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Careers in development planning: reflections from the DPU

Étiennevon Bertrab19 December 2011

Is the professional world of development planning shrinking, or expanding?
Given current and future urban and global challenges, what are the key capacities of a development practitioner?

On the first evening of December students from the six MSc programmes at the Development Planning Unit (DPU), University College London (UCL), engaged in a dialogue with their course directors. The theme debated was challenges and opportunities for careers in development planning. The session involved a discussion of what constitutes the field of development planning, elaborations on scenarios for the practice vis-à-vis current and future challenges, and concrete recommendations for development planning students during and after completion of their MSc.

A resonant view amongst panel members was that the professional world of development planning is increasingly competitive, and that is shrinking, at least in the most conventional areas of practice. Adriana Allen, Director of the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development, and Camilo Boano, Director of the MSc in Building and Urban Design in Development, suggested that the field might be expanding, particularly if we think laterally and out of the box. DPU’s Director and Director of the MSc in Urban Development Planning, Caren Levy, pointed out that precisely because of realities of globalisation, governance, and the very nature and complexity of urban and global challenges, conventional professions need to be challenged, and shifted towards more strategic and innovative approaches for transformative change. One example of where such approaches are needed is in professionals’ engagement with urban informality, largely neglected in urban planning despite an urgent need to recognise it and work with it. Another reflection was the fact that communities across the world are no longer passive recipients, but on the contrary, they are increasingly articulate and mobilised, and very often ordinary women and men are at the centre of transformative change. The capacity to listen to the range of different voices was raised as a crucial skill for development planners.

What are the contributions of the DPU in the education of development planners? Panel members expressed that, rather than focusing on what the (job) market demands, the programmes are shaped and reformulated with a commitment towards building a visionary, strategic and long-term perspective. While the courses might have a different ‘entry point’ to development planning, they all have an explicit objective of contributing to the development of reflective practitioners, who are able to constantly question their assumptions, what they know and what they don’t know. As highlighted by Le-Yin Zhang, Director of the MSc in Urban Economic Development, another increasingly relevant aspect is the internationalisation of students and of academic bodies, who are also engaged in research, training and advisory services around the world.

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Going back to key competencies for the practice, the capacity to critically engage with reality was highlighted by Caren Levy, stating that a wider understanding of complexity is highly valued by organisations, as it can help them constantly reflect on what they do and how they do it. She also expressed how crucial the capacity to communicate is, highlighting spoken interventions, oral presentations and writing as key skills to apply in professional life beyond the MSc.

Patrice North, co-Director of the MSc in Social Development Practice and Michael Walls, Director of the MSc in Development Administration and Planning, recommended students to think strategically about the dissertation (and to that effect, on the selection of each piece of coursework). For many, the dissertation has become the stepping stone for either studying a PhD or for exploring a future area of work. Also, as reminded by Michael Walls, the value of the overseas field trip itself shouldn’t be underestimated: it is the prime practical experience of the courses, experience that can also be reflected in a CV. Moreover, for some, such as the Alumni behind the recently created initiative Travolution.org, the fieldwork can become an important source of inspiration to pursue new independent endeavours. Further building experience, for example by volunteering or doing internships (when possible and affordable), may generate opportunities in a network-based environment. However, as put by Michael Walls, networking is an active process that needs to be utilised effectively. It is also important to simultaneously think of geographies, themes and organisations of interest. Also essential, panellists agreed, is to think what is important to one self. It might be an uncertain work future, but as Adriana Allen reminded students, it is important to keep things in perspective, and to think of our situation in relation to that of others. (After all, isn’t thinking of others a key engine in planning for socially just sustainable development?).

Responding to a student’s (great) question on what is advised not to do, there was some wisdom to offer: don’t panic, don’t become captivated with what seems to be mainstream, don’t knock on all the same doors as everyone else, don’t be flippant when you apply and take every opportunity (and organisation) seriously; target your CVs and cover letters rather than sending ineffective applications and, above all, don’t lie: being truthful about personal objectives and capacities may be the more effective way to develop the career you want. All these aspects might seem basic and derived from common sense, but, as DPU scholars – also employers – seem to agree, they are not always that common.

Were you present in the session and didn’t find the space to ask your questions? Are you an ex-DPU student and want to add your bit of advice departing from your own experience? Are you part of the development planning network and want to add your thoughts to this (herein abridged) discussion? You are welcome to write your comments.