#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #8: Kaisa Schmidt-Thome

(not terribly well proofed as I want to get jump-started on my reading and writing again)

So for this week’s entry (actually last week’s, but I am behind, and I’ve decided not to sweat it. I’ve had my own papers to finish last week), I selected:

Schmidt-Thome, K., & Mantysalo, R. (2014). Interplay of power and learning in planning processes: A dynamic view. Planning Theory, 13(2), 115-135. doi:10.1177/147309521349030

I do not know Dr. Schmidt-Thome or Dr. Manytsalo at all. Here is Dr. Schmidt-Thome’s Academia.edu page, where she is listed as faculty at Aalto University. I just happened upon this manuscript when I was catching up on reading Planning Theory, and I liked the paper a great deal. There’s a copy available for download on her Academia.edu page.

So one of the persistent problems we have had in planning theory (and everywhere else) is dealing with power. One take, which thinks about “empowering” communities or individuals, tends to underplay the role that structural differences in power plays in maintaining existing practices. A lot like my problems with Sandberg’s Lean In–well, women would do better in the world if they just asserted themselves. Yes, but they would also do better if people stopped expecting them to do all the work all the time and rewarding men simply for being male. Power taken up from the structural direction causes us problems, too, unless you are of the “we’re doomed” mindset: structural theories of power and how it works often do not help us see how to function within those structures with any real level of agency. Planners can be stooges of big institutions, or failed revolutionaries, and little more in hard structural approaches.

This manuscript helps us out of that problem by examining two, complementary ways of thinking about power. One comes from Lukes’ Power: A Radical View and the other from Bateson Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Lukes developed a “third dimension” of power that describes the capacity of individuals within structures to exert influence in key ways; Bateson develops a similar concept to the “Third dimension” of individuals within ecology, where power moves throughout a system, back and forth, and to and fro. From there, Schmidt-Thome and Mantysalo draw on the work in planing theory from Patsy Healey to develop a model of learning that reflects ways to crack into “power over” represented in structures. It’s a three-level concept: learning I is what they refer to as “trial-and-error” learning undertaken so that individuals within contexts begin to suss through what is true about the situation. This type of learning changes power over situations as it enables individuals to move to Learning II whereby they change the system simply via understanding it and, thus, changing the capacity of institutions to set the terms of the discussion unchecked. Level III is where the action is: it occurs when the practices embodied in I and II lead to understandings that can’t be reconciled within those levels and require a transformation in conception among learners about selves and systems.

Schmidt-Thome and Mantysalo then illustrate their understanding of learning via looking at the agonistic planning around the high speed rail station in Stuttgart, GR. There has been quite a bit written about this case study from one of my colleagues, Deike Peters, and it’s nice to see people writing about that case from multiple perspectives. Here, the authors trace the social learning aspects of the opposition in such a way that you can see how power shifts via learning across the three levels they discuss. A useful contribution, indeed.