In 1859 Ildefons Cerda designed the urban grid that covers large parts of Barcelona. Baron Haussmann set out the design rules for Paris. Designs that shaped extensive parts of large cities, with the intention to make them better, more liveable and maybe also more manageable. We can still admire the genius of these designs in those cities today. But who designed mega-cities like London, Tokyo, Lagos, Shanghai, Sao Paulo? Is it still possible to design something of that enormity and complexity? Do 10 million plus people cities set the limit of design?
And is the answer to these questions relevant for thinking about the design of the structure and interactions in organisations?
The answer depends on what you regard as design. Obviously it is impossible for one team to do the overall and all-inclusive design for very big cities. The design and planning limits itself to ground rules and defining entities, such as usage, footprints and hight of edifices, roads, large public infrastructures (like public transport, water, electricity, recreation and parks) and landmarks. The basic essentials for the large-scale urban environment are designed and built or enforced. But at the same time there is room and a need for private initiative and local solutions. Both the quality of overall structure and the diversity of neighbourhood specific characteristics, make the mega-city on an individual scale liveable.
The rules for the design are more about what to design and what not to design and on what level these design decisions are taken. The design and the governance structure are deeply interlinked. The philosophy and the practice of design are full of paradoxes on this nearly superhuman scale. How these paradoxes of vision, freedom, humanity, economics, centralism, enforcement and quality (of life) are solved, determines the liveability and sustainability of a very large city. And there is no other way. It requires great design skills and creativity to make a difference in this mishmash of forces and build enduring beauty, against all odds.
And the parallels with organisation design are obvious. Ideas on what to design and what not to design, defining ground rules, local initiative and vision and creativity are key ingredients for an enduring beauty in organisations, not soloist star designers or bigger than life corporate leaders.