What is a Transversal Approach?

In a nutshell, the transversal approach is about rendering place-based complexity manageable without running into the pitfalls of oversimplification and silo thinking 


Planning the transition of a site or a problem from one point to another will expose a multitude of questions that are usually dealt with separately by different specialists.  These may range from politicians, structural engineers, architects, business developers and entrepreneurs, housing experts, landscape designers, procurement administrators, economists and so on – all of whom have a distinct world view and focus.  Besides these specialists there may be other actors with valuable knowledge whom are often left out of early stages of planning – such as user groups, neighbours, municipal authorities etc – yet are vital players in the future of a place.  How can all these voices constructively contribute to the future of place or the understanding of complex problems?

Our approach to complexity involves working with actors and stakeholders; from the heart to the mind.  We provide straightforward knowledge management tools that allow for a structured and oriented dialogue about the future of a place or the framing of a problem. We see our role similar to “curating” in the art world we help in: identifying constraints, collating resources, filtering ideas and positions, bringing together stakeholders in order to co-create a meaningful vision.  We feel this is an essential step that is often disregarded in the planning process yet can make a radical difference when dealing with place-based complexity.

Why is a transversal approach likely to lead to better results than other planning methods?

Post-war planning methods were exceedingly top-down, with decisions taken by a small circle of powerful actors who consult specialists on specific technical problems. This approach has shown its limitations and there are numerous accounts of failed urban interventions that it produced. One reason for such failures is that without an effective dialogue between specialised experts, developers are often tempted to focus on individual aspects of a programme rather than a more “systemic” reading of the project site: this can lead, for instance, to technologically sophisticated interventions that are not accepted or properly maintained by users.

Policemen use water canons to remove protestors from a park next to the Stuttgart train station, during a protest where several thousand people rallied against the demolition of the station and park to make way for the Stuttgart 21 underground railway station September 30, 2010. REUTERS/Michael Dalder (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTXSUM5 — Thousands rally against the Stuttgart 21 railway station and demolition of the adjoining public park. 30/9/2010. REUTERS/Michael Dalder
Moreover, a more transversal vision of development can help to anticipate and attenuate conflicts that normally appear at later stages of the planning process, when changes to the initial programme come at exorbitant costs or are even impossible. Consider for example the costs of citizen confrontations at the train station in Stuttgart* where citizens rallied almost daily for years against the project.  Such friction is more the norm in complex projects than the exception.
 The market-driven approach and the consultative approach are two alternative planning methods that can avoid some of the pitfalls associated with top-down planning.  Market-driven planning is mainly driven by actors with access to ressources who will only reach out to other actors if this is commercially interesting – consider the consequences of 80’s Thatcherism policy on public services. This approach has often led to uncoordinated interventions, socially undesirable outcomes and creates conditions for corrupting political interests. The consultative approach aims at engaging as many actors as possible and seek their opinions, but in practice this approach has often not been able to effectively bring together diverse ideas within the planning process.  Although consultative planning has aroused initial enthusiasm from otherwise unsolicited stakeholders, it rapidly runs into different forms of “participation fatigue” as stakeholders are frustrated that their views are prompted but only rarely find their way into final outcomes.  Worse still is when public actors see that their contribution is a theatrical performance to push through a thorny project.

How does it work?

Our transversal approach aims to strikes a balance between incorporating diverse views and remaining operational and result-oriented.  Constructive dialogue with stakeholders and user groups makes the most sense when many decisions are still in flux – it is also at this early stage when such a dialogue is the most difficult to implement.

The inception generally involves an initial hypothesis or driving actor – what we call an ‘institutional entrepreneur’ (essentially the person that pushes a project).  After an initial research phase, we disentangle the problem and frame it in terms of distinct themes connected to the initial hypotheses. During the exploration, concise summaries of the themes is developed through focus groups with users, expert panels, in-depth interviews and a synthesis of research. This step is the main input for the subsequent dialogue about the potential complementarities and tensions between the different themes, i.e. their integration into a systemic vision.

OSMOS process scheme 20160516-01 copy-01 copy

What is the outcome?

In the documentation, the output of this co-creation is condensed in a meaningful narrative, describing the philosophy and conceptual cornerstones of the vision, which is supported by sketches/schemes.  The outcome of transversal planning is a co-created programme with a much larger constituency of experts and stakeholders compared to conventional interventions.

The documentation can then be used during the implementation. This final step is where the organisational structures are built, business and finance models are proposed and possible staging is laid out.  It is at this stage that a project can proceed or problem explored with more confidence and focus.

OSMOS aims to be involved from the project inception (or problem definition) to helping with guidance during the implementation phase.  While the process described above is a guide to how we deal with complexity, no two stories are same and we do not set out a predefined process.  Read more about OSMOS here