City Projects

The Uses of History

Based on NEUSTADT, R.E. & E.R. MAY. (1986) Thinking in Time. NY: Free Press.

In analyzing issues to develop policy, it is important to know the past. It is not because the past determines the future; it does not. There is a story told about a person who slipped from the top of the Empire State Building and was heard to remark as he passed the 50th floor, "Well, so far so good!" Nor is it because, out of a loose jumble of names and dates, one can surely find something to justify any position. The other side also knows that trick. Rather, the use of history in designing policy is first to understand what is going on in the present, and then to search in time for as many occasions as possible when the same dynamic was occurring and learning from the way those events played out. The past, in this use, is prologue.

Neustadt & May suggest 6 steps for "thinking in time":

  1. Focus on the present situation, concerns, and/or objectives (rather than jumping to a solution)—ask what is
    • known?
    • unknown?
    • presumed?
  2. Identify analogues from other times, but block misleading analogies by listing
    • similarities
    • differences with the present situation.
  3. Define your objective. What new situation should replace the one at hand? There are several ways to do this:
    • Goldberg's Rule (What's the story?)
    • Time lines
    • Journalist's Questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?)
  4. Array the options, based on past experience. This raises the issue of feasibility.
  5. Test presumptions. Given the lessons of history, what expected causes/effects make certain options preferable? Two ways to test them:
    • Bets & Odds (What are the odds? How much would you bet on this option?)
    • Alexander's question (What new information would change your estimation? When would you need this information? Why would it change your estimation?)
  6. Placement--How does a present choice of this policy fit into its historical context? Articulate the cultural stereotypes (who are the relevant people and organizations, and what are their considerations?) Two ways to do this:
    • Time-line of events (public history) and details (individual history).
    • Notice patterns.

Finally, Neustadt & May offer suggestions for identifying sources of local history:

  • Old hands
  • Issue histories
  • Personal biographies
  • Organizational histories
  • Reporters/broadcasters
  • In-house historians

Assignment:  Choose a current issue (e.g., congestion around River Hills Mall, vacancy of Mankato Place or Madison East, regional recreation planning, absence of affordable housing…..) and follow the six steps to develop a proposal for resolving the issue.  For this project, it is more important to practice the six steps than to consider multiple cases (comparing past to present guarantees two cases) or multiple issues.


Last Updated  1/10/04 by Tony Filipovitch