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Living in the Messiness of Change

I have often heard it said that a software product is never finished until the last person stops using it, and that releasing is not the end, but rather the beginning. Both apply to cities and their citizens, yet it is often hard to see this wisdom in the master plans.

When I think about messiness, I don't think about clutter. Rather, I think about the process of transitioning from one state to another. And that experience of messiness is born out of a discomfort with the slower processes of realizing change.

When we talk about innovation at the scale of a city, we default to a view where to avoid messiness, change has to happen at a scale so profound that only a top-down masterplan can contain it. By controlling the change, it is made comfortable and orderly. As a result, we seem to gravitate towards projects that promise transformational change, just so we can avoid being uncomfortable in that in-between state. So controlled is that change, the solution is frequently parametrically simulated and modelled to bring order to the chaos in the form of a few sliders in a dashboard; the optimized end state is there, it just needs some tweaking.

I recently joked to a colleague of mine, not without seriousness, that most buzzy innovation frameworks are just rebranded scientific methods. He nodded, but rather astutely observed that the big difference was that instead of trying to understand how the world works, how it changes, how it evolves, the application of these rebranded methods tries to understand whether or not the world will accept the change we wish to impose on it.

So all the research and thinking that goes into understanding the problem, the people, the context, all the building, measuring, learning, all the pivoting to find fit, is not about understanding how to realize change and have it flourish, but to impose the most accommodated solution with minimal mess.

And based on our current definition of technology driven success—the ubiquitous “change the world” refrain—the above certainly delivers. Though I can’t help but wonder what it would look like if we focused more on understanding the change we desire, than racing to engender it. What would it look like if we were not so afraid of the messiness that lay between the map (or plan) and its territory? If I look at Toronto, it looks more like the multi-phased transformation of the new Regent Park and less like plot by plot maximization of Liberty Village. So when we transform large parts of the city on the promise of a masterplan, consider not the static proposed end state, but the uncomfortable change that will contribute the right kind messiness for it to take hold.