I’m sorry to trot out the old chestnut about “what gets measured is what gets managed,” but this last week has been a trying game of numbers for me. As I head toward the weekend, I am once again forced to question the utility of so much of what we spend our time measuring.
From where we are standing today, the key questions are:
— How do we make economic progress without destroying the natural, life-sustaining resource base necessary for that progress?
— How do we achieve progress for all rather than progress for just a few?
— How do we address the real issues of our time: poverty alleviation, infectious disease, famine and civil strife?
Sustainability is not possible in a world undermined by poverty, disease, famine and war. So what, exactly, is the problem? This is where we need to start. Defining the problem is by far the most challenging endeavor that lies before us and when we get it wrong, as we too often do, it sets us on a path to failure no matter how brilliant our ultimate solution.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” -Albert Einstein
With this in mind, I advocate a four-step approach to problem definition that begins by acknowledging that we do not, indeed cannot, know the right answer in a world where so much is as yet unknown. Despite this uncertainty, I believe the approach outlined below gives us the best possible shot at a meaningful solution.
- Clearly define the problem.
Too often, we focus our energies on solving the attributes of a problem rather that the fundamental cause. Transportation questions are often highly illustrative of this point. In the U.S. in particular, the conversations around investment in transportation infrastructure inevitably pit the car (highways) against “alternative” transportation (rail, buses, light rail, etc.). Rarely does the conversation begin with a recognition that the real requirement is to connect people — with each other, with goods and with services — and an evaluation of the best ways to make those mobility and access connections.
- Agree that it is a problem that key stakeholders want to have solved.
At the end of my graduate experience, a favorite professor offered me two pieces of advice that were more valuable than any lessons I drew from traditional college teaching modules — they have guided my career ever since. Over a beer, he casually mentioned that knowing the right answer is the least important part of getting anything done, and that if the support staff is disinclined to help you, your career is effectively over. For every investment, there is a high opportunity cost. Every stakeholder is juggling multiple priorities and they must decide between reducing taxes, fixing more pressing problems or preserving their political capital. The public has its own ideas about what is required and what its money should be spent on. If we cannot effectively articulate how the investment can improve lives, create value and reduce risk, our solution — no matter how brilliant — is just a castle in the air.
- Know what to do to solve the problem.
Design can go a long way towards addressing aspects of some problems, but it cannot address the fundamentals. The fundamentals are political and we must be honest with the public about how confident we are in the solution and what its limitations may be. Based on conventional wisdom and business as usual, there is inevitably greater confidence in addressing attributes of problems, but these are essentially short-term fixes and patches; if we recognize them as such, it is easier to have an honest conversation about trying to effect more meaningful, long-term improvements.
- Choose to act differently.
The final requirement is that those empowered to do so choose to act. The decision to act or not is a question of risk management — political, financial and resource management risk. But it is also invariably fraught with the more human influences of culture, nostalgia, aspiration, fear and what Francis Bacon described as the preference for truths that we would rather believe. Good design and good science can help reduce the risk. Good outreach and communication can pave the way to making such decisions more possible.