Principle #5: Multiple Truths / by Deland Chan

[Deland Chan]

A VISION FOR THE HUMAN CITY #5: Multiple Truths | There is no single prescription

Part of the art of dealing with wicked problems is the art of not knowing too early which type of solution to apply.
— Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber

Modern infrastructure development tends to follow a predictable timeline. First, a team of experts decides to build a project. They conduct a lengthy review process and propose several alternatives for public comment. The project may be tweaked until the team arrives at a single prescription for the project. Barring significant protest or lack of funds, the project is built. Infrastructure, once it is built, has a minimum lifespan of fifty years. If it is a mistake, an entire generation has to suffer its consequences.

A human city explores a range of scales and intentions beyond the single prescription model. Projects can be divided into several categories: the extra-small, small, medium, large, and extra-large. An extra-small project may involve single block or corner, while a medium scale project may involve a neighborhood park or a complex street with multiple functions. An extra-large project may involve an entire city district.

The intention of the project varies depending on durability and level of resources. It can take the form of “play”, an intervention that is often whimsical and temporary, lasting no longer than a moment or a few hours. In most situations, it serves no other purpose than to spark conversation about alternative uses of space. It is often joyful and light, not requiring significant investment in time or resources.

An intervention can be an “experiment”, which is still temporary but involves several trails over the course of a few days, weeks, or months. The purpose of an experiment is to ensure that it can be replicated and in which the results can be carefully measured and studied over time.  An experiment may provide the foundation for the highest level of intention— the “design-build”— a permanent state of intervention that requires the most extensive use of resources and leads to the greatest durability.

Building the human city means seeking beyond a single prescription. Instead, it is about defining a process that brings together multiple stakeholders to the table to decide at which scale a project should be undertaken and with which intention. Sometimes an intervention could be playful and end at that moment. An experiment may generate more data and knowledge before the community decides to pursue a design-build intervention. This nuanced approach ensures multiple opportunities for community engagement and greater flexibility to come up with solutions that are suitable for local sensibilities.