Public Value and the Integrative Mind: How Multiple Sectors Can Collaborate in City Building



Creating the public realm in an era of constrained resources demands a level of cooperation among multiple sectors rarely seen before and a recognition that the boundaries between what we have considered “public” and “private” have become porous and blurred. A number of recent projects on either side of the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis show what this means in terms of delivering public value much greater than any one sector could produce on its own.

In the United States, we have begun to shift from a conventional, oppositional way of thinking about the creation of public value to a more creative, integrative way of thinking. In the first part of this article, I will compare these two ways of thinking and talk about why we have seen a shift from one to the other, and in the second part of the article, I will show how this shift has manifested itself in a number of recent, publicly accessible projects—buildings, parks, bridges, and other infrastructure—along a short stretch of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Oppositional thinkers perceive situations in binary, black-or-white terms and often see conflict in an adversarial, win-or-lose way. Such thinking tends to see conflicts in terms of unattractive trade-offs, consider situations sequentially or as independent parts, simplify the possible causes, and limit the consideration of alternatives. Oppositional thinking also frequently uses sports or military metaphors to frame discussions, and it often has the combative tone of trial law or partisan politics, where winning can become an end in itself. Such thinking has had a formative role in shaping cities in the past, such that we have divided our communities in a binary way, between public or private property ownership.

Not to sound too oppositional about it, but the inverse of oppositional thinking is what Roger Martin at the University of Toronto has called integrative thinking. In his book The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, Martin defines this mode of thought with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald as “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and retain the ability to function” (2009, 1). Integrative thinking includes a much larger set of variables when addressing a problem, considers multiple and nonlinear causes, visualizes the whole as well as the parts, and searches for creative, out-of-the-box solutions. Integrative thinking, in contrast to the oppositional kind, takes a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” approach to problems, seeks win–win rather than win–lose solutions to them, and does so through cooperative rather than competitive relationships. Instead of the black-or-white world of the oppositional mind, integrative thinkers tend to see the world in shades of gray.

Integrative thinking has become increasingly dominant as an approach to public problems, many of which have resulted from oppositional thinking. For example, we no longer accept, in the United States, racially segregated or “redlined” communities, which stemmed from an oppositional way of looking at how people should live. And as we watch the ideological battles and listen to the combative tone of politicians in Congress or in our state houses, we can see how oppositional thinking tends to lead, in the end, to gridlock. In the ever more interconnected, global reality in which we live, we have no choice but to become more integrative in our thinking: embracing diversity, welcoming differences, and keeping seemingly opposed perspectives in mind at the same time.

Oppositional thinkers may see those with a more integrative mind-set as lacking clarity or logic, but that arises from a misunderstanding of the rigor of integration. While oppositional thought tends to use inductive or deductive logics, integrative thought favors the abductive kind, a type of logic that makes lateral connections among seemingly disparate ideas in order to create something new and better than we had before. Abductive logic continually crosses boundaries in search of innovative and creative ideas, and therefore it runs counter to every effort to divide reality into dichotomies.

Photo 1.

Minneapolis has a long history of investing in public open space, which has prompted private development and created a high quality of life in the city. Credit: Creative Commons, Flickr, Doug Kerr, Dougtone.

Integrative thinking also looks at issues from multiple scales, in both space and time, in order to make sure we have accounted for all of the consequences of our action. Too many decision makers in the past have addressed challenges at one scale or in one time frame, paying too little attention to history or context. This has generated, as a result, a lot of unintended and sometimes undesirable consequences. Integrative thinkers work at several scales at once and try to anticipate the many possible outcomes of decisions over longer time frames and in far-removed places, which reduces the likelihood of unanticipated results.

A related characteristic of integrative thinking is that it is an iterative, critical process. Too often, we try to solve the wrong problem or implement a decision without prototyping and testing it. Integrative thinkers start by trying to define the real problem, which is often not the one we think it is, and then explore multiple schemes, subjecting the work to a number of peer reviews and critiques before anything gets implemented. If we are going to solve a problem, it might as well be the right one, with a solution that we know will work.

A final point to make about integrative thinking has to do with aesthetics. Most people see aesthetics in terms of the appearance and the appeal of things, and that certainly remains a part of it, but aesthetics also represents a powerful way of overcoming the often false polarities and reductive tendencies of oppositional thought. Aesthetics shows how to deal with simplicity and complexity at the same time and in an integrated way, as we see in every well-designed product or environment. Aesthetics also tolerates differences of opinion. Unlike the oppositional idea of convincing others that we are right and they are wrong, the integrative mind often uses aesthetics to embrace the diverse opinions of others and to find a way to work with them, not against them.

Photo 2.

The collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis was the result of poor maintenance on the part of the public sector and a “fracture-critical” bridge design that made it vulnerable to sudden failure. Credit: Creative Commons, Tony Webster.

Photo 3.

The new I-35 W Bridge not only has a very robust and redundant structure but also spans the extensive parkland and bike trails that line the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

To see how integrative thinking has begun to create new forms of public value, let us take a virtual tour of projects along the Minneapolis Riverfront. We will start at the new I-35W Bridge, a concrete structure that replaced the steel one that fell in 2007, when one of its gusset plates failed and the entire structure collapsed without warning, killing 13 people and injuring 145 more (Minnesota Department of Transportation .). The original bridge, designed in the late 1950s, arose from the oppositional thinking that seemed to characterize so much of American thought, when, as John Kenneth Galbraith so memorably put it, we created “private affluence” and “public squalor.” That squalor translated, in this bridge, into a structure with so little excess capacity or structural redundancy that it could not withstand the added lanes, heavier vehicles, and deferred maintenance that occurred in subsequent decades. What probably seemed, in the 1950s, like a frugal use of public funds turned into a very expensive tragedy when the bridge, barely 50 years old, collapsed.

Its replacement, designed by Linda Figg of Figg Engineering, expresses a new, more integrative way of building infrastructure. The new span represents a “both/and” solution, as it comprises not one bridge but two independent structures standing side by side, so that even if one structure should fail for some reason, the other would remain intact (FIGG Bridge Engineers 2008). And its fabrication on the closed highway leading up to the river, where the former roadway became the floor of a temporary precast concrete casting facility, shows how an integrative mind-set could save time and money by repurposing what we already had available to us.

At the same time, this piece of infrastructure arose from an integrative way of embracing many different viewpoints after an extensive and highly participatory public engagement process. As a result that process, the new I-35W Bridge has the capability of carrying future light-rail lines and holding a suspended pedestrian and bike bridge beneath it. And it has a dramatic lighting design that makes it a landmark in the nighttime landscape of the city and ensures that we will not forget the people who lost their lives there. Aesthetics, in such situations, matters a lot.

Photo 4.

Built largely with private donations on land owned by the City of Minneapolis and the Guthrie Theater, Gold Medal Park has spurred extensive private development around its perimeter. Credit: Creative Commons, Flickr, Chris Yunker.

Private Funding of a Public Park

Continuing on our virtual tour, we next arrive at Gold Medal Park, a 7.5-acre publicly owned and privately leased open space completed in 2007, surrounded by new housing and office development along the river. This park shows how multiple sectors can partner in new ways to create public value. The city of Minneapolis and the nonprofit Guthrie Theater both owned parts of the site, and the chief executive officer of United Health Corporation, William McGuire, who had already invested $10 million in the new Guthrie Theater next door, had been talking with landscape architect Tom Oslund about funding an outdoor amphitheater there. But when the city requested proposals from developers to construct housing on the site, McGuire offered $5 million to build a park instead and to prevent the loss of open space. “Great cities have parks,” said McGuire, and so his family foundation leased the land for 10 years, commissioned the design of the park, and paid for its installation (Olson 2006).

The multisector partnership did not stop with foundation financing of a public park. The site contained contaminated soil from previous industrial uses of the land. While the city could have demanded an expensive removal of the polluted soil, it allowed a lower-cost remediation of the hazard by allowing the creation of a mound in the middle of the park that contains and caps the old soil while providing an accessible overlook of the river from the spiral ramp, recalling, said Oslund, “the Dakota burial mounds along the Mississippi River” (Hammel 2007). This shows how the best integrative thinking seeks win–win solutions, turning liabilities into amenities and bringing together sectors that too often seem at odds.

While housing on the site might have increased the city's tax base more than a park, that open space increased the value of the surrounding properties and spurred new development around it that more than compensated for the revenue loss. The park has also become a gathering place for residents from across the city. When the neighboring I-35W Bridge collapsed, people watched the rescue from the newly built mound, and the park became the site of the Oslund-designed memorial to the victims of the catastrophe. Contrary to the thinking that seeks to starve the public sector of funds, Gold Medal Park shows how multiple sectors can create more value for everyone when they cooperate in more flexible, adaptable, and charitable ways. Three sectors came together to make something happen that none of them could have done alone, and each contributed to the project in a way that best suited their capacity to do so.

Integrative thinking involves the putting together of collaborative teams in order to accomplish a desired goal, whether that be the creation of a physical place like this park or the financial and regulatory strategy that enabled the project to move forward. That differentiates such thinking from ordinary management processes; it enables us to think outside the normal frameworks within which we work to conceive of innovative solution that meet a need in a new way.

Integrative thinking involves the putting together of collaborative teams in order to accomplish a desired goal, whether that be the creation of a physical place like this park or the financial and regulatory strategy that enabled the project to move forward.

Photo 5.

The Guthrie Theater offers extensive interior space for non–ticket holders to dine and enjoy the view of the Mississippi River from the longest inhabited cantilever in the United States. Credit: Creative Commons, Tanzania.

Private Extension of the Public Street

Another example of this sensibility occurred in the design of the new Guthrie Theater, which stands next to Gold Medal Park. Completed in 2006, the $125 million, 285,000-square-foot building has three theaters and extensive circulation and gathering space, including a 178-foot-long cantilevered ramp that connects the two-level lobby in the building and provides a spectacular view of the river from the open-air amphitheater at its end (Ateliers Jean Nouvel 2006). While the new building received $25 million in state funds, the other $100 million came from private donors—a remarkable amount given the fact that other cultural institutions in the city, including the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Institute of Arts, had major building projects under way at the same time (McCallum 2003).

Many cities, of course, have built comparable cultural facilities with a mix of public and private sector funding, but the Guthrie Theater stands out for the amount of publicly accessible space that it has created in a private facility. Unlike most theaters that remain closed except to those who have purchased a ticket, the Guthrie provides non–ticket holders widespread access throughout the building, with restaurants and bars open late into the evening on several levels and with the observation deck at the end of its “endless bridge” open during building hours. This nonprofit organization, in other words, has extended a kind of pedestrian street up through its facility, blurring the boundary between the publicly and privately owned spaces. This responds, in part, to the fact that the theater received state funding, but it also suggests a new way of thinking about publicly accessible space as an expected part of institutions that public investment has supported.

Such joint value creation also demands cooperation from the public sector, as happened at the Guthrie Theater. The architect, Jean Nouvel, realized that instead of spreading the three theaters horizontally (onto the land that eventually became Gold Medal Park), he could achieve a more cost-effective solution by stacking the theaters vertically. That presented the dilemma, though, of how to get large-scale sets to the stages high up in air. The architect solved it by placing the scene shop on top of the publicly owned parking garage across the street, with a “sky bridge” allowing theater crews to roll the sets over the public street and onto the stages. Just as the nonprofit Guthrie has provided non–ticket holders access throughout its facility, so, too, did the City of Minneapolis allow the theater to construct a part of its building on top of a public parking facility, creating real value for both, while giving the crew, who usually occupy windowless backstage spaces in most theaters, some of the best views in the city as they go about their work.

Photo 6.

The MacPhail Center for Music has a lobby space that doubles as a public music venue, as well as a performance hall with a stage that is visible and accessible to passersby. Credit: Creative Commons, Richie Diesterheft, Puroticorico.

Like the children's game of connecting what seems like too many dots with too few lines, the solution here shows how integrative thinking can help resolve problems by literally going outside the box, as in the case of the Guthrie's cantilevered handicapped ramp or its scene shop on top of the garage. In that sense, the Guthrie Theater stands as a kind of metaphor for how we might think about the “wicked” problems we face in the world right now (Rittel and Webber). Such challenges do not lend themselves to conventional solutions or oppositional thinking. Instead, wicked problems often require paradigm shifts and unprecedented approaches of the sort that integrative thinking does best.

Wicked problems often require paradigm shifts and unprecedented approaches of the sort that integrative thinking does best.

Public Gathering on Private Property

As we continue our virtual tour, we will see other ways in which this can happen. Down the street from the Guthrie Theater stand two other buildings that show how creative cooperation among sectors can happen in much less costly, but no less effective ways. One of these buildings is the downtown facility of the MacPhail Center for Music, the fourth-largest of the nation's Community Schools of the Arts. Employing 172 musicians, enrolling 7,750 students, hosting 400 recitals and performances, and attracting audiences of 27,000 a year, MacPhail completed its new $25 million home in 2008, consisting of 56 teaching studios, glass-enclosed classrooms at street level, a 225-seat auditorium, and a large lobby open to the public (MacPhail Center for Music .).

Photo 7.

Occupying the ruins of an old flour mill, the Mill City Museum has given back to the public a space within the ruined walls for public and private ceremonies, accessed from the street. Credit: Creative Commons, Richie Diesterheft, Puroticorico.

While privately funded, the new facility feels like a public building. This partly stems from the school's mission of educating large numbers of youth and adults, whose continual flow in and out of the facility for lessons, rehearsals, and performances gives the building a public feel. The architect, James Dayton, did two things that go far beyond what you might expect a music school to do. First, he used the need to get people up to the second-level performance hall as an opportunity to provide an indoor amphitheater in the lobby, where anyone can sit and listen to students play their instruments. Second, and even more unconventionally, Dayton placed, at the back of the stage in the main hall, a large window that enables passersby on the adjacent sidewalk to watch a recital and listen, through speakers, to the performance inside.

Just as the Guthrie brings a pedestrian “street” deep into the building, MacPhail brings the activities within the building out to the street, in both cases creating public value in ways rarely done before. The MacPhail solution, especially, required almost no additional expense, as the window at the back of the stage cost roughly the same as the building's metal-clad wall and the system for amplifying sound already existed in the hall. With that simple gesture of entertaining passersby, MacPhail not only encourages people to come inside but also reinforces its mission in a very tangible way. This is integrative thinking in action: looking for the leverage points in a project that generate the greatest value at the lowest cost or least effort. And, as MacPhail shows, the public and private sectors can enhance each other when thought about in more creative ways.

Creating a New Kind of Private/Public Space

A similar reimagining of how multiple sectors might collaborate in the future occurred in the Mill City Museum, which stands between the Guthrie and MacPhail. Located in the ruins of the 1880 Washburn A Mill, which was gutted by fire in 1991, the Mill City Museum arose out of a partnership between the Minnesota Historical Society and the City of Minneapolis (Mill City Museum .). Rather than tear down the stone walls of the mill after the fire, the city cleared out the rubble, fortified the walls, and let the historical society redevelop the site into a museum on the history of Minneapolis's milling industry. The architects, Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, inserted a glass-and-steel building into the ruins, placing their offices on the upper floors and the museum at and below street level, all overlooking the “ruins courtyard” that opens up to the road along the Mississippi River.

That courtyard, completed in 2003, offers not only one of the most dramatic outdoor spaces in the city, with the charred walls and twisted steel from the 1991 fire still evident, but also a new kind of semipublic/semiprivate space that would not have happened without multisector cooperation. Passersby have access to the courtyard from the street, making it a favorite destination for city residents and visitors alike, even though the historical society owns the space. And by doing so, the society has made a piece of history accessible to people in a way that no other institution can match, drawing potential museumgoers into the building in the process. This hybrid public/private space also has extensive programming—from outdoor concerts that capitalize on the ruin's reverberant qualities to the many weddings and receptions that take advantage of the ruins’ memorable atmosphere.

The ruins courtyard shows how public value is best created when we blur the boundaries between public and private property. This privately owned place has become a popular destination for the general public, in the ruins of a once privately owned mill that the city allowed to stay standing until the nonprofit historical society could develop a new use of it. This reflects another aspect of integrative thinking: envisioning something that no one had ever seen or could quite imagine at the time. The idea of placing a museum in a ruin and of seeing the potential of such a place demanded a creative vision on the part of the owner and the city alike, as well as by the architects who showed how it could happen.

This example raises the question of how many other similar opportunities exist in which multiple sectors could cooperate to create more public value. One possibility exists buried across the street from the ruins courtyard. Beneath a lawn that slopes to the Mississippi River lay the foundations of other mills that once stood there, and a study by the same architects who designed the Mill City Museum has shown how these buried ruins, once excavated, could create a new kind of public park. Just as the ruins courtyard provides a privately owned, outdoor space open to the general public, the excavated foundations adjacent to it would offer a set of open-air “rooms” able to provide a degree of privacy rarely found in a public park (Minneapolis Parks Foundation .). The “x-ray” vision of integrative thinkers, able to envision what something not yet visible could be, can create public value where others only see only an unusable piece of sloping land.

The “x-ray” vision of integrative thinkers, able to envision what something not yet visible could be, can create public value where others only see only an unusable piece of sloping land.

Photo 8.

Built to handle railcars, the stone arch bridge now carries pedestrians and bicyclists, connecting Minneapolis's downtown with the University of Minnesota and the city's bike path system. Credit: Creative Commons, Flickr, Michael Hicks.

Public Value Creating Private Value

Between the Mill City Museum and the future ruins park runs a street and bike path that are a part of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway in Minneapolis, a continuous 51-mile trail and parkway system that runs along the lakes, river, and streams of the city, showing how the creation of public value through the cooperation of different sectors has gone on for a long time in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis Parks Board .). This system arose, in part, out of the vision of the noted nineteenth-century landscape architect H. W. S. Cleveland, who convinced the city to make its water frontage publicly accessible for recreational purposes (Cleveland 1873). Some questioned why Minneapolis should invest in what was then still mostly undeveloped land and farm fields, but Cleveland saw how the city would likely grow toward the lakes and along the water courses, and he realized that natural infrastructure, as much as the engineered kind, can spur private investment.

The city's support of Cleveland's vision has had multiple public and private benefits. Public ownership of the water's edge has protected the cities’ lakes and rivers from pollution and inappropriate development and given people access to a recreational resource that has helped make the city one of the healthiest and most fit in the nation (Hellmich 2011). The Grand Rounds have also prompted the development of private property, as Cleveland anticipated, and helped make the neighborhoods bordering this continuous open space some of the most desirable in the region. It shows how public value can create rather than compete with private value, raising land values, increasing property tax revenues, and stabilizing neighborhoods as a result of public investments.

Photo 9.

The St. Anthony Falls Laboratory and the Hennepin Island Hydroelectric Plant stand next to Water Power Park, giving the public access to the largest waterfall on the Mississippi River. Credit: Creative Commons, Wikipedia, Mulad.

Cleveland understood that public value comes from seizing on opportunities before they are lost, seeing into the future to create amenities before anyone demands them. That process describes another role that integrative thinking can play in the private sector as companies constantly look for products and services that people did not know they needed and, once available, cannot live without. The same holds true for the public sector: governments can create public spaces and public value in ways that people did not anticipate and cannot live without.

The Public University and Public Value

If we continue on our virtual tour over the Stone Arch Bridge, a former privately owned railroad bridge that now serves as a publicly accessible pedestrian and bike path, we come to the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, a facility that shows other ways in which we can create public value in a multisector world. The lab, part of the civil engineering department at the University of Minnesota, does hydraulics-related research and remains one of the best of its kind in the country, focusing on issues of critical importance to the general public: energy, health, and the environment (University of Minnesota .). The laboratory not only does an extensive amount of government-funded research but also provides services to both the public and private sectors in terms of measuring, modeling, and testing related to water-, wind-, biofuel-, and hydrocarbon-based energy.

The partnership between public and private sectors that supports the work inside the lab has also transformed the area around it. In 2007, Water Power Park opened, the result of an agreement between the utility Xcel Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, as part of the latter's renewal of Xcel's license for the Hennepin Island Hydro Electric Plant (Water Power Park). This led to the creation of a park that lets people have access to Hennepin Island and to the falls in the Mississippi River, creating public space where none had existed before. Some might see the government's use of its regulatory power to force the utility to install the park as overreach, but the falls that power the hydro plant would not exist had the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not stabilized it in the late nineteenth century. The political partisans who see public investments only sapping money and resources from the private sector often forget that most private property would have little or no value without the infrastructure that the government installs and maintains.

The political partisans who see public investments only sapping money and resources from the private sector often forget that most private property would have little or no value without the infrastructure that the government installs and maintains.

Integrative Thinking and Public Value

What lessons can we learn from the examples on our virtual tour? First, creating public value involves more than just the public sector—the government. As we have seen with almost all of these examples, the benefits that they create for the general public demanded various kinds of partnerships among multiple sectors, so much so that very few of the projects would have happened without them. In an era of limited resources, the cooperative city building that we have seen here has a strongly pragmatic aspect to it: pooling funds on the part of various sectors can create more value than having each sector on its own. It also involves letting each sector do what it does best: the public sector providing the regulatory framework and flexibility needed to make things happen, the private sector providing the investment capital and expertise to develop projects, and the nonprofit sector providing the institutional attractions and creative energy to draw people to a place.

The advantages of this multisector collaboration reveal the fallacy of pitting one sector against the other for ideological reasons. Those who claim that public investment saps the private sector of investment opportunities, as if it were a zero-sum game, miss the larger advantages that can accrue to all sectors when they cooperate. Some of this depends on the culture of a place. The Twin Cities has a long history of collaboration among sectors that does not seem to exist as strongly in some other major cities, although what Minneapolis (and St. Paul) have created through such joint efforts has begun to happen elsewhere, as each sector realizes that it can no longer go it alone.

That brings us to a second lesson: creating public value also creates private value. This stretch of the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis once contained some of the largest flour mills in the United States, fueled by infrastructure created by public sector investment in the dams that provided the mills with waterpower and in the locks that enabled the movement of goods downriver. So, from the very beginning of Minneapolis's industrial development, public investment helped create extraordinary private wealth and overall prosperity.

The same has happened in recent years, as the riverfront has transitioned from industry to cultural, residential, and commercial activity. Public investments in parks, streetscapes, bike paths, and bridges in the area have all helped spur a great deal of private development and turned an area once dominated by abandoned flour mills into a district with some of the most expensive real estate in the city. In that way, public and private investments have a reciprocal relationship. The former can help generate the latter, which returns that initial public investment in the form of higher tax revenues, more job creation, and greater economic activity. Underinvesting in the public realm, as has happened too often in too many cities over the last 30 years, does not enhance private investment but hampers it.

This leads to a third lesson: we can create public value on more than public land. While some of the projects described here occurred on publicly owned property—such as Gold Medal Park—most of them involved the creation of public value on privately owned land, such as the internal street in the Guthrie Theater, the private concerts broadcast to the street at the MacPhail Music Center, the publicly accessible courtyard in the Mill City Museum, and the new park on Xcel Energy property. In each case, the public realm extends—physically or virtually—into privately owned space, and while that entails a degree of largesse on part of these owners, it also represents enlightened self-interest. All of these publicly accessible spaces on private property draw in prospective audiences, patrons, and customers and help win over the very people these organizations depend on.

Creating such hybrid spaces increasingly requires hybrid relationships and creative methods in order to achieve them. The more we form the unconventional partnerships necessary to realize such spaces, the more these places will encourage the unexpected interactions and creative ideas that lead to new kinds of cross-sector relationships. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” and that insight seems particularly apt when it comes to the creation of public value in our built environment. Generating such value in a shared-power, multisector world constitutes one of the most creative opportunities of our time, encouraging us to ask one of the most fundamental questions any society can ask, how can we cooperate and collaborate to create a better future for ourselves? It is a question perfectly attuned to the integrative mind-set emerging in our midst.


  • Thomas Fisher is professor in the School of Architecture and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. Previously, he served as editorial director of Progressive Architecture magazine. With degrees in architecture from Cornell University and intellectual history from Case Western Reserve University, he was recognized in 2005 as the fifth-most-published architecture writer in the United States, with seven books, 47 book chapters or introductions, and more than 325 articles. E-mail: