• Trey Hahn

Agile in the planning context? An academic perspective - Master's Thesis Part 1

Updated: Jan 27

I am sharing what I found in my master's thesis in a series of blog posts organized around my research questions. This first post focuses on how accessible and relatable agile is to planning departments from an academic perspective. See the full thesis here. Need some background on what agile means? See here.

Blog post 1: Academic perspective on connection of agile & planning departments

To get an academic perspective on the accessibility and relatability of agile to planning departments, I conducted an exploratory review of interdisciplinary literature. My goal was to put different conceptual pieces together to reach new insights. In order to do this, I had to look beyond the surface conclusions of the authors. I settled on three categories of literature and looked at two articles from each one in depth. Each category is a lens to look at the (highlighted above) research question. They are:

  • Planning support systems (PSS): what planning departments need for a tool to be accessible/relatable and successfully integrate into their workflow (note: an agile way of working can be thought of as a PSS that needs to be integrated into practice)

  • Agile organizations: characteristics and practices that are present in agile organizations; barriers to adoption of agile

  • Translating agile: relatability of agile to urban planning context; how other fields have taken up agile

Here are my results:

Summary of insights by source

I will zoom in on one key piece of the puzzle: the insight that there is a way of thought behind agile that transcends the software industry, as Nerur & Balijepally (2007) explain through what they call "evolutionary shifts in design thinking". This way of thought is about combined action, feedback, and reflection, and it suits the "wicked problems" that urban planners face.

Evolutionary shifts in design thinking (Source: Nerur & Balijepally, 2007, p. 81)

The iterative approach can "be traced to Action Learning Theory, Dewey’s pragmatism, and phenomenology” (Nerur & Balijepally, 2007, p. 81). Through experience and continuous improvement, you grow and adjust to arrive at a better solution. As Nerur & Balijepally (2007) put it, “The traditional goal of optimization and control is making way for learning and innovation” (p. 79).

How accessible and relatable is agile to planning departments from an academic perspective?

The theory and way of thought behind agile is highly relevant to planning departments, and elements of it are already being used in the realm of urban adaptation, implicit in that field's discussions (Pathirana et al., 2018). However, the exact way in which agile should be implemented in planning departments is still unknown and needs to be studied deeper.

One way it is often implemented in the software industry is through agile methodologies (a set of instructions for working in an agile way). When you use a specific agile methodology, you need to be flexible in implementation. Careful implementation is important because it is the representation of agile that people experience in their everyday working environment. A methodology or implementation that forces teams into a regime that ironically isn't agile can lead to distrust and negative perceptions.

Methodologies are only a means to an end- it's vital that they are made useful and not done just for the sake of doing so. A methodology is only one manifestation of agile principles, and remember: it is the principles themselves that are most connected to planning departments. Whatever methodology is used, if any at all, must contribute towards its end goal.


Chan, F. K. Y., & Thong, J. Y. L. (2009). Acceptance of agile methodologies: A critical review and conceptual framework. Decision Support Systems, 46(4), 803–814. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dss.2008.11.009

Nerur, S., & Balijepally, V. (2007). Theoretical reflections on agile development methodologies. Communications of the ACM, 50(3), 79–83. https://doi.org/10.1145/1226736.1226739

Pathirana, A., Radhakrishnan, M., Ashley, R., Quan, N. H., & Zevenbergen, C. (2018). Managing urban water systems with significant adaptation deficits—unified framework for secondary cities: part II—the practice. Climatic Change, 149(1), 57–74. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-2059-0

Streule, T., Miserini, N., Bartlomé, O., Klippel, M., & García de Soto, B. (2016).

Implementation of Scrum in the Construction Industry. Procedia Engineering, 164, 269–276. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.proeng.2016.11.619

te Brömmelstroet, M. (2012). Transparency, flexibility, simplicity: From buzzwords to strategies for real PSS improvement. Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 36(1), 96–104. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compenvurbsys.2011.06.002

Vonk, G., & Geertman, S. (2008). Improving the Adoption and Use of Planning Support Systems in Practice. Applied Spatial Analysis and Policy, 1(3), 153–173. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12061-008-9011-7

Update: since this blog post was written, an academic article has been published on the thesis research (see here, open access).


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