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Urbanist – generalist for the future.

Urbanist – generalist for the future.

Markus Appenzeller

This week, Vinkham Mansharani, a Harvard researcher, published a book, titled “Think for yourself”. It emphasizes the need for generalists – people that know a lot about many things in a world where education, professional environments and even politics become more specialised.

One might argue that in a world where the amount of knowledge has increased exponentially and where complexity of almost anything has become the norm, there simply is no other possibility, other than spending the limited time we have in life to go deep. Then one can at least know something well. This specialist knowledge and their reliance on established detailed knowledge undoubtedly is important but it is missing out on other, possibly more crucial aspects: In a world where things are in constant flux, there are more and more situations, where decisions have to be made based on an incomplete set of information. In a world where specialisms develop into self-referential silos and where experts in a field mostly talk to other experts in the same field many dots don’t get connected because few reach out to other knowledge bubbles.

This is where the generalist comes in. He is not an expert in anything but making decisions based on incomplete information and he can connect the dots across a wide field. He knows a lot, but his knowledge is systemic and not detailed. He knows what others are busy with and knows what he can get from whom. And he often uses intuition, the feeling that something should be such and such to start a process of decision making or to invent a product or to solve a complex problem. Despite these essential skills – Mansharani thinks they are most important in the future – the generalist often is seen as redundant. Why pay for someone that does not know more than all others involved? Why trust someone who is not an expert? Why having someone in the process that is hard to handle since he doesn’t belong to any bubble?

Despite the claims of Le Corbusier and his disciples, cities always have been a lot more complex than modernist theorists were able to grasp. They simply ignored a lot of the complexity and proclaimed the ambition to create the new human being, shaped to a rather simplistic ideal. Back then, machines were rather simple, and the human had to fit in. Technology was simply not ripe to accommodate complexity. In their eyes the complexity of life as it had developed over thousands of years was not something that was to be embraced since they linked it largely to a pre-industrial past they wanted to overcome.

Today is different. Machines have become much more advanced; technology is more and more able to adapt to the human being, and complexity can be accounted for in a much better way. Managing a city has become more fluid and less static. Local administrations still try to get to grips and try to develop administrational models that can cope with this in a better way, and they become more and more successful in that. The contemporary city therefore again can be what it was for most of its history – a messy, surprising, inconsistent, and unpredictable place. It can be a place where individual acts can form a collective spirit without the uniformity that modernism and all systems that were developed within its ideology asked for.

Welcome to the world of the urbanist! We have emancipated ourselves from the technocratic silo of the planner we were in until the end of the modernist movement. Jane Jacobs has showed us the way to understand that cities are more than an engineering problem. We stick to that path, involving ourselves in more and more aspects of what constitutes city and urban living. We are the generalist species par excelllence that Vinkham describes. But I think our role goes further than connecting the dots:


We weave an entire spider net between the dots, trying to establish a system of connections that not only provides answers to the questions but established additional meaning and relationships that might not be strictly necessary for a singular problem but anticipate other problems to already play a role, or it can be anticipated they will play a role in the future. Our net does not only process information or exchange goods – it involves and empowers people to make use of the new connections, and it becomes the foundation of new sets of dots emerging that need to be connected. Unlike many other professions, we have an almost unlimited toolbox that can be technical, natural, social, economical or all together. There are no strict rules on what tool to use when, and often it is intuition, experience or informed judgement that makes us decide which one is best. The world starts recognizing the importance of the urbanist in the debate and if we do our job well, we are the party everyone turns to to help to solve their problems.

I am not worried about the future of the urbanist, and Mansharani’s book comes as a confirmation of that belief. The question to me is more how we can get more people to choose the uncomfortable path of becoming a generalist in a world of specialists. Urbanism education is lagging behind demand. And – by the way – what is urbanism education? Good question. In a speech I gave a number of years ago I mentioned that there is not even an agreed title. Some call them planners, some urban designers and some urbanists. They all describe a fuzzy field that urbanism is. I believe it is not so much the title and there is no exact description even necessary. Urbanism education should have two components: design (thinking) and communication skills. Both of them should be broad, including as many techniques and tactics as possible. If they can be trained in real life – even better!

Sounds like that would be a suitable skillset for other complex fields of technology, economy or whatever? Maybe we should change our job title from urbanist to Generalist!

by Markus Appenzeller.

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A bit more than a year ago, the German term ‘Zeitenwende’ – watershed moment – was frequently used to describe

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