Building the future requires massive small change

A generic London skyline picture, reflecting the fact we had no idea how to illustrate this one. Image: Getty.

An extract from Kelvin Campbell’s new book, “Making Massive Small Change: Building the Urban Society We Want”.

In an increasingly complex and changing world, where global problems are felt locally, the systems we currently use to plan, design and build our urban neighbourhoods – the vital building blocks of our towns and cities – are doomed to failure.

For three generations, governments the world over have tried to order and control the evolution of cities through rigid, top-down action. They have failed dismally. Everywhere masterplans lie unfulfilled, housing is in crisis, the environment is under threat, and the urban poor have become poorer.

All around, we see the unintended consequences of governments’ well-intended actions. Our cities are straining under the pressure of rapid population growth, rising inequality, inadequate infrastructure – all coupled with our governments’ ineffectiveness in the face of these challenges and their failure to deliver on their continued promises to build a better urban society for all of us. Everything we see out there is the outcome of the system. We struggle to point to any new viable and decent urban neighbourhoods anywhere in the world that we have created in the last three generations. The system is not broken: it was built this way.


Governments alone cannot solve these problems. But there is another way. We call it making “Massive Small” change.

How to-down systems need to change

Our existing top-down processes need to transform to allow for greater bottom-up citizen action. This means rediscovering how active citizens, civic leaders and urban professionals can work together to build a better urban society. Processes need to be more open, responsive and collaborative.

Open systems recognise that uncertainty and change make traditional top-down, command-and-control ways far less effective. Instead, the aim must be to adapt continuously to the environment. Open systems are therefore organic rather than mechanistic and require a fundamentally different mindset to run them. In these conditions, strategy and feedback are more important than detailed planning.

To organise complexity and deliver Massive Small change, our top-down processes need to transition:

  1. From complex policies to simple protocols. Complex policies, which are rigid and arrestive, need to be replaced by a range of simple protocols that are more generative, allowing simple rules and spontaneous action to emerge at the grassroots.
  2. From fixed end states to starter conditions. Our rigidly deterministic place-making tools that focus on fixed end states will have to be replaced by condition-making tools that focus on starter conditions that create more open, responsive and collaborative environments.
  3. From command-and-control to enabling behaviours. Our restrictive command-and-control practices will be replaced by enabling behaviours that work with communities’ instincts to self-organise and collaborate.

The obsession with the end state is replaced by a focus on managing the present, using continuous feedback loops – rather than fixed long-term plans – to monitor action and results.

The new top-down processes will provide the light touch that is essential at a time when we need to do more with less. They will imply that a new social contract between government and people is agreed to do the right thing. The resultant open planning, design and development system will lead to Massive Small change and stimulate complex behaviours, replacing the closed current system that drives bigness as a consequence.

The shift – from a bigness model to a Massive Small model – will have a profound effect on how we approach planning, design and development of our neighbourhoods, towns and cities. Across the full spectrum, embracing new ideas, tools and tactics, we see how we can begin to understand and realise change.

Clearly, the Massive Small model opens opportunities to us that we find difficult to realise in our current operating system. We can mobilise a shared and common language to start unpacking these opportunities in a practical and rigorous manner.

To work our way towards a shared language once again, we must first learn how to discover patterns, which are deep and capable of generating life.

— Christopher Alexander

‘Making Massive Small Change: Building the Urban Society We Want’ by Kelvin Campbell (£25, Chelsea Green Publishing) will be published on 13 September.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.