Recently I finished a 5-year transport policy modelling exercise, attempting to engage a wide range of policy, public health, academic and community stakeholders – with only partial success. This has led me to reflect further on the notions of transdisciplinarity and participation in transport modelling. Rachel Aldred’s recent blog provoked me into re-visiting these challenges – her identified tension between small scale participatory narratives and Big Data modelling particularly struck a chord.
People from across disciplines emphasise notions of participation and transdisciplinarity as principles for decision-making that might improve outcomes for wellbeing, environmental sustainability and fairness (Dominique Charron and her colleagues at IDRC did a great job summarising this “ecosystem health” approach last year in a developing world context). Transdisciplinarity in this context tends to mean bringing knowledge from community, policy and academic stakeholders together on an equal footing. This involves the participation of community stakeholders in developing questions and decision-making, as well as increasing citizen control over solutions.
Community participation in urban planning has long been argued as a good thing – particularly if it is empowering and involves handing over some control over decisions to communities (see for example the work of Popay). A large number of health promotion and urban planning practitioners support the notion that empowering community participation in urban planning is required to achieve successful change for equity and sustainability, partly because of the limitations of representative democracy (giving a voice to the voiceless) and partly because successful joint learning can increase the support for resulting policies. In health promotion, empowering participation is also seen as a wellbeing end in itself – by increasing skill levels and a sense of agency over people’s lives (see for example the work of Glenn Laverack, Fikret Adaman and Pat Devine).
This is all sounds great, but very few attempts have been made to review the effectiveness of participation at achieving these outcomes. Beth Milton and her colleagues at the University of Liverpool systematically reviewed some of the evidence last year. Although participatory initiatives may have positively affected empowerment, information and relationships (intermediate capacity-building outcomes) there wasn’t much evidence that social or health outcomes were improved through changes to decisions. Others argue that a focus only on empowerment as a positive outcome ignores a more complex set of roles and responsibilities on the part of individuals and authorities. For example, authorities may devolve the “work” of decision-making to community members without providing the resources to support this. There may be different levels of participation that are appropriate for different planning circumstances (Wilcox’s ideas about effective participation are getting old but are still useful).
A number of questions and challenges emerged from my own experience using a participatory modelling method to try and improve transport decision-making in Auckland.
- The priorities and knowledge of “community” stakeholders were best elicited through narratives about place – at a local level, yet to influence regional or national policy, there is a need to move from this local focus to regional/national level modelling. In my experience this transition resulted in losing the engagement of community stakeholders.
- It’s very difficult to keep any kind of transport model transparent and easily understood by the full range of stakeholders – there are methodological and skill (or art) questions here. Although it is necessary to understand system complexity, increasing model complexity can easily reduce transparency without improving decisions.
- It’s extremely easy for a participatory decision-making process to disempower and disappoint community stakeholders – especially when they are located within our current neoliberal approaches to deliberative democracy (see a good recent critique in Paul Hanson’s recent Geoforum article, Toward a More Transformative Participation) – in other words, the priorities and solutions put forward by non-governance stakeholders are often in direct conflict with the limited set of possible policies within the governance framework.
I hope these challenges provoke interesting debate on the blog and during the seminars – particularly in one of the later seminars when we will focus specifically on participatory modelling.