The Theory of Thunder & The Rational Comprehensive Model

Post by Steven Dale

When I was a child I had a marvelous theory about thunder storms:

Rain was held by clouds and thunder often accompanied rain.

Thunder sounded like a loud explosion and explosions destroyed things.

And since after it rained, no clouds could be seen, then thunder must be the sound of clouds exploding!

In my mind, I had come to an entirely wonderful and reasonable model of how a natural process worked.  I called it my Theory of Thunder.

My mother, with more important things on her mind – God bless her – informed me that I was correct.  You can imagine how well my Theory of Thunder held up against grade 4 science and a few things called condensation, evaporation and electro-static electricity.

Many planners are taught to utilize a method of decision-making (mundanely) called the Rational Comprehensive Model.  Like my Theory of Thunder, it is a wonderful and reasonable model that suffers only from being entirely worthless.

Calling it the Rational Comprehensive Model does not make it rational nor comprehensive. I suppose it’s still a model but only insofar as my Theory of Thunder was.

Models are often – and sometimes frequently – wrong. And when you rely on things like the Rational Comprehensive Model you only lull yourself into complacently thinking that in your work you are, indeed, being rational and comprehensive when you’re not.

You may  attempt to be rational and comprehensive, but ego, incentive and lack of time and resources will trip you up every time.

(Even worse, are those that pay lip-service to rationality and comprehensiveness, when they know full well they’re up to neither. Like Upton Sinclair once said: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!)

So why not just admit that?  Why pretend to hold yourself up to an unattainable ideal?

Why not just say:  “We’re doing our best, and because we know we’re not rational and not comprehensive, we’re going to do everything in our power to get you as close as we can to it.”

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  1. I remember that class in planning school and while we were certainly taught what the rational comprehensive model (RCM) was, we were not told to use it. I recall examples such as regent's park as being part of that decision process. The RCM is limited by decision makers not being able to know every detail... even if they did, those details ma change from moment to moment. I don't think that it is a good or even useful model as it proposes certainty wehre none exists. It is however helpful to know what the RCM is and when it was used as it gives us insights into what the cutting edge of the day was and why decisions were made. It also reminds us that what we may think of as being the hip new theory that answers everything may end up being laughable decades later. During that course we were also taught about incrementailsm and community based decision making: Small attainable goals that help communities move in a general direction. Do something, see how it works, then do something else (or more of the same something)... To me planning is a giant experiment and mistakes in the labratories that are our communities will be made... but without the courage to risk a mistake, we will never come up with with great things. We can't always be certain things will work out as we hope but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.
  2. Patrick, Couldn't agree more in the "cities as laboratories" idea. Problem is - as I see it - we still work under an RCM concept whereby we think we can actually rationally plan huge mega-projects. And we can't. I have a huge problem, however, with the term "incrementalism" not because of the idea behind it, but instead with the connotations the term raises. It sounds like nothing would get accomplished under an "incrementalist" ideal (even though it's probably not the case).