What makes change both easier and conversely more difficult for people to accept?
As a planner, a topic that occupies a fair bit of my time is change and the process of change. Specifically, what makes change both easier and conversely more difficult for people to accept? While change is as inevitable as ‘taxes’ it seems to become harder the closer it gets to you personally.
Planners sit somewhere in the earlier stages of transformation, helping to pave the way for change to happen.
We work with designers, communities and stakeholders to map out where, how and when the change can occur. And alongside scientists, social scientists and economists to help identify and assess the intended and unintended effects of the change and how to manage those effects. By the time engineers, designers and contractors start to make the physical change in the environment, planners are often long gone.
In this role, you experience some of the positives and negatives of the change process. I have seen some of the best and worst of what change can mean for people in communities.
Take the Auckland Plan - a 30 year spatial plan that sets the goals for how and where Auckland will grow. It identifies the major changes needed to get there; like how to accommodate another million people and some 400,000+ new homes by 2041 and continue to grow and prosper economically, socially, culturally and environmentally. The plan also provides for the growth we expect to see, including the opportunities for new people and new jobs. The scale of this change is significant.
In 2011, Auckland’s Spatial Plan was drafted and what followed was a wide spectrum of consultation and engagement. Then in 2012, the city’s vision – “To Become the World’s Most Liveable City”– alongside key directions for achieving this goal were announced. It was accompanied by a plan that would guide development and management of the city for the next 30 years; addressing our need to improve transport, housing, unemployment and to protect our environment.
At the time of engagement, the support from the community for this vision and the key directions it entailed was high. I think something like 10,000 submissions were received during the process. And, of those that gave feedback, roughly 75% supported the urban intensification goals of a ‘compact city’ with urban regeneration.
Approximately a year later the Unitary Plan was released; essentially the rule book for the visionary Auckland Plan. It details how to deliver the change vision, in terms of land use (what can happen where) and how (what rules we need to put on development to achieve outcomes for people and the environment).
Suddenly people saw the vision getting personal – from theory to real.
The apartment blocks that would solve housing shortages were fine, but not when they were at the end of your own street. Growth is good, but not if it means I lose ‘my view’, ‘my suburb’ or ‘my nice neighbourhood’. Affordable housing is great, but not in our leafy suburbs. And I appreciate there will be many of you who may agree with those sentiments. You may live in a leafy suburb and you probably like the neighbourhood you live in, so why would you want to change?
Here’s the conundrum, you can be ready for change, you may even welcome the economic opportunities it presents… but it becomes a different proposition when it also means that you will have to experience that change personally. Suddenly, that 75% who were supportive, start revolting in the suburbs and it is a completely understandable outcome.
There are a number of processes that have been used to describe the resistance to change. Two often cited phenomena that I think really reflect people’s drivers, and my understanding of this challenge are; the status quo bias and the endowment effect.
Status Quo bias refers to an emotional state where there is a preference for the current state. The case where, even in the face of ‘logic’ (in principle we accept Auckland needs to grow, we accept we aren’t building enough houses, and we want projects that support public transport and growth) it means something different – change. It creates uncertainty, it generates fear and it becomes a harder proposition.
The other phenomena which I often observe, is referred to (at least by economists) as the ‘endowment effect’. This is where people value something more when they own it. To put it another way, it relates to the ‘perceived cost’ of having something taken away from them. In my experience, this response is even greater if there is a perception that someone is being asked to give something up for a ‘public’ or wider good (as is so often the case for infrastructure projects). When this phenomena is added to values of sentimentality and a fear of the unknown, I see it realised as a powerful resistance to the changes proposed.
While the challenges of change are real, you still have to persevere with change. So what lessons can we apply from this going forward? Respect people’s needs and concerns, and accept that you can’t overcome the forces of ‘bias’ (such as status quo and endowment). However, be aware of these - they are very real and legitimate phenomena that will impact perceptions and behaviour to any proposed change, no matter how good the idea for the change may look from the outside.
It is important to talk about change at a personal level, not just the big picture. This means communicating what change means for people and being honest about it - talking through the positive and negative elements. If you don’t, you risk being seen as ‘trying to sneak change’, which will ultimately erode the trust the community has in you.
Most importantly, have confidence in what you are changing. Acknowledge that others will often resist change until they are in it – and that once they have experienced it, they may not thank you, even if they like the outcome.