Systemic Planning


This book is about systemic planning. It treats this topic by taking a broad sweep from the rationales that can be found in the theoretical developments of the 20th century in systems science and the most recent complexity theories, to an outline of the qualifications and skills necessary for an envisioned systemic planner. Some relevant methodology is set out: a planning framework SCOPE and a multi-criteria method COSIMA.

As indicated in the title, the main concern of this book is with principles and methodology for planning in a complex world; I argue that there is a need for a wider, more systemic approach to planning. Getting to grips with the notion of "systemic" is therefore important in what follows. Right away, it should be noted that I will use the term systemic in a quite comprehensive way, i.e. as including both quantitative ("hard") and qualitative ("soft") issues relating to both concepts and methods. By referring to systemic planning, I want to define a conception of planning that includes both its more conventional meaning - as a kind of special case - and new ideas that relate to issues of societal complexity which necessitate a renewal of thinking about planning.

Planning quite basically assumes that proactive effort is worthwhile. We find planning behaviour both on a small scale - a person preparing a trip abroad for example - and on a larger scale, where organisations, be they public or private, try to prepare and manage future action in accordance with what they find "best" under the given circumstances. While the maps for a travelling route abroad in most cases may be reliable information, the "maps" offered to both public and private organisations and enterprises into the "future-scape" are much less reliable. We live in a complex world. Accordingly, this world is not always easily comprehended in a way that would allow our preparations for future-oriented action to be rational in accordance with some chosen standard. What then is the role of planning? How do we get support for future-oriented decision-making? These and other questions reside within a fundamental and more wide-ranging one: what becomes of the meaning of planning when unpredictability and complexity seem to characterise the planning task ahead of us? Possible and hopefully plausible answers to this question are set out in this book.

The topic is seen as both important and timely. Our Western type of society is transforming from modern via postmodern to what we may preliminarily term the hypermodern society. Such transformation heavily impacts our organisations and the professionals who work in them. A general trend underlying these changes is the greater uncertainty and complexity that condition the processes of change everywhere. In fact, I will later characterise the hypermodern society now beginning to unfold in the 21st century as characterised by hypercomplexity. So later on, I call the new type of society the hypercomplex society. The question to be dealt with therefore concerns whether planning can be a meaningful endeavour in the organisations of the hypercomplex society. The book is written out of the conviction that there is a positive - but cautious - answer to be given.

In Chapter 1, the foundations of systemic planning are laid out as we identify and seek to get to grips with three different types of complexity: detail complexity, dynamic complexity and what is called preference complexity. This leads to a clarification of some of the ideas that constitute systemic thinking and influence the development of systemic planning. The chapter also introduces two paradigms relating to simplicity and complexity thinking, and it ends with some planning-related definitions that give the basic ideas of systemic planning.

Chapter 2 examines what are presented as the three waves of systems science. By reviewing the work of the major systems researchers of the 20th century, we obtain insights that can assist in ramifying and enriching the foundations of systemic planning laid down in the first chapter. This makes it possible to formulate the contents of a systems-based research approach to planning. I conclude the chapter by comparing various research approaches that can be used in current thinking about planning theory and practice, including the one actually treated in this book, which stems from a complexity theory orientation.

In Chapter 3, a communication-based planning model is developed by making use of the theories set out by the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas. This model makes it possible to focus on a wider concept of rationality in the planning process and thereby reorient our attention with regard to the content of an appropriate planning practice. The model makes it clear why traditional, so-called rational, comprehensive planning (or analytical planning) is insufficient - and sometimes even misleading - in complex settings, and what issues we need to focus on to reconsider it. On this basis we take a closer look at learning and causality, both of which thanks to specific theoretical developments, are found to contain insights that can prove helpful in renewing planning. Finally, an outline of a new systemic type of planning is presented.

The final Chapter 4 presents the contours of the hypercomplex society seen as the upfront challenge demanding a renewal of planning. One basic recognition is that societal types shift to make it possible to cope with ever increasing complexity. Applying the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann's theories, attention is given to the concepts of contingency and functionally differentiated societal systems. On this basis, the theme of planning, politics and power is actualised. Finally, the qualifications of the systemic planner are listed as a kind of summary of selected findings; together they serve as suggested guidance on systemic planning.

An Epilogue about systems science and complexity seeks to compare the current development trends in systems science by focusing on some main characteristics. It concludes that there is some potential in applying complexity theory, but adds the qualification: if not yet as a science then at least as a sort of wide-ranging awareness.

In two appendices some methodological exemplification is given. Specifically, this concerns SCOPE, which is a framework for planning in complex settings, and COSIMA, which is a kind of multi-criteria methodology that, because of its flexibility, is seen as useful in a multi-methodology approach.

It should be noted that the two appendices have been written so that they can be read independently of the main text. This leads, however, to a few minor overlaps with the main text but typically with the more lengthy arguments omitted. The advantage is that the appendices hereby offer an opportunity for the more practically-oriented reader to approach the examples and ideas of systemic planning more directly; hopefully in this respect they can also serve as an entrance to the more elaborate views developed throughout the book.

With the purpose of providing further information on systemic planning, a website has been established with relevant download material, links, etc.:

It is my hope that this book can serve as a balanced, yet reasonably precise introduction to systemic planning and that every reader will find inspiration to pursue and develop the ideas and suggestions within his or her own area of profession and interests.

Virum, October 2004

Steen Leleur


The main text of the book has been supplemented with some update information about the practice and methodology of systemic planning. Furthermore, Appendix 2 about COSIMA has been rewritten and an Appendix 3 has been added about proposals for future development.

Virum, May 2008

Steen Leleur