Dinner With Mel

Erik Tillman Ferguson

© Copyright 2022 by Erik Tillman Ferguson

Photo of Mel Webber courtesy of UC Berkeley News.
Photo of Mel Webber courtesy of UC Berkeley News.
It was in the year of our Lord 2525, I mean 1990, in a little old country town called Austin, the venerable site of the annual ACSP conference, hosted by none other than Texas itself. While there, I attended several university alumni receptions, including one hosted by Berkeley. I was subsequently invited to attend a somewhat more exclusive “after party” in the form of dinner, which was nominally restricted to members of the extended Berkeley family only. This would naturally include all current faculty, staff, and students along with their significant others, but perhaps most importantly of all, the alumni, who represent the ultimate legacy any university can ever hope to achieve.

Lest we should forget, there is also research, a much different yet closely related subject. Then there is science and technology, who could forget about science and technology? And what about public policy? Unless you prefer private decisions, private decisions based on market interactions, market interactions based on neoclassical interpretations of capitalism and society. The list goes on and on.

This windfall seemed like a golden opportunity for me to discover what Berkeley was really all about. I was not, to be 
honest, a member of the aforesaid extended Berkeley family. I did, however, have a strong personal interest in discovering more about how the world works. In planning academe, the American power elite is pretty much restricted to MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, and Chapel Hill. Acting in concert, much like any other decent industrial or trade cartel, these four schools have monopolized the top positions in planning academia for most of the last century. Almost as good as the De Beers Group founded by Cecil Rhodes shortly before the first National Planning Conference held in Washington, DC in 1909.

Was it a terrible mistake? Should I have accepted this obscure invitation? I still can’t decide. Perhaps you can help me make up my mind on this fascinating, perplexing, yet still most perturbing of subjects.

I went upstairs at the conference hotel and refreshed myself. I then proceeded to my illicit rendezvous in order to crash the Berkeley dinner party as previously instructed. Since I knew only a few of the people who would be attending, I determined in advance that my best strategy was to wait, watch, listen, and learn the secrets of the universe as represented by America’s finest public university, named for a noted Enlightenment philosopher whose primary contribution to knowledge is and has been the absolute denial of material substance as any form of reality whatsoever, but that is beside the point. Or is it? Let us find out, shall we?

When I got to the restaurant, my path was barred by several vigilant sentinels, guardian angels who expressed concern that my credentials might not be in perfect working order. Nonetheless, I persevered in my desperate avowals, and was never quite evicted by look, word, or handsome deed. I glanced around for a place to sit down, and suddenly found myself being discreetly escorted to the end of the table, where I was placed next to an older, more distinguished looking gentleman than I ever intended to serve as my dinner partner and next door neighbor. This was not the slew of recent graduates and PhD candidates I was looking for in accordance with my original plan of attack on the intellectual citadel that is Berkeley.

The older gentleman introduced himself as Mel Webber, which seemed innocent enough as a thing in and of itself. The problem for me personally was a phenomenon quite separate and distinct from that. Mel Webber to me was a name impressed upon a piece of paper, several pieces of paper in fact, all of which were part of the canon, folklore, and mythology of legendary urban planning fame, not the obscure anonymity of professional planning practice, someone just starting out in the world, but one of those grey eminences who rise above the common herd to become iconic symbols in the sacred groves of planning academe.

I waited politely for the gray eminence to speak, but the only thing the master did in response was to look at me with casual observation. I soon surmised that the gray eminence was waiting for me to say something; at a wild guess, something moderately intelligent, somewhat enlightening, slightly amusing, or at least not terribly stupid. Now here was a pretty pickle I had gotten myself into, just like an Abbott and Costello movie, and I was Costello. Whatever was I supposed to say to break the ice with a gray eminence, live and in person?

There was not much point in talking about my own research. I had coined the term Transportation Demand Management in 1984 or 1985, but only remembered having done so a decade after my dinner with Mel. The first of many refereed journal articles on TDM and related subjects I wrote were just beginning to appear in 1990, but it was much too soon to decide whether TDM was a significant contribution to planning knowledge at that time.

Within another two years, I would publish a still rather obscure paper in the world’s most prestigious transportation journal on “incident effects, transit ridership, and public policy” that was apparently pointed in the right direction. A UCI professor thought so highly of this paper that he actually mentioned the subject of Nobel prizes in conjunction with it. I myself failed to see his point, at least back then. Only much later would I finally discover the smoking gun I had sought for so many years. It was just after the turn of the millennium that I more or less accidentally bumped into the Bass model of innovation diffusion, which I now identify as the Special Case of the General Theory of Relativity in Decision Space.

What to do? What to talk about? The clock was ticking. Time was wasting away. Mel was watching me out of the corner of one twinkling eye. I had nothing to say. Nothing at all that would interest the author of wicked problems, as demonstrated in “dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” But wait! Perhaps I could ask the gray eminence about his own contributions to the field of planning. Flattery will get you everywhere, or so I have always been led to believe.

I opened the conversation boldly by complimenting the gray eminence on his discovery of wicked problems, one of the more important contributions to planning theory of all time. I waited eagerly for his response, and was richly rewarded with a veritable torrent of words. Mission accomplished. Or was it?

Mel carefully explained that the concept of wicked problems was invented by his co-author Horst Rittel, and that his own contribution to the process was almost incidental, the lending of a helping hand, not much more than that. He went on to eulogize Rittel at great length as a truly great man and a tragic loss to the profession when he died unexpectedly in July 1990.

I was shocked. I was unaware that Rittel had passed away. Rittel was ten years younger than Mel, but predeceased him by sixteen years. I had known Rittel incidentally as a German Marshall Fund Scholar at Stuttgart in 1983. Rittel and his team were then intent on building the world’s largest slide collection on urban design, if I recall correctly. I wonder how many of his slides have been digitized since that time? Stuttgart today is a world leader on the subject of TDM, with their award-winning Mobility Living Lab.

I was instantly struck with the impression that Rittel, being younger than Webber, was a former student of his, but this assumption was entirely incorrect. As Mel continued to speak, I developed a lump in my throat along with a sneaking suspicion that Mel somehow associated me with Rittel’s death, but the vehemence with which he expressed himself was more likely the result of as yet unresolved grief at the recent loss of his friend and colleague.

I was now out of appropriate conversation material. I recalled that Mel had done something else related to “community without propinquity” as well, but could not remember the exact citation. I did not wish to step further into yet another and even deeper mud puddle than the first one. Mel eventually turned away and talked to someone else, as did I.

Life goes on, but institutions have long memories. In retrospect, perhaps I should not have attended this exclusive Berkeley dinner after all, at least not in 1990. I only wish I could remember who else was there, so that I might share with them the eternal flame of my vast and incomprehensible yet still entirely imaginary discomfiture. So much like the present situation, wouldn’t you say?

Erik Tillman Ferguson is a retired professor of urban transportation planning who currently lives is Las Vegas. His textbook, Travel Demand Management and Public Policy, was recently reissued by Routledge.  His interests include reading and writing speculative fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, as well as the occasional true story, such as this one. A record of his scholarly work may be found here: Erik Tillman Ferguson - ‪Google Scholar


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