Solving Problems

Seventeen Theses for a Mindful City


1. Recognizing Abundance
The many decisions by countless decision makers that give shape to our cities are almost always taken in a restrictive, politicized and competitive atmosphere that over-emphasizes strategic advantage, conflict and scarcity. Quieting the mind through mindfulness practice can bring an energy of calm, ease, abundance, cooperation and joy into the decision-making process.

2. Forces that Don’t Meet the Eye
Planners, legislators, community leaders and citizens regularly define and attempt to solve problems without taking in all the available data. As systems scientist Peter Senge writes “in every setting from working teams to organizations to larger social systems there is much more going on than meets the eye… We do not attend to the subtle forces shaping what appears because we are too busy reacting to these forces. We see problems, then ‘download’ our established mental models to both define the problems and come up with solutions”. (1) By practicing mindfulness, we can reduce our reliance on established mental models and tune into the unseen and unspoken forces of the social field.

3. Language that Connects
Jargon and technical language are a common cause of disconnect between different stakeholders. They tend to block a heart-to-heart connection and reinforce feelings of inequality in the group. University of British Columbia Planning Professor Leonie Sandercock asks the question: “Why do we have all these sterile terms for describing what it is that we do? We talk about the rational comprehensive approach, the communicative approach, the political economy approach, the institutional approach, the modernist, the postmodern, making ourselves as a profession incomprehensible to those who live, love, and struggle in cities. Perhaps we need a different way of talking about planning, at the heart of which is the human spirit in its everyday struggle to make meaning and create a better world.” (2) Mindfully tending to our inner experience with openness and acceptance can help us locate a deeper, heartfelt language to grace our professional dialog.

4. Operating at Higher Levels of Wisdom
Many persistent problems facing urban communities are what the economist E.F. Schumacher has called “divergent problems,” i.e., problems that cannot be solved by rational means alone because well-meaning people can disagree on what constitutes a “good solution.” Divergent problems pop up regularly in transportation design, economic development, housing policy, law enforcement, and environmental justice. Ecologist David Orr writes that such problems “can be resolved only by higher methods of wisdom, love, compassion, understanding and empathy.” (3) Mindfulness practice is a powerful means for individuals and communities to access such higher methods and transcend habitual ways of looking at the world.

5. Coherence and Minimizing Unintended Results
Mindful exchange among community members is characterized by deep listening and deepening understanding. It gradually allows a group’s collective intelligence to emerge and leads to a more coherent approach to reality. In the words of quantum physicist and social thinker David Bohm, “if we can have a coherent approach to reality, then reality will respond coherently to us… we will produce the results we intend rather than the results we don’t intend.” (4)

6. Learning from the Future
MIT Professor Otto Scharmer distinguishes between two types of learning: Learning from the past and learning from the emerging future. According to Scharmer, the latter type is more important in today’s economic and social climate because our fundamental problems, as Albert Einstein has famously observed, cannot be solved from the mindset that created them. To access the not-yet-embodied experience from the future and learn from it, Scharmer proposes a process called “presencing” (from “present” and “sensing”) where we apply mindful non-judging attention in order to create an opening in our minds, hearts and wills. “This holistic opening,” says Scharmer, “constitutes a shift in awareness that allows us to learn from the future as it emerges and to realize that future in the world.” (5)

(1) From the Foreword to Theory U–Leading from the Future as it Emerges by Otto Scharmer. Berrett Koehler Publishers. 2009.

(2) Spirituality and the Urban Professions: The Paradox at the Heart of Planning. Planning Theory and Practice, March 2006.

(3) Four Challenges of Sustainability. Conservation Biology, December 2002.

(4) Wholeness and Fragmentation. 1990.

(5) Otto Scharmer