Let’s talk development [2]

I finished my last post with the idea that we must change the way we perceive development. And that may be a harder nut to crack that expected. I will restrict my argumentation on Romania because I know the realities here better, but I’m confident that the idea can be exported.

This idea to perceive development differently should be divided into multiple focus groups, which all perceive and deal with development differently, and I would divide this into changing the way politicians perceive development, the way the administration perceives development, the way planning professionals perceive it and least but not at all less important, how people perceive development. I’ve separated politics and administration because, as is the case with Romania, there are significant differences of attitude between the two, and while one can direct the other, it is by no means a guarantee that implementation of political decisions will be smooth and without resistance. Planning professionals in this country have a broad understanding of development, as they should, but it has been my experience working in the field that the product of their labor follows a very strict pattern, highly regulated, that diminishes to the absence any sort of innovation. Last, but not least, people need to change their idea of development. After 24+ years (this is the 25th) of transition from the communist system to free market economy, that has not finished, either in reality or by claim, the people are tired. Most dreams they had about life in a free market economy have been shattered, and readjusting life for this new reality has not been the easiest thing to do. Politically this is visible through choices made by the people from an electoral point of view, in the return to the public scene of controversial ideas and an uncanny resistance to change.

First off – politicians. In the quest for political achievement, politicians have always found ways to incite following. It is to some extent part of their job. The less optimistic would call it dream selling, the less pessimistic would call it attempting to make dreams come true. Where the truth actually is, depends more on the politician and his party than on what the people actually want. But politicians are important. Large or small scale development projects depended on the political. It was the most important lesson I learned during my years in the university – no matter how good or just a project is, if you don’t have political backing it will never happen. And that is true because allocating resources and placing a project on the “to do” list is what politicians, at all levels of power, do. Changing the way politicians understand development is tricky, because they need something which within a quite narrow time frame, can be translated from idea to votes, or at least something that will not affect their vote balance. This is quite simplistic, I know. But it doesn’t mean it’s less true. Of course, there is a distinct possibility that one might encounter that special breed of politician that can look beyond a 4/5 year term, but that is more of an exception these days. However, development for politicians is actually what the people perceive as development. That is the length of the scope – give the people what they want. Which in these times translates to highways, job security, social security (simply put of course) – mostly quantitative things, rather then qualitative expectations. There are those however that call for qualitative developments, those who expect a better quality of life. The idea to change what politicians perceive as development turns then more into politicians accepting that development is not what they have come to live by, but a significantly more complex issue. Keep this in mind, we’ll be back here.

The administration, central or local, differs from politicians. While the latter are elected to lead administrations, and they do this by bringing in their own decision making people, the large body of the administration remains the same. It’s a simple reason behind that – the statutes of public servants and the scale of the administrative apparatus. It’s simply to large to change every 4 years. There are always people leaving the apparatus and new people being brought in, but the significant part of it stays the same. And public administration int his country has a level of resisting change that is unparalleled. And to same degree let’s say you would expect that, because bureaucracy is a highly complex ecosystem that is very resistant to any change. Attempts have been made in the past years to change that, to implement a more leaner administration, to open it up to the people. But that has failed, even if there are means to prove that it works. Again, having been working in the field of urban planning for quite a while, and having had multiple contacts with public administration at multiple levels, I know first hand how the great illusion of administration works. In order to have a change in the way we perceive development, public administration needs to understand the change of goals, and it’s role in the changing that. Leaner and more change oriented administration would allow innovation to thrive easier.

Planning professionals in this country have a broad understanding of development. There is no doubt about that in my mind. There are of course multiple layers to this truth. First off the distribution of planning professionals geographically is an issue, with most of them concentrated in a tight areal around a few major cities. You’ll never find planning professionals in villages, or really small cities. Because there is no incentive to be there. Second off – age groups. Most of the chartered planning professionals have been brought up professionally before 1989, with the establishment of a local school of planning only in 1997. So there is a clear generation gap there. As such, there are differences in approaches and innovation you would expect from new generations of planners is limited. Lately things have began to change with younger planners grabbing a slightly larger piece of the market. But where things have not changed is at higher levels of planning – where development is first laid on the table and strategies are set a foot. And it is that particular level of development that needs change the most. Because if we want to change the means of developing this territory we need people doing the planning that understand this change of scope and can properly implement innovation enablers in this respect.

People are very important. Beyond any quantitative aspect we can conceive, it is the quality of life of the people that development should first address. As it is perceived by the people living it. And that in turn implies what is probably the hardest change of all – changing what the people perceive as a good life. Today it is fairly simple to describe a good quality of life in a broad spectrum – a house, a good job, a car, vacations abroad, etc! (simplicity at it’s finest). Of course there are those that also call for qualitative improvements – independent justice, transparency, etc. Some of these things have been achieved, and it is a good thing. But returning to changing the way we perceive development it would imply that wage we need to do is change role models. What if we were to convince people that owning a car is not necessarily a means to a better life? It’s very hard to change that, because after the fall of communism owning a car became a landmark of personal achievement that has not changed since. It some respects this is close to an american dream rather than an european dream. And this could be the fault of us lacking a european dream per se to relate to. Sure, as outlined in my previous post, Western European values have become the norm, the standard, but it has been done selectively, and with great influence from the American Dream. In a way people have lost contact with the context in their aspirations. And it is curios in some manners, because come Christmas, or any other major holiday with traditions associated, and this entire country becomes obsessed with some aspects of the traditional. And if that happens then we can assume that if we intend to change the way development is perceived it would be wiser to keep the goal intact, but also, at the same time, adapt that goal to local conditions. Because we should not aim to build London in Bucharest, or transplant the German road system in Romania. No. What we should do is build on what we have, and come up with solutions that work here. Changing people’s minds about that is the most difficult challenge. After leaving with a very persistent dream for such a long time, giving it up is not at all easy.We need role models, we need experiences and we need a sort of informal education that will allow people to dream. Because at the end of the day, it is the apparent difference between the dream and reality that constitutes our perceived added value to development.

In planning and development there are no recipes. There is no step by step Ikea style fact sheet to follow. Development is about making people’s lives better. If the people change their perceived value of development, and if politics understands that and picks up this change, if the administration allows itself to come in line with this new reality and planning professionals respond with innovation to it then a change in how and why we can better our lives is possible. But it has, and always will be, about the people.


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