Schwäbische Alb

Certainly creating uncertainty: a complex post-corona roles puzzle

Corona unveils a canvas to learn for the roles that planners need to explore, develop, and enact when facing global crises. Two counterintuitive claims help explaining. First, planning needs more uncertainty to take its roles. The more we know about the unfolding crisis, the harder any action becomes. This takes us to the heart of planning: values and societal goals. Second, planners should plan for uncertainty, both acknowledging and actively creating uncertainties. Reduction and production of different uncertainties are inevitably linked. Post-corona planning must even plan for uncertainty to succeed.

I will take you through my own complex puzzle of five uncertainties and the need for planning to have to sustain and even to increase uncertainty. To start with three quotes that inspired my own thinking about uncertainty:

  • Uncertainty is a perceived lack of knowledge, by an individual or group, that is relevant to the purpose or action being undertaken.” (John Abbott 2005: 238)
  • Uncertainty arises where knowledge and ignorance occur at the same time; it is due to this difference.” (Niklas Luhmann 2018: 158)
  • Certainty eradicates responsibility“ (Michael Gunder & Jean Hillier 2007: 84)

I see five different uncertainties relevant for planning: context uncertainties (external and chance uncertainties) and process uncertainties (uncertainties about values and goals about decisions and about organization and coordination). That is not a problem because the premise of organization, to use Niklas Luhmann, is exactly this unknown-ness of the future and the success of organizations lies in the treatment of uncertainty of intensifying uncertainty of specifying uncertainty on the end of reducing the costs of uncertainty.

  • The premise of organization is the unknownness of the future, and the success of organizations lies in the treatment of this uncertainty: its intensification, its specification, and the reduction of its costs.” (Niklas Luhmann 2018: x)

Imagine ourselves back in March 2020. In most countries, COVID-19 arrives. It was mostly perceived as context uncertainty as a chance event: unknown and unexpected to most planners. Some scientists talked about pandemics earlier but a pandemic of this size was unknown, unexpected and perceived as pure chance. But also external uncertainties, so basically what corona means, what corona numbers show, how it spreads, how it connects to urban issues (density and so forth). All of this was completely unknown.

However, this unknown-ness and the related perceived uncertainty was not a problem to act: uncertainty was accepted (it had to be accepted) and it was dealt with an adaptive actions: neighbourhood networks emerged, local care happened and many of neighbours supported each other in networks of care. But also infrastructure measures (such as pop-up bicycle lanes) emerged within weeks or even days without talking much about core values and goals. It happened by accepting this uncertainty and by acting in this uncertainty.

Today, we are a step further. It must be quite easy to act now, but actually it is not. We have many new and old process uncertainties questioning what activities are really most important for us. Which corona infection numbers can really guide our decisions? We have more certainty about what COVID-19 is, but we feel ever more uncertain how to deal with it. Should we get back to cars because they prevent corona to spread or to public transport because we still have the climate crisis? Back to what kind of ‘new normals’ should we go to (Christian Lamker et al. 2020)? What kind of corona risk are we able and willing to accept?

The role of planners really is to transform these uncertainties because there is just no way to reduce all of them. We may even get locked in if we reduce one uncertainty excessively because that increases other uncertainties. This also means that what really helps planning is to have a normative guide available that supports us navigate through this puzzle of uncertainties. What corona really shows is the need to develop and enact roles that cross boundaries between process and context uncertainties. This is to enact roles that increase one or more process uncertainties. These are roles such as motivator, leader, strategic navigator, but also roles of inspiring and exploring that get to what the really unknown may be. They ask questions of ‘what might happen…’ and ‘what might happen, if…’ instead of ‘what will happen’ (see also Jean Hillier 2011: 515).

  • Without uncertainty, there would be nothing left to decide; the organization would come to an end in a state of complete self-determination and would cease to exist for lack of activity.” (Niklas Luhmann 2018: 159)

To sum up: good that we have uncertainty! Without uncertainty, there would be nothing left to decide. An organization like planning would come to an end in a state of complete self-determination. It would cease to exist for lack of activity. Thus, planning needs more uncertainty to take its roles and planners should plan for uncertainty by acknowledging and even by actively creative creating uncertainties. If we need uncertainty, planning becomes the continuous process of managing but even of creating uncertainties.

My final quote is inspired by Grand Jedi Master Yoda “Plan. Or Plan Not. There is not Try” (see also Christian Lamker 2016: 337).


This short blog post is based on my pre-recorded video presentation at the 19th meeting of the working group on Planning and Complexity within the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP). The online conference took place on 25 November 2020 (Florence & online). The video recording is available on YouTube.

My own presentation can also be accessed via YouTube.


  • Abbott, J. (2005). Understanding and Managing the Unknown: The Nature of Uncertainty in Planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 24(3), 237–251.
  • Gunder, M., & Hillier, J. (2007). Problematising responsibility in planning theory and practice: On seeing the middle of the string? Progress in Planning, 68(2), 57–96.
  • Hillier, J. (2011). Strategic navigation across multiple planes: Towards a Deleuzean-inspired methodology for strategic spatial planning. Town Planning Review, 82(5), 503–527.
  • Luhmann, N. (2018). Organization and decision ((D. Baecker & R. Barrett, Trans.)). Cambridge University Press.
  • Lamker, C. W. (2016). Unsicherheit und Komplexität in Planungsprozessen: Planungstheoretische Perspektiven auf Regionalplanung und Klimaanpassung [Uncertainty and Complexity in Planning Processes: Theoretical Perspectives on Regional Planning and Climate Adaptation]. Planungswissenschaftliche Studien zu Raumordnung und Regionalentwicklung: Vol. 6. Rohn.
  • Lamker, C. W., Horlings, L. G., & Puerari, E. (2020). Communities and space – Post-Corona avenues for “new normals” in planning research. Local Development & Society, 1(1), 83–89. (Commentary).

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