Stasis Stifles Innovation, Holds Back Answers to Sustainability
In my February column I talked about the opportunity for America’s response to climate change to become our next “Moon Mission” moment. (It did not occur to me until this very moment that most people under 30 have no idea what this moment was like. Check with someone older.) This past month I engaged in several discussions that served as painful illustrations of the reason we are currently, and forgive me if I’m stretching the metaphor, stuck in static orbit around the problem.
The topic of my discussions, and the root of the frustration is, of all things, innovation. Not the lack thereof, but rather the preponderance of great innovations we have failed to implement in any way, shape or form despite compelling evidence that they provide an elegant solution to a complex problem.
There was a bittersweet article on The Atlantic Cities website a few days after Superstorm Sandy hit the Eastern seaboard in which the author reflected upon MoMA’s notable “Rising Currents” exhibition. MoMA convened an artists-in-residence program for interdisciplinary teams of architects, engineers and landscape designers to dream up creative ways to mitigate the impact of rising sea levels on flood zone areas in New York Harbor. Some of the concepts were a bit “out there” but all were based in sound reasoning and none of them was beyond today’s technology and skill sets. All of the concepts had one thing in common – they featured soft infrastructure inspired by the earth’s natural response to harsh environmental challenges. Solutions that have been tried and tested over millennia. “If only,” the author sighed, “some of these ideas had been implemented right away.”
I don’t know why they weren’t but I can make a shrewd guess. Topping the list will be cost. Hot on the heels of cost is the less tangible, but extremely exasperating, propensity of key decision makers to be absolutely certain they know what is in the best interests of all the other stakeholders who don’t necessarily have a voice in the project…usually the public and in this case, New Yorkers.
The cost argument is short sighted and misleading. When we talk about cost we are primarily talking about the upfront, capital cost of designing and building the thing. When it gives us sticker shock we normally stop consideration rather that begin the evaluation of the opportunity cost. This is the most important discussion. Every time we choose to invest in one thing we’re choosing not to invest in something else. The problem here is that most of our relative values discussions are based on conventional wisdom. We know what it costs to build a levee. We know how it will perform. We know how long it will last and what it will cost to repair and maintain. We can’t answer these questions with any certainty for a flood mitigation project that includes residential towers on floating islands and oyster farms around Manhattan.
The key decision-makers versus ultimate stakeholders issue is more complicated. It is characterized by what I like to call “The Great Constipated Middle.” This is the self-assured buffer of people steeped in conventional wisdom who are absolutely certain that they know what needs to be done. They don’t listen to the ideas from below or bestir themselves to influence the people holding the purse strings above. They exist in companies, institutions, governments and even families. But they have a glaring weakness – they don’t know the answer. They know an answer. They are fallible, and they can be won over, overcome or circumnavigated.
Staying in New York City, we need look no further than the High Line park. This undertaking was perceived to be a hugely risky enterprise. The Great Constipated Middle was anxious to tear down the rail line and grab the land for proven profit in the form of conventional office and apartment buildings. But there were some really stubborn people underneath, community residents who formed Friends of the High Line, and an open-minded decision maker at the top, the Mayor. This grassroots effort successfully preserved the High Line and transformed it into a public space that now rivals the Empire State Building as one of the city’s top attractions. The High Line park has been a catalyst for new commercial and residential development and has increased neighboring property values beyond the wildest conventional dreams.
We live in an age of creativity, invention, technology and possibility. The power to change, adapt and improve lies expectantly in our hands. The tech industry understands this. Look at the way they have accelerated failure in the pursuit of the next best thing. They don’t worry about being cautious; they try things, throw it away the minute it’s not working, move on and try something else. The faster we can reject the ideas that don’t work anymore, the more quickly those that do can bubble up to the top.
Stasis is the mostly costly decision there is. Stasis is using FEMA money to replace wooden boardwalks along the Jersey shore when we know they’ll be the first to go in the next storm.
We’re better than this. We have to start believing in our ingenuity, trusting our creativity and dreaming impossible dreams. Certainty based on conventional wisdom will end badly for us all.
Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.
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