The Importance of Peripheral Vision

By Jutta Treviranus
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Originally published on Some Thoughts, a collection of essays on smart cities.

We have a human propensity when planning to focus on the centre of a field, on the majority; especially when we believe resources to be scarce. We think we need to select “the best,” the winning solution, the highest impact, the biggest priority. We think innovation and quality arise from winner-takes-all competition. Our metrics and evidence are about finding the biggest number, or the average. This usually means we ignore or lose sight of the periphery, the minorities, and the people that find themselves at the margins.

This blinkered vision denies our human differences and the associated, entangled complexity of a city. It ignores weak signals and inevitable change. We assume doing anything else would be less efficient, too costly or complicated. If we do address the needs of people that are not served by planning for the majority, it is often as an after-thought and segregated from the default; as a social responsibility or out of charity.

There is ample evidence and compelling rationale that says we have it backwards, that if we want better planning, innovation and risk aversion, we should focus on the periphery and address the concerns at the margins first. If we want to stress test our plans, find real innovation, account for the full entangled and complex system that is our city, we need to design with the people and organizations who find our current cities difficult or impossible. They have the most compelling uses for innovation and are most vulnerable to the risks.

This will not compromise the experience for the majority. We will be compelled to recognize our diversity and create a more flexible and adaptive urban plan. This means we will be more prepared for inevitable change. It also means that the needs of the average or centre will be encompassed, and the majority will have more choices and room to change and evolve.

It doesn’t mean we will “give in to” or “be hijacked” by extremes. In fact, designing with people who are diverse and not “like us” protects us from polarization and extremism.

It will not cost more in the long run. Planning from the edge costs less. It helps to avert risks, prepare for the unexpected, and create a more responsive and adaptable system, that will have greater longevity. It takes an enormous number of average people to surface all the potential considerations and threats to a plan. It only takes a few people with lived experience of the margins of our communities. Counter to the 80/20 principle, the “difficult 20%” of our communities occupy the 80% of the unexplored knowledge terrain that the 80% who are average can’t know or fully imagine.

So, when we evaluate or collectively create a plan for a smart community we should start with the needs and realities of people that currently find themselves at the periphery, not part of the majority or any large number. We should do this without preconceived assumptions, hypotheses or notional frameworks. Start with real life stories and realities, rather than solutions looking for a justification. This will inevitably create a city where we can all thrive.

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