To Solve Sustainability Problems, Ask Those Most Affected
Walter Bagehot, Editor-in-Chief of The Economist from 1860-1877.
Over the years, Nero and Tiberius have made way for a large global host of dictators and oppressors whose deeds fill our media channels on a daily basis.
These are easy targets to single out. The plight of their people, the destruction of towns and cities, the exploitation of natural resources to benefit the few while the majority population goes hungry and homeless — all point back to the tyranny of decisions made by one man, one woman or one elite group. Sitting in the democratic west with our freedom of speech, it is easy to condemn, to moralize and to point out the right and wrong of the situation. It is not, however, so easy to recognize a more ubiquitous tyranny in our own midst. That is the lack of humility that creates a tyranny of experts.
Our culture and our education systems compel people to become ever more “expert” in their chosen field, to delve deeper and deeper into technical understanding, to focus ever more narrowly on one specific area of application, to create a specialist niche within an already specialized field. My own company, AECOM, abounds with such specialists and we are proud of them and recognize their value. Technical excellence is the essence of our culture. But, we no more believe that one of our transportation planners should decide the fate of an entire city’s infrastructure than we believe a single individual should decide the fate of a country.
It can be all too easy for professionals to propose solutions to problems they think need solving without pulling their head up for long enough to look around and ask the people most affected by the problem what they think. I came across one example recently that illustrates this point beautifully. An entrepreneurial team of students with a desire to make a difference in the world came up with a clever design for a soccer ball that kinetically generates power while it is being kicked around. At the end of the day, young students in impoverished communities can pick up their ball and plug it into a light so that they can see to do their homework. This is a wonderful idea and indeed fills a need. However, when the reporter I was listening to questioned adult members of the South American community where the balls had been distributed, she learned that the power grid did in fact extend to the village, it was just that no one had any money or resources to hook the houses up to it. Without in anyway wishing to diminish the vision and compassion of the inventors, one has to wonder if the money spent in development and distribution would not have been more effectively and sustainably spent on extending the existing grid into the villagers’ homes.
These types of situations often arise as the result of not asking the right question. They are facilitated by “the tyranny of experts.” Those people so focused on a technical innovation, a personal goal or a conventional, hitherto successful approach that they fail to appreciate and incorporate the wisdom of the masses. If we do not listen to a broader constituency of stakeholders who are able to provide unbiased information that is accessible uniquely to them, we are necessarily going to miss the opportunity to solve a persistent problem, rather than simply fixing an attribute of it.
Our world is urbanizing and changing far more rapidly than our traditional systems and processes are able to accommodate. Yet too often, we are certain we know the answer without having undergone any sort of methodological approach to gaining knowledge. We rely heavily on past experience and conventional wisdom when it is nothing short of irresponsible to assume that we know the answer to such complex problems when we can have no certainty about what the future has in store.
How do we, in communicating what is really at stake in such key decisions, move beyond conventional wisdom into actual rational conversations about cause and effect?
The greatest barrier to rational conversation is the notion that the people most invested in the status quo are in fact the “experts.” Once things change, these people can no longer be considered experts, so we often find the greatest resistance among this group as they fight to control their domain. In this scenario, the public is expected to simply defer to the intellectual superiority of others who claim the high ground. It is easy to point to the professions and conclude that they are filled with stubborn experts, but in reality they are only part of the problem. Every neighborhood boasts its own “experts” — the vocal minority capable of mobilizing resistance to any threat of change invariably based on the vision of a perfect past that may or may not have existed. In my days as Planning Director for the City of Seattle, I met many of these people. They would emphasize the utopia that their neighborhoods used to be before higher density, more cars, restaurants or cinemas and talk about an almost bucolic existence of freshly baked bread and friendly neighbors that was a very far cry from Seattle’s past reality as a pioneer town. I was always tempted to promise them what they desired on the condition that they also took back the fleas, polio, typhoid fever and brothels.
And my last sentence reveals the heart of the problem. Not the typhoid and the fleas, but rather the “I” and the “them.” I have talked about the battle over pronouns before. The assumption is that it is always the other party who is too arrogant, ignorant or evil to reflect upon their lack of expertise. Whereas in fact, everybody has a perfectly legitimate point of view — disagreeing with it does not make it irrelevant. The tyranny of experts is an “I” versus “them” debate — a battle of experts versus the others. Progress can only happen if we are humble enough to recognize that everyone’s expertise is time and context limited. Problems can only be solved when we invite other viewpoints to the table.
Another example from my Seattle planning days shows just how the conversation changes when you broaden the participants. We were trying to figure out why bus ridership among women declined during the winter months. The transit experts (nearly all male) decided that it was because there were not enough bus shelters and women didn’t like getting wet while waiting for the bus. Fortunately, we did not take their word for it. We engaged some psychologists at the University of Washington to examine the problem further and learned that it was in fact related to lighting. Women were afraid to walk to and from the bus stop in the dark mornings and evenings because there was inadequate street lighting. This revealed a completely different course of action and one that was much more cost effective.
Intelligence is evenly distributed among the population, not held in some expert class. Everyone is an expert in something, but no one is an expert in the future. No one is an expert in what other people are thinking. We cannot know the future, but by gathering enough intelligence we can anticipate likely scenarios. The hive mind is a powerful tool — and one we ignore at our peril.
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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