University of Calgary

Professor Harper on Creativity and Innovation: Divergence and convergence in pragmatic dialogical planning

Submitted by jwalla on Thu, 2012/07/05 - 8:53am.

My teaching and research interest is in exploring theoretical issues which impact public planners' ability to meet the challenges of a post-modern, post-industrial, pluralistic, liberal democratic society (e.g., Canada). My theoretical work (in collaboration with Dr. Stan Stein) has aimed to develop planning theory that is relevant to contemporary planners, helping them (1) understand the rapidly changing and turbulent environments in which they strive to carry out their historic mission -- making environments that are better places to live; and (2) justify the role and purpose of public planning and plans in our society. 

Although Stan has retired, we have continued our research collaboration. Our most recent publication was “Creativity and innovation: Divergence and convergence in pragmatic dialogical planning” in the spring 2012 issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research. Much of contemporary planning theory draws on German philosopher Jurgen Habermas’ ideas of rationality. It has been criticized as inhibiting creativity, rendering it incapable of dealing with pressing social problems. This critique implicitly assumes a traditional view of communication and language, one which does not match actual life experience. Our “pragmatic-communicative” approach -“dialogical planning”- draws on a nontraditional view: communication as interpretation. This encourages creativity and facilitates innovation through flexibility and divergence, yet seeks convergence by connecting new ideas back to our web of existing concepts and beliefs. We believe that planners can better stimulate creativity and innovation if they understand and employ this pragmatic view of communication and language.

We have just completed our next publication: an invited chapter in the book Ethics, Design and Planning of the Built Environment, edited by two European colleagues, Claudia Basta and Stefano Moroni, which will be published later this year. We argue that there is a strong ethical element in the role of the designer or planner that goes beyond the aspects usually considered in professional ethics. It relates, not merely to the utilitarian purpose of our design, but to its potential reflection of the individual person – to their autonomy and their authentic identity. As technology makes a wider range of goods available, and as consumers become further separated from the design and production of goods, they have lost their feelings of meaningful relationship to their artifacts and their environments, making them feel less fully human. We suggest different forms of user participation in designs and plans that might overcome some of this alienation, enable the designer or planner to get a better sense of what is valued by users, and to express it in the design or plan

I also recently completed an invited review article on The Ashgate Research Companion to Planning Theory: Conceptual Challenges for Spatial Planning, edited by Jean Hillier and Patsy Healey for the Journal of Regional Science, which will be in the fall 2012 issue.

Although it is not a new publication, our book Dialogical Planning in a Fragmented Society: Critically Liberal, Pragmatic and Incremental (originally published 2006) has just been republished by Transaction Publishers.

Tom Harper is a Professor of Planning in the Faculty of Environmental Design. He teaches courses in Planning History, Theory and Ethics, Regional Planning and Land Use Management, and Urban Transportation, Infrastructure and Land Use.

Click here to view Harper's profile or for more Faculty Research.