Hasan Özbekhan

passages from
Toward a General Theory of Planning





We are used to see planning in the form of centralized national plans produced by centralized organisms like the Gosplan in the previous Soviet Union or the Commissariat du Plan in France. But planning doesn't deserve to be viewed in this way being a conscious rational activity in which all of us are engaged when we want to project into the future our desires and aspirations, in one word our values.
This is the approach taken by Hasan Özbekhan in his paper presented at the Symposium on "Long-range Forecasting and Planning" held at Bellagio (Lake of Como) in 1968.



Planning and values

Is there anyway to free us from the present - or, what can we do to will the future?

In my view there is no more important question in planning discourse; it is truly the hearth of the matter.

Let me begin by saying. "Yes, we can will the future," but only if change is caused to occur in values rather than in the object's other attributes.

What I mean is that any change that is not a fundamental change in values merely extends the present rather than creating the future. It seems to me that from this general postulate one can derive five statements which govern all planning.

  1. Only changes in the overall configuration of values can change the present situation.
  2. Only individual will can bring about such value changes.
  3. Value changes cannot be predicted.
  4. Value changes always occur as individual ideas, or responses, or insights concerning betterment, and when they become socialized over a large part of the system we have 'progress'.
  5. Planning is the organization of progress. Thus the main subject of planning is the willed future.


Planning as willing the future

Willing the future means willing a situation whose value configuration differs to a considerable degree from the value configuration of the present.

Progress represents such a new value configuration.

This new value configuration must be conceived of first in terms of the ends to be achieved, and only afterward should consideration of the attainability of such ends be introduced into the discourse.

In this manner of proceeding the dynamic of planned change follows a course which is not always obvious but which is of great importance. Namely: that the point of planning is to change the present to fit the image of the willed future rather than to project the present into a conception of the future which is derived from the logical vectors that happen to inhere to it.


Planning and the environment

Environment is a general term used in many different ways, depending on its context. For my purpose I shall use environment, without repeated qualification, as that which planning acts on, while at the same time being a part of it.

In empirical terms I call environment the entire experiential milieu of man. This encompasses nature in all its dimensions, society, institutions, and the multiplicity of artefacts which man has created through his technologies. It also encompasses the intangible aspects of experience we call cultures, ways of life and all manner of informal relationships, both in time and space.

So large an array of elements clearly needs some ordering if one is to talk about it meaningfully. It might be useful to make certain couplings and distinctions such as life/nature-centered environment, or social-human centered environment, or thing/technology centered environment, as long as we remember that these are arbitrary constructs. Reality does not abide by such distinctions.

In their daily experienced details, these dimensions add up to one fundamental Phenomenon: our ecology has entered a phase of overall dissonance with human biology, physiology and psychology.

It is clear that rational change - namely planned change, must address itself to the readjustment of our ecological base and to the reestablishment of a long-lasting consonance between our general environment (in terms of life, nature, things, technology and society) and the human being.


Planning and human social systems

Human social systems belong to the class of 'open' systems, meaning that they interact with their environment. This interaction takes the form of an exchange of matter, energy and information which derive both from the system itself and from the environment. Such exchanges take the form of inputs and outputs. Input is defined as any event occurring in the environment that alters the system. Output is defined any change caused in the environment by the system.

The behaviour of human social systems is typically purposive. Purposive behaviour is activity that may be interpreted as directed toward a goal -namely toward a final condition in which the behaving object reaches a definite correlation in time or in space with respect to another object or event.

Human social systems, including subsystems such as individuals and groups within them, interact in the form of dynamic that tends to lead to a steady state situation.

Human social systems tend to resist disruption of the steady state.

Human social systems are, within definable and relatively narrow limits, capable of adjusting to changes internal and external (environmental) to the system. However, they also possess the characteristic of creativity by which we mean that they can both adapt to their environment and interfere with it, thereby changing it so that they might be able to adapt to its altered form.

Human and social systems are reproductive, and insofar as reproduction can be viewed as a purposeful activity, the continued - hence future - existence of the system becomes a rational consideration 8or decision) in such systems.

Human social systems display something called 'functional unity'. This refers to a condition in which all the parts of the system work together with a certain degree of harmony  or internal consistency, and without producing persistent conflicts which cannot be resolved or regulated.


Systems, organization, entropy, feedback

There are two generic types of systems:

Closed systems, which are isolated from their environment and, therefore, do not interact with it. One of the most interesting properties of closed systems is that they operate in accordance with the second law of thermo-dynamics, which postulates that a quantity called 'entropy' or degree of de-organization  in the system tends to increase to a maximum, that is, toward homogeneity or better, toward the levelling of internal differences. This state is also called a state of 'equilibrium'.

Open systems, on the other hand, are those which interact with their environment through the exchanges of matter, energy and information.

In open systems entropy tends to increase, that is, the dynamics of entropy tend to be more intense.

However, open systems are characterized by another force, namely organization and this not only counterbalances the tendency toward de-organization but operates toward the achieving of higher levels of orderliness and heterogeneity.

When an open system attains a balance of a higher order the result is not equilibrium but steady state dynamics, which means that inflow and outflow balance each other and that the system continues to maintain its on-going rates of change.

Open systems are self-regulatory and self-adaptive.

Open systems are not deterministic, namely they have a property called 'equifinality', which means that as part of their self-regulation they tend to achieve and maintain a steady state at a particular stage or level (i.e. goal). Another way of saying this is that these systems are capable of achieving the same results while starting from different conditions.

It follow that open systems are non-causal in their dynamic and operating characteristics.

Open systems display major feedback functions.

The concept of 'feedback' is of central importance, both in system discourse and in planning.

Norbert Wiener initially defined feedback as "… the property of being able to adjust to future conduct by past performance."

The pertinence of feedback to planning lies in its close connection with 'futurity' and 'goals', and also in that it is a powerful 'control' concept.

Feed-back may be either positive or negative and it is in the latter sense that feed-back acts as a 'control'.

Feed-back keeps purposeful behavior on course by reacting to the amount of its deviation from a particular goal. All purposeful behavior requires negative feed-back at some time or other if it is to attain its goal.



Planning is a human social activity, … a process whose function is to reduce entropy and increase organization within the environment.

A plan is a complex dynamic system designed in the form of a controlling event-structure whose function is to effect in its environment, which is another complex dynamic system, the kind of organized change which current values define as 'progress'.


Planning and the planet

Underneath the extraordinary profusion of detail a main line of events appears in which disparate steps in the individuation of persons and groups bring us, after some dead-ends and many detours, to that unit we call 'nation- state'. This latter could be taken as an institutional manifestation of the tribal-biblical injunction 'love thy neighbor'. In our times we more or less go so far as to accept as 'neighbor' the other citizens of the nation-state to which we belong.

The stage of planetary bonding appears a long way off.

The larger ecological reality remains unrecognized at the level of world politics.

What we witness appears to be an endeavor to extend various fragmented self-interest spaces, through a search of common interests. Maybe this represents a slow, glacially slow, and seemingly unconscious attempt to break the hold that the idea of nation-state has taken; it has full dominance now over our minds, over our ability to conceive of other new ways of establishing larger and wider social bonds. For the moment, no evolutionary leap seems to be in the making in this field. Nevertheless, we are forced to conclude that the introduction of ecological balance into our normative scheme requires that the notion of social bonding be viewed as transcending the idea of nation and extending to the planet as a whole.


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