This paper was presented at the 4th International Conference of Critical Geographers, January 2005, México City.

1. Title of paper

Tracing the Formation of Critical Planners in the Welfare State: Nordplan and Gunnar Olsson

2. Authors

Thomas Bürk-Matsunami (Heinrich-Boell-Foundation, Berlin)

Jonas R Bylund (Dept. of Human Geography, Stockholm University)

3. Abstract

The paper investigates the critical philosophy and practice of the Nordic Institute for Studies in Urban and Regional Planning (Nordplan) between 1978-1996. Nordplan was a joint-venture planning research institution under the Inter-Nordic government co-operation of four of the five Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Gunnar Olsson was director for the doctoral programme in that time.

In this paper we are curious of the tension between commissioned utility and non-conform praxis in the case of Nordplan. On the one hand there was the Nordic states' commission on a useful research and doctoral education: pragmatic planning models and approaches, and producing instrumental knowledge and methods for a progressively planned welfare. On the other hand, there is the inherent problem in the activity of planning as transforming the world. Nordplan, during the directorship of Olsson, exemplifies this problem in the agenda set to reflect critically upon instrumentality and political consequences in planning. Olsson thus created a different planning subject than the commissioners intended when drawing the focus from the object of planning to planning itself as subject for investigation. These two poles (although abstracted and exaggerated here) also had a third denominator in Olsson, an agent with a specific biography – e.g. the break-away from positivist methods in geography and the friendship with David Harvey – and intentions – taking critical philosophy into planning education and the courage to a certain mutiny. How did the philosopher-geographer deal with this situation?

Although it might seem to be an isolated case study we argue that there is a lot to learn for critical geographical praxis. In Europe, but certainly not restricted to this continent, universities and research institutions are under pressure from public and private research funding to produce 'useful' research and ready-to-use knowledge, and the – albeit questionable – scientific ideal of the autonomous scientist is being replaced by an almost Fordist way of producing results. Working under these conditions we find the history of Nordplan under the directorship of Olsson an interesting and inspiring case to develop or incorporate our own critical or reflective stances in the academic industry.