The Case for Network-Centric Landscape Architecture

Row, Row, Row Your Boat; or The Case for Network-Centric Landscape Architecture

From Wikipedia on the meaning of Row, Row, Row Your Boat
“The lyrics of Row, Row, Row Your Boat have often been used as a metaphor for life’s difficult choices, and many see the boat as referring to one’s self or a group with which one identifies. Rowing is a skillful, if tedious, practice that takes perfection but also directs the vessel. When sung as a group, the act of  rowing becomes a unifier, as oars must be in sync in a rowboat. The idea that man travels along a certain stream suggests boundaries in the path of choices and in free will.”
The Biology of Twitter
I didn’t actually call my boss obsolete. I was trying to impress upon her that proficient use of technology is now one of the basic and expected tools of the landscape architect.
Apparently, it came out sounding a little more like “adapt or die”.
The reality is that while most landscape architects and their firms have been quick to absorb new technology into their existing business systems we have been slow to understand the impact of technology on the business itself. In fact, as a whole, we’ve pretty much ignored it.
While we have been working, new technology has been impacting nearly every aspect of the world of commerce. The culture and practice of many businesses, including landscape architecture firms, may indeed be becoming obsolete. And the culprit is….Twitter.
Well. Its not exactly Twitter. It is what Twitter represents. The answer is not as obvious as it might seem and the implications are mind-boggling.
So what does Twitter represent and why is it so pervasive?
Clues sometimes come from the most unlikely places, in this case – the Department of Defense. The DoD Command and Control Research Center, looking for new perspectives on human nature and the power of social networks (and how to manipulate them, of course) found that humans have a long-standing biological and cultural investment in creating and maintaining social networks. Surely that surprises none of us.
But what they found next might.
“There is evidence that people [individuals] self-select to identify a social network role to accomplish critical tasks and preserve the integrity of the group….Instead of having to impose such cooperative mechanisms from above or through formal monitoring and intervention processes, highly sophisticated cooperative behaviors can be evoked by creating a context in which the appropriate social signaling takes place. Once given the appropriate signals and rules, groups can spontaneously self-organize and control themselves.”  ( )Autonomous groups respond to changing environmental conditions quickly and efficiently, giving them competitive advantage over traditional organizational structures or hierarchies.  In other words, people naturally form networks, they maintain social order within the networks, and the networks operate efficiently through autonomy rather than authority. Networking systems like Twitter have been so immediately and completely absorbed into nearly every human culture on the face of the planet because they are an extension of our biologically intrinsic social nature.
Twitter represents a system that is synchronous with who we already are.
If what this research says about hierarchies versus networks is true, our predominant business model has us paddling against the flow of biology and culture. Collectively, we’re not actually moving anywhere and we’re expending a

of energy doing it.

For landscape architects, who ultimately work with biology and culture, this dichotomy is particularly disconcerting. If we had a model of commerce based on network systems, and which was in-synch with intrinsic human nature, we could gain agility, effectiveness, a competitive advantage and, more importantly, reconcile our business culture with our landscape architecture practices.
Can landscape architects turn mid-stream and adapt our craft to flow with human nature?
Going With The Flow
With or without formal structures, this is exactly what is happening in some businesses across the globe. We watch half in amusement half in amazement as modern matchmakers from New Delhi work as consultants for singles in New York City, interviewing and pre-selecting dates in a process personally tailored to each client, the world’s foremost musicians host interactive music and theory classes available to anyone, and Big Brother is constantly monitored by the cell-phone-video-enabled hoi polloi. “Social technologies support new forms of network-centric interaction and activity between people, allowing and enhancing informal access to create and distribute

. These technologies empower ordinary people to have a global presence for business, political and social purposes. The new social technologies….are the tools of a rising digital democracy.” ( )

The technology is relatively inexpensive and accessible to just about anyone with a skill and an idea. Much of the exchange of

, goods and services takes place with a digital handshake and collectively monitored good faith. Consultants and contractors work from their homes, in coffee shops, in co-working spaces or on vacation  – anywhere internet access is available – employment no longer linked to location or regular business hours. A few landscape architects are jumping on board, using networking technologies to retain valuable employees in the wake of family or location changes. These pioneers suggest a “network-centric” business model is emerging in contrast to traditional hierarchical structures.

Ocean Liner or Canoe?
Hierarchies have never been a very good fit for me, but I am also not a loner.
Interviewing after grad school in cubicle-populated office buildings surrounded by seas of parking made me nauseous. The hip urban office of the “big name” landscape architect had a better aesthetic but an uncomfortably ruthless hierarchical social atmosphere. I finally found a good fit with a group of landscape architects that set up their firm as a peer group rather than a hierarchy. Hierarchies and their subsequent business models had not been a very good fit for them either.
Clearly, each of these firms created an environment that reflected some aspect of their philosophy. How heavy a hand did an adopted corporate business structure play in the culture and practice of landscape architecture in these firms?
The traditional business world has given us organizational ocean liners of secretaries and bosses, private offices and cubicles. Its an expensive model, both structurally and spiritually, in the broadest sense. And, like the Queen

, of a vanishing era.

Worst-case; in order to pay for the private offices and secretaries, the workers have to work eight hour days with fifteen minute breaks and half-hour lunches and, if they want to get ahead, skip their breaks and work into the night, the goal not being to make a better product or a more effective worker, but to get ahead of the competition. Best-case; a company hires primarily obsessives who are compulsively committed to their cog in the wheel and are enabled with in-house exercise rooms, espresso bars and nap areas – a much more humane scenario but possibly more Huxleyesque, replacing independent social life with corporate social life. There are many models in-between, but the basic premise is the same: the workers are coal for the engines of the corporation.
In contrast, network-centric organizational models are the organic offspring of networking technology and human nature. Really, they are people-centric organizations made possible by people-centric technologies. More like a canoe than the Queen

, they are adaptive, agile and efficient. They are constructed of the behaviors and strengths of the individual members and do not try to modify them to suit an authoritarian superstructure. They require professional and individual experience, expertise and responsibility. They rely on socially-constructed collective knowledge otherwise known as ‘talking to each other’ as the predominant source of learning, creativity, insight and innovation ( ) and they create atmospheres of organic collaboration. People interact as consultant-contributors rather than employees, tech-support rather than managers.

We (hopefully) all recognize some of these attributes from our own professional work. Network-centricity is a natural fit for landscape architects, but it still requires a paradigm shift – a mid-stream change in direction – to swing our business structures back into line with our professional philosophies.
The New Canoe
Ocean liners never really did fit landscape architects. We need to touch the water, not just imagine what it might feel like from our sixth storey window. Externally focused, we work through participation, observation, contemplation, experimentation and creation. We work with, and require, space and time. We need interaction with the dynamic biological and cultural systems that are both our material and our context. We are also inherent collaborators, moving with ease between the creative and scientific worlds and between the allied design professions and our clients. We advertise these abilities as unique to our profession but increasingly these essential processes are succumbing to constant economic pressures.
We all recognize the conflict. Could it be that this pressure has a corollary relationship with the business structures that we increasingly contort our businesses to fit?
Many of us already think of the business management of our firms as unpleasant chores that we begrudgingly think about once or twice a month. Or better yet, hire someone to think about it for us.
The organizational behemoths we have tried to adapt to, with their ingrained financial systems, are overdesigned for our profession, out of synch with the sources of our inspiration and are driving us farther away from the essence of our identities as landscape architects. The insistent bottom line has us convinced that the things we need as landscape architects are actually only wants, when of course it is really the other way ‘round.
Given the success of social networking and what it reveals about the flow of human nature, could network-centric systems be sea-worthy vessels for landscape architects in new waters?
Network-centric systems deliver radical organizational or business design concepts; life experiences have economic value, social networking is an efficient means of exchanging knowledge with the group and keeping it running smoothly, people intrinsically operate autonomously and cooperatively at the same time, insight is not necessarily related to the amount of experience in a field but to how well a person integrates and communicates collective and personal knowledge. Add technology into the equation and you have the best paddle you have ever seen – a completely new design, instinctive to use, easy to integrate, works great for propelling and steering and has a bunch of other yet-to-discover uses.
With this new tool, employee-consultants can work from any physical location because they already have the autonomy to coordinate necessary schedules themselves. Work blends seamlessly with mountain biking, sick children, volunteer activities, and contemplation because our vessel is created from real life. Network-centric business design, supported by technology, provides the passage for landscape architects to break away from out-of-synch business models and assume responsibility for the creation and directions of economic frameworks that wholistically support the our practices. Sound too interesting to be a business structure? When landscape architects align the “business of landscape architecture” with the “essential practice and philosophy of landscape architecture”, it is interesting – it all becomes part of the design problem. And if we are uniformly anything, we are problem solvers.
To design business systems that are well-proportioned for our profession and the new waters opened to navigation by technology, systems that are in-synch with our sources of inspiration, that bring us closer to the essence of our identities as landscape architects and are integrated with our lives, we need look no further than our own tool boxes. We are already trained to develop synchronous business systems using the same old tools of analysis, inventory, program development, conceptual plans and construction. We have strong underlying philosophies, patterns for the design process, and established systems of relationship networks. When we combine these abilities with what we know and can now observe about human nature, then it stands to reason that landscape architects are uniquely positioned to make the shift to network-centricity as a profession precisely because of who we already are.
Published in Blog


  1. Thanks so much Jon. I’m glad to know that it was not only legible, but meaningful! I really appreciate your comments.

  2. wow, Tanya. You didn’t trot that out in 5 minutes. Thanks for all the thought and time that went into that missive. As I can understand your piece though, it has two thrusts, the review and call for reexamination of our business model (with which I completely concur, and spend a great deal of time musing over myself), and the more obvious role of social media, such as Twitter.


    Every week, Chris Heiler sends out an email, mostly about this topic, yet I remain unconvinced. Life is very much a fractal. I find my life fascinating, but I know that it is no spectator sport – from a relatively short distance, it appears as dull as dishwater. How would my life translate into a Twitter feed that will entertain my clients and make them want to subscribe to my pontification? Worse yet, will the need to be entertaining not force me to try too hard to be interesting, and potentially lose me followers/customers? (‘Jason is trying to break the world record for tequila consumption whilst dangling upside down from the Arc de Triomph’) 


    How exactly, will one of you young guns enlighten me, does one put together a Twitter feed that is relevant and interesting to our industry, without trying too hard. Lets be honest, much of what we do is pretty technical, and not really something that makes for interesting reading. I’m no Bono…

  3. Thanks for your comments, Jason. Like I said – its not really about Twitter (Twitter is really a code-word for social networking)- its about the insight that the popularity of Twitter gives us about human behaviour and how we can use that to our advantage in our ‘corporate structure’ for lack of a better term. 

    Twitter itself has not yet held much appeal to me. A LA feed that I would find interesting might be plant pics from nursery visits, designs you visit, projects under construction, etc.???

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