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Environment / Climate change

Building the future requires massive small change

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.
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