The attention economy of planning practice: the variegated allocation of attention to different issues in planning


  • Jonathan Metzger KTH Royal Institute of Technology
  • Maria Håkansson KTH Royal Institute of Technology
  • Jenny Lindblad KTH Royal Institute of Technology




John Forester has suggested that one of the central tasks of planning is to organize attention and has even gone so far as to argue that there is indeed a “practical economic geography” of attention in planning, when taking into consideration that attention is a scarce and unevenly distributed resource (Forester, 1993).

This paper picks up on this notion from Forester and develops this intriguing insight in dialogue with both classical organization theory on attention as a scarce resource in any organizational context (e.g., Simon, 1971), and more recent work from the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) which has highlighted the importance of attending to issues to understand societal dynamics (e.g., Marres, 2007; Leino & Laine, 2012).

In the paper we build upon these theoretical inspirations to investigate what issues are given concrete attention in the context of planning practice, and the mechanisms behind this. The empirical material for the paper has been collected through ten in-depth workshops with Swedish planning practitioners employed within municipalities as well as property development companies and major technical consultancy firms.

We suggest that attention is allocated to issues based on a combination of who is involved in the planning process, the perception of roles and responsibilities among these actors, and their understanding of ‘how things work’ – as well as institutional requirements, laws and current events/ media cycles.

Thus, to understand how attention is allocated in planning processes, there is a need to investigate how a 'politics of what' is also deeply intertwined with a ‘politics of who’ (is involved) and a ‘politics of how’ (things are done/ methods & practices) through how constellations of practitioners, regulations and methods produce manifest patterns of attention to certain issues in planning practice – and lack of attention to other.

We conclude that the solution to the problem of limited attention in planning cannot be to argue that planners always should be equally attentive to every potentially relevant aspect at all times, considering that this is a practical impossibility. Instead, inspired by McGoey (2012) and the work of John Law, we suggest that the key competence that must be fostered is a reflexive “strategic ignorance”, which is mindful of how simplifications of complex realities are performed, what they leave out – and to what effects.



Forester, J., 1993. Critical theory, public policy, and planning practice: toward a critical pragmatism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Leino, H. and Laine, M., 2012. Do matters of concern matter? Bringing issues back to participation. Planning Theory, 11(1), pp.89-103.

McGoey, L., 2012. The logic of strategic ignorance. The British journal of sociology, 63(3), pp.533-576.

Marres, N., 2007. The issues deserve more credit: Pragmatist contributions to the study of public involvement in controversy. Social studies of science, 37(5), pp.759-780.

Simon, H. A., 1971. ‘Designing Organizations for an Information-rich World’. In M. Greenberger (ed.), Computers, communications, and the public interest. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971, pp. 37–52.