The evolution of a big idea is shared. You can sign up to support our Pennsylvania initiative by going to this website. Thank you for your support.
Show 103: Big Idea (60 MB)
Strong Towns Network
The evolutionary process you describe is an important concept, but I don't think it is the whole answer to our predicament. In fact, such processes lcan just as easily lead to disaster as success. You yourself pointed this out in your "Five Strategies" piece, which very much impressed me. You made the point that our current predicament is a result of escalating superstition. Another way to say that is we tried stuff and it seemed to work at the time. So we did more of it, and each time it seemed to work. Then suddenly everything collapsed. Evolutionary processes don't always produce resilience. It depends on the relative scales of different events. Sometimes an evolutionary process produces rapid growth and sudden destruction. The process has no goal or direction. It can't make long-term plans. It does whatever seems to work right now, even if it is screwing it's own future. This seems more like what led to our current predicament than a lack of experimentation.
There are also projects that can only work if they are done on a large enough scale. For example, I served for six years on the Public Transportation and Bicycle Committee in Amherst, MA. On this committee, I dealt regularly with people who thought that you do little experiments with bus service. They would want to cut service because of low ridership, and I would tell them, you have low ridership because the service sucks. You need to expand it, not cut it. Bus service is only valuable if it's reliable. People's travel decisions are ruled by routine, and it's very hard to change those routines. You can't judge the success of a new route by its ridership after only a few months. It takes a few years for people to feel like they can count on it enough to change their travel routines. LIkewise, you can't judge a new route by doing a few runs a day, and checking ridership before adding more runs. People need to know that the service is frequent enought that they won't get stranded. Some projects, if they are not done at a large enough scale, are guaranteed to fail.
We need not only experimentation, but also imagination, critical discusion, and healthy feedback structures. We need imagination because we need to envision where we want our series of small experiements to lead rather than just doing what seems to work at the time. We need critical discussion so that we can be confident we understand the results of our experiments rather than accumulating superstition. And we need healthy feedback structures so that successful expeiments are the ones that make society better, not the ones that are better at exploiting resources. Our destructive development is not guided by any imagination. What is the goal? How do know when to stop widening a highway? There is little critical discussion. Economic growth is is automatically assumed to be good. And we have unhealthy feedback and incentives. Building new stuff gets noticed. Preserving old stuff doesn't get noticed. Generating new revenue now gets noticed. Saving for the future doesn't get noticed. I think you have raised an important point, but I don't think it is as central I think you think it is.
Superstition is not always a bad thing, historically speaking. I think would I would focus on more than that, though, is the scale.
I don't want to do large scale until it emerges from small scale success. I realize that may mean that I leave opportunities on the table from time to time. Okay, I can live with that, especially if it means avoiding the massive, large scale failures that permeate the thinking about major infrastructure investments.
We can't have efficient and smart at the large scale. We can have efficient, but it will not be nuanced to what is actually going on at the ground nor nimble enough to adapt when conditions change. If we are more ground up, we won't have efficient. In fact, we will have more chaos, more bad decisions and more things that we would look at and agree are really stupid. Point is, they will be small scale and, thus, not fatal to our system.
The challenge in a bottom up system of innovation is to have platforms for sharing success AND failure and good ongoing dialog where everything is open to questioning.
I'm willing to give up efficiency and some order for smarter, more adaptable and evolutionary systems.