as well as extend beyond the boundaries of nations. This involves taking action with an eye toward balance and inclusion. Being helpful requires taking account of the interests of all, not just voicing an (informed) opinion.

The science diplomacy process hinges on (1) the acquisition and presentation of evidence regarding the way socio-ecological systems have changed, are changing and might change in the future; (2) attention to the records of government agreements and commitments (i.e. constitutions, laws, treaties, regulations, contracts, etc.) that spell out the rights and responsibilities of citizens, corporations, non-governmental actors, state and multi-state agencies; (3) the voices of stakeholders, both those who are already organized and those who are not; and (4) negotiation, or problem-solving, aimed at reconciling the conflicting interests (of stakeholders and governments). From my standpoint, such negotiations need to be facilitated or mediated by professional process managers.   The output of these negotiations can be used or ignored by those with decision-making responsibilities. 

What do potential science diplomats neeed to know to be effective? With regard to evidence, they need to know how to model complex systems and explain the dynamics of socio-ecological systems. When they present forecasts, they need to know how to acknowledge uncertainty and explain the sensitivity of their historical explanations and prospective forecasts to non-objective assumptions scientists are obliged to make (e.g., what time frame or geographic area to use for purposes of forecasting). Finally, they need to know how to gather, sort and “clean” many kinds of data gathered in the field and turn these data into evidence for decision making.  With regard to government records, they need to know how to read and interpret official agreements and operating rules. This is not so straightforward as many people imagine.  There are often multiple agreements, at different scales, that all apply in the same situation. And, often, (as Justice Holmes once said) general principles don’t decide concrete cases. Interpreting which rights and responsibilities apply requires learned interpretation. With regard to interaction with stakeholders, science diplomats must learn how to engage in stakeholder assessment (i.e. figuring out which groups have a legitimate claim to be involved in particular decisions and who can speak for them). They also need to know how to present the views of hard-to-represent stakeholders (like future generations!). Helping stakeholders clarify their interests, especially when they are part of fractious groups, is difficult, but it is the science diplomats job to do so.

Science diplomats need to be “at the table” when negotiations begin.  We know that this is too often not the case.  Typically, each “side” comes with evidence prepared by “its” scientific advisors. At that point, the battle of the print-out begins. We are not talking about this kind of advocacy science.  Rather, we believe that science diplomacy requires the involvement of interdisciplinary teams of scientists as process advisors – at the table.  Most scientists have never received ANY instruction about how to function in this context.  We need to enrich the repertorie of individual science diplomats so they can help to craft case-appropriate ways of participating in the process of guiding change. 

Many scientists have no interest in serving as science diplomats.  That’s fine.  There is plenty of work for them as disciplinary specialists. But, we need a growing cadre of scientists who want to engage in the interdisciplinary process of science diplomacy. This becomes increasingly urgent, as decisions made now are foreclosing our ability to protect, preserve or renew the sustainability of our world on a planetary scale. We are mindful of the horrors of “world wars” and the acceleration of human population growth from one billion people at the start of the industrial revolution toward eight billion by end of this decade.    

Science diplomats can convene dialogues among allies and adversaries alike, pointing out common interests, and reminding everyone that we are a globally-interconnected civilization facing the fundamental challenge of balancing national interests and common interests for the benefit of everyone on Earth.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

What's Happening in the Field of Urban Planning?



The MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning is one of 72 university departments in North America that offers a professional (MCP) degree in urban and regional planning. MIT will graduate about 70 MCP degree candidates this year. All told, something close to 3,000 graduate degrees in planning will be offered in the United States and Canada this June.   

Graduates of planning schools, including MIT, can find work in the public sector, the private sector and as staff and leaders of civil society organizations both in the United States and elsewhere in the world. About 30% of the students currently enrolled at MIT are not US citizens.  The incoming MCP class includes citizens of Argentina, Switzerland, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Spain, Israel, Mexico, Singapore, Pakistan, Viet Nam, Iraq and Trinidad and Tobago.  That equals the average non-US enrollment in all the urban planning schools in North America.  The percentage of non-US citizens in MCP programs has held relatively constant for the past few years.

Planning schools offer a variety of specializations.  At MIT, there are four primary areas of
specialization:  City Design and Development, Environmental Policy and Planning; Housing and
Community Economic Development and International Development.  In addition, there are three cross-cutting areas of study: transportation systems planning, urban information systems and multi-regional systems planning.  Each planning school offers a unique curriculum, but all college and university departments that are accredited have to cover certain basic skills and give students opportunities to learn by doing, either through paid internships or required field-based projects. Each school offers whatever specializations its faculty can support. Many schools also invest heavily in maintaining their alumni network and providing job placement assistance to their students.  While 5% of each year’s MCP class at MIT continues on for further graduate study, almost all the rest find rewarding planning-related jobs within three to six months after graduation.

The average planner in America earns about $80,000 a year, but most are less concerned with the salaries they make than they are with playing an active role in helping communities solve key problems like the provision of affordable housing, enhancement of meaningful job opportunities, protection of important natural resources, managing the risks associated with climate change, improving basic urban and regional infrastructure (including better transit and mobility),  and providing greater opportunities for citizens to participate in helping their communities make decisions that affect them.  The full list of problems is much longer, especially in the developing world.

In terms of the demographic mix of students entering the MIT MCP program in 2017, about 52% are female and 48% male. This is the same gender balance we have had for a number of years. MIT is not alone in this regard. In addition, MIT enrollment the past few years has been about 45% non-white (i.e. 15% Black or African-American, 30% Asian-American, and 1% Native-American).

While planners in the past were often preoccupied with the formulation of community master plans or zoning ordinances, that is no longer true. Today’s planners are committed to taking action – helping to implement improvements in the quality of life, particularly for the most vulnerable segments of society, often through public-private partnerships of various kinds. Whether employed by neighborhood, city, metropolitan, state or national agencies, private companies or NGOs, planners are busy trying to facilitate social change.  Many MIT graduates are engaged in entrepreneurial activities – often aiming to create new companies or organizations that know how to use digital technology to disrupt traditional ways of delivering public services or managing community economic development (again, both in the US and overseas).  

The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics says that there are about 35,000 practicing urban planners in the United States. Canada counts 6,500 (and currently lists urban planning as one of the top jobs in the country because of the rapid growth of cities). It’s hard to find reliable numbers for other countries.

To repeat: graduate students studying at MIT are as interested in planning in the developing world (i.e. the “global South”) as they are in working in the developed nations of the “North.” Many expect to work in both parts of the world during their professional careers.  And, if they stay mostly in the United States, they are probably going to move around quite a bit.

The DUSP faculty continues to diversify – demographically and by fields of expertise.  The most recent additions to the faculty over the past few years come from public health, law, political geography, anthropology, urban and regional economics, urban design, and infrastructure planning. The last two members of the DUSP faculty to receive tenure have been women.  We have new joint degrees with the Department of Civil Engineering and the Sloan School of Management along with continuing double degrees with Architecture, the Media Lab and Political Science. In any given semester, students can choose among field-based projects and faculty led studios and practicums in Malaysia, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Israel, Singapore, Brazil, Philippines, China, Mozambique, Haiti, Kenya and a wide range of projects in various parts of the United States.

The Department of Urban Studies and Planning is in a leadership role on the MIT campus, participating in the Environmental Solutions Initiative, the MIT Energy Initiative, the reformulated interdisciplinary transportation degree program, undergraduate teacher education in STEM subjects, the Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab and emerging cross-campus teaching and research programs focused on Negotiation and Leadership, Healthy Cities and Social Entrepreneurship. DUSP faculty have never been as fully engaged with colleagues in the Schools of Science, Engineering and Management as they are now.

I have been on the DUSP faculty for 47 years.  I’ve seen tremendous changes in what planning students want to learn, what they seek to accomplish in the world, what the faculty are able to teach, the kinds of action-research in which students and faculty are engaged, the shift from plan-making to collaborative problem-solving, and the way our field fits with the ever-shifting pattern of evolving disciplines.  The things that haven’t changed are our focus on improving the quality of life in places and spaces, our commitment to a range of progressive values, and our continued involvement in improving both our analytic capabilities and our understanding of the politics of social change.


I expect the number of students seeking to enroll in professional degree programs in urban planning will grow.  With more people living in cities around the world, and an increasing share of college graduates looking for meaningful work that allows them to contribute to real-life problem-solving, a career in urban planning looks increasingly attractive.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Socially Responsible Real Estate Development (Part II)

In my preceding blog post, I argued that socially-responsible real estate development can not be achieved merely by making philanthropic donations or branding efforts.  Direct engagement with a wide range of stakeholders, using the tools of Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, is required. And, the point of such interactions is not merely to minimize the adverse effects of what the developer wants to build; rather, the goal should be to meet as many of the interests of as many of the stakeholders (including the developer!) as possible.  In my new MIT MOOC,  the proper ways to use EIA and SIA are described. The MOOC is a five week, online course that will be offered for the first time in the summer of 2017. More information about enrollment can be found at the Samuel Tak Lee Real Estate Entrepreneurship Program at MIT (stl.mit.edu).

While the United States and Europe have a long history of requiring EIA and SIA, they are mostly used to justify design and development decisions that have already been made, rather than as a means of engaging stakeholders with conflicting interests in joint problem-solving. Many developers view EIA and SIA regulations as nothing more than a nuisance.  They decide what they want to build, hire consultants to make sure all regulatory requirements are met, do their best to market a positive view of their project and (in the United States especially) go to court to fend off legal challenges from opponents. This completely misses the opportunity to discover low-cost ways in which a developer can simultaneously meet local needs and solve long-standing problems while earning public support for their project and even permission to adopt innovative practices that might otherwise be prohibited. EIA and SIA can be used to meet BOTH the interests of the developer and the people most likely to be affected by whatever new project is being planned.

In the MOOC we present a case study of one of the largest mixed use mega-projects currently being built in Asia. The goal is to construct housing for more than 700,000 people on reclaimed land just off the edge of a developed area. By some estimates, the project will cost more than $60 billion over a twenty year period. The developer sought at the outset to skirt long-standing EIA requirements. While land use decisions in this particular country are usually the exclusive domain of state and local governments, the federal government was forced to get involved in this instance because the neighboring country was worried that the project would adversely affect them. The project was put on  hold until the developer completed a detailed EIA.  The cost of halting development was substantial.  In the end, the project had to be scaled back by more than 20% and new plans had to be prepared.  Nearby fishing communities, adversely affected by the early work on the project, had to be compensated for their losses. Had the developer engaged the relevant stakeholders in an EIA and SIA before starting construction (and before locking in on a version of the project that showed little or no concern for the interests of others), they would have saved an enormous amount of time and money. Also, their reputation would not have taken the international hit that it did.

In the MOOC, in which anyone can enroll at no cost, participants will have a chance to (1) read carefully selected excerpts from relevant books and articles (with short commentaries explaining how and why EIA and SIA work); (2) view mini-lectures summarizing best practices around the world; (3) try to respond to challenging scenarios (to see whether they can apply what they have learned); (4) watch edited conversations with enrollees who have already taken the course at MIT and completed the scenario assignments;  (5) listen to short interviews with experienced real estate developers describing what they have learned about socially-responsible real estate development; and (6) test their knowledge by taking a short multiple choice quiz before and after the course.  In addition, there are short animations that summarize the most important points in each module.  All told, each of the five modules in the MOOC takes about 3 - 5 hours to complete (depending on your ability to read and write in English). Certificates of completion are provided by MIT.

In making the MOOC, we talked with a number of very experienced real estate developers who have undertaken projects all over the world.  We also made our way through most of the published work on EIA, SIA and what is called Collaborative Adaptive Management. I tried to incorporate some of the ideas contained in my earlier book (with Patrick Field) called Dealing with an Angry Public (Free Press, 2010). What struck me most is the maxim that developers "need to go slow to go fast." That is, many developers believe that speed is of the essence. They rush to get things built,  sell their product as quickly as possible and generate a positive cash flow to satisfy their investors.  Short-cuts at the beginning, however, including efforts to sidestep direct involvement of stakeholders in meaningful EIAs and SIAs, actually add to the time and cost involved in completing a project. Even more important, efforts to push through a pre-conceived version of a project miss the chance to "create more value" for both the developer and the community.  It turns out, socially-responsible real estate development is the most profitable kind of real estate development -- in both the short-term and the long-term.