SCARP’s Vision: Use It Or Lose It

Hi Everyone,
Penny has asked for input from students and faculty so as to begin a discussion of how to refresh SCARP’s vision. There are a number of thoughts that I would like to offer but in this message I concentrate on one set of questions: What do we mean by vision and how well have we used SCARP’s sustainability vision that was intended to inspire the School over the last two decades?

Vision and Mission Statements: Creating, Communicating and Implementing

Much has been written about an organization’s vision and mission statements. There are numerous different ways in which these terms are defined in principle and used in practice. SCARP has followed one common approach in expressing its vision through interrelated statements of Vision and Mission:


To advance the transition to sustainability through excellence in integrated policy and planning research, professional education and community service.


Sustainability through the democratization of planning.

In assessing SCARP’s vision we might want to include criteria that have been suggested in the literature as important considerations; specifically that a good vision for an organization is

  • a mental model of a future state;
  • idealistic;
  • appropriate for the organization and for the times;
  • sets standards of excellence and reflects high ideals;
  • clarifies purposes and direction;
  • inspires enthusiasm and encourages commitment;
  • well articulated and easily understood;
  • reflects the uniqueness of the organization, its distinctive competence, what it stands for, and what it is able to achieve; and
  • ambitious.

It is widely recognized that vision statements are unlikely to be effective if

  • key stakeholders are not involved in their creation and adoption;
  • their meaning and implications are not clearly and understandably communicated to the diversity of audiences; and
  • they are not faithfully and consistently implemented in shaping and taking decisions and action.

Assessing the Creation, Communication and Implementation of SCARP’s Vision

Creation and Re-Creation

Under Bill’s leadership SCARP took a bold step when it adopted the sustainability vision almost 20 years ago. The momentum came from discussions and initiatives emerging form the 1987 Brundtland Report – Our Common Future. Prior to its adoption in SCARP I had led an effort to explore the meaning and implications of the concepts of sustainable development and sustainability using the Fraser Basin as a case study. One product in 1991 was a book that explored differing disciplinary perspectives and topics of application. Among the 22 chapters were 10 authors who had been, were then or were shortly to become faculty members in SCARP (Peter Boothroyd, Norman Dale, Craig Davis, Irving Fox, Julia Gardner, Tom Hutton, Bill Rees and myself) as well as two of my graduate students (Dorli Duffy and Julian Griggs). Based on this and numerous other group discussions and publications Bill led the faculty in creating and ultimately adopting the sustainability vision. He also drafted a statement that elaborated their implications and meaning in terms of five challenges to be met by the School in its teaching, research and community engagement. Notably Bill’s original statement is on our web site today in almost the same form as the original

Over the last two decades there have been many occasions when the School has revisited the vision. This has happened in one way or another almost every year. The most significant occasions have been around strategic planning for the future of SCARP (notably when curriculum and degree programs were under discussion) and in preparation for the re-accreditation reviews in 2004 and 2009 (the latter included a survey of faculty, student, alumni and practitioner views on various program issues including the vision). While there have always been differing views on the merits of SCARP’s sustainability vision and program focus, there has been no substantial numbers advocating changing to something significantly different. Rather the views expressed tended to be versions of refreshing it in various ways, in particular to sharpen the focus on more specific issues within sustainability and notably those focuses that would put emphasis on the cutting edge.

Communication and Implementation

The School has made good use of the Vision and Mission statements when such were demanded by others. Notably when I became Director in 1999 we used them to great advantage in drafting strategic plans that were required by the School’s Dean (we were then in the Faculty of Graduate Studies) and the UBC Administration to justify SCARP’s need for new faculty positions. Likewise they provided just what the US and Canadian accreditors (PAB and CIP) wanted to see as guiding the distinctive focus of individual planning schools.

SCARP students have been at the forefront of exploring and advancing ideas relating to the School’s sustainability vision. In 2000, led by Maged, who was then a student in the program, the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Planning Students (CAPS) was brought to SCARP for the first time and was a highly successful exploration of sustainability planning. In 2006, a group of SCARP students, brought the CAPS conference back to UBC and this time in a one-off highly ambitious international discussion in association with the UN’s Vancouver World Urban Forum, under the banner Planners 4 Tomorrow. Since then SCARP students have organized annual symposiums in the spring of each year further exploring ideas of sustainability.

When I became Director I developed the Omnibus course with the specific goal of introducing all incoming students to SCARP’s distinctive vision and focus on sustainability planning. Over the years that I taught the course I believe it became stronger as I re-designed it in the light of student feedback and I learned how to better explore competing perspectives on the vision, sustainability and the implications for planning theory and practice. When I returned from leave in 2007 I renamed it Omnibus: Becoming a Good Sustainability Planning Practitioner, to make explicit the nature of the course as I had redeveloped it during my time away. You can read the agendas, readings and assignments as they were designed to do this when I last taught the class in Fall 2010

While teaching the Omnibus I found it particularly valuable to compare and contrast the short statements that each of the SCARP faculty members had drafted so as to elaborate on their perspectives on sustainability planning. We had first produced these statements in 2001 to assist us in appreciating the shared views among the SCARP faculty members and exploring their differences. I have continued to evolve my own statement as my thinking has evolved but the version dated 30.8.10 and used in my last offering of Omnibus is in large part the same as earlier. As far as I am aware other faculty members have not revised their early statements and they are no longer available as a set on the web as they were originally.

Beyond this, it is not readily evident to what extent and how the adopted sustainability vision is incorporated into the School’s teaching, research and engagement activities. It would be interesting to undertake an assessment by (i) reviewing the course syllabi; (ii) surveying the students who take the courses as part of their evaluation of the course; (iii) reviewing faculty and student publications; and (iv) reviewing faculty and student research. My impression is that explicit connections to the School’s sustainability vision are not extensive but that there is likely much more implicit consideration through addressing topics to which it relates (e.g. participatory processes as part of democratization; resilience as related to sustainability etc).

Refreshing the SCARP Vision and Better Using It

When SCARP adopted its sustainability vision it was a novel focus but 20 years later sustainability has become the focus on and off campus to an extent that we never anticipated. Many of today’s faculty members and almost all of today’s students were never part of the School’s formative discussions relating to adoption of the sustainability vision. It is timely to consider the pros and cons of the vision as the School moves to position itself advantageously with the opportunities presented by upcoming faculty retirements and in the face of the likely continuing scarcity of new resources.  It is particularly important that those who are going to be the continuing SCARP faculty beyond the retirements of Bill and I, should find a strong consensus around a vision for the future School and themselves.

Whether this future vision is the result of merely re-freshing the existing sustainability vision to a greater or lesser extent or whether merit is found in an entirely new vision is something that should be the product of the discussions that Penny has initiated. I will give my own views on this in another message shortly.

However, one thing I know without a doubt from our 20 year experience, whatever vision statement is adopted we will lose it if we don’t use it vigorously and well.

My hope is that by suggesting some ideas about how we should approach the assessment of a vision and a little of the history about how SCARP’s sustainability vision came to be and has been used, it will be easier for the School to progress in its discussions more productively.

PS In drafting these ideas I found a chapter entitled Strategic Vision helped me clarify my thoughts and you will see that I have incorporated ideas from it -see The chapter is part of a large book entitled Strategic Leadership and Decision Making that is available on the web; you can find the full table of contents including the link to references at

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