In the 1960’s, an Israeli professor wanted to introduce humanities studies to the country’s leading technology institute. The way he did it was inspiring, and every urbanist should learn from it.
In 1961, the late Professor Haim Hanani was appointed as the vice president of the Technion Institute of Technology. The Technion is one of the world’s leading technology institutes and home to four Nobel Laureates. Once appointed, Hanani proposed to start teaching also humanities. The other professors did not agree. They claimed that there’s barely enough time to teach “hard” sciences.
Hanani, who was born in Poland and moved to Israel a few years before the Nazi occupation, wanted to prove his colleagues wrong. He gathered a hundred students, and gave them an exam with one question: what technical information do you need to plan a pipeline to transport blood from Ashdod to Eilat? The two Israeli cities located some 250km apart.
The students started working on a solution right away. Using drawing boards and slide rules, they suggested to measure the topographical situation along the route, check the pipe layout, and test the corrosion resistance. They were the brightest and most talented tech students Israel had.
When they finished and submitted the test, Professor Hanani announced that they all failed. He told the shocked students: “I did not ask to test your ability to plan a blood pipeline, but to examine your moral sensitivity. None of you asked whose blood will flow through the pipes, or who is asking to build it in the first place”.
"I did not ask to test your ability to plan a blood pipeline, but to examine your moral sensitivity."
The professor showed the results to the university senate, and since then Technion’s students study not only Math and Physics but also History, Literature, and Law.
As an urban planner, I often get to collaborate with engineers, architects, and decision makers. I pose the Blood Pipeline challenge now and then, and every single time I am offered technical ways to solve the problem. Nobody has yet doubted for a moment why blood has to be transported.
It is common in the planning world to go straight to thinking about how before asking why. By focusing on accomplishing a project or managing a deadline, it is easy to neglect the big picture: why do we even need to add a driving lane to this road? Who decided to limit an area only for residential uses? How come regulations do not allow planting more trees in a certain street?
The Blood Pipeline experiment should teach us two lessons. First, and that is an obvious one, universities must offer students courses dealing with a variety of topics. Aspiring urban planners will one day shape people’s environments. They must have the capacity to understand not only the process of planning a city, but also to apply a holistic approach, use critical thinking, and avoid myopic decision-making. Even most importantly, they need to understand the life in a city, in which humanities play an important role.
It is common in the planning world to go straight to thinking about how before asking why.
The second lesson is that as a planner, it is important to stop sometimes and ask yourself for what you are working. It might sound too novel or even impractical, but I find this habit helpful. Here’s an example, though much less dramatic than the Blood Pipeline story:
Say you need to upgrade a plaza to become inviting to people. One of the biggest wishes of users is to have a shelter from the sun. You decide to plant a tree in a specific location, next to the benches. While most people like your proposal, a local merchant objects the tree because it hides his shop and its fruits create a mess outside the business. You have a Tree problem – how can you solve it? Argue with the shop owner? Propose a different type of tree? Offer to relocate it? Who promises you that one plan will satisfy everybody?
The Tree Problem, just like the Blood Pipeline question, is not about technicality or specification, but about essence. Do you remember what your mission was? It was not to plant a new tree but to create a welcoming plaza. Reminding yourself and others the goal (welcoming plaza) that led you to the solution (tree) can make them open to possibilities that do not completely satisfy their wishes. Also, shadowing is important, but who said that you must use a tree to provide it? What about a parasol?
Go ahead and try it. Think about the project you are busy with today, and ask whether you know what the reason you do it. Moreover, remind yourself this mission from time to time, maybe write it and hang it on the wall. It would either reassure you that you are doing a good job, or help you changing the path you had chosen. Most importantly, it might save you from being a useful idiot.
A version of this post was earlier published on Linkein.