This past weekend I attended a conference at which one of the keynote speakers was Colonel Christopher Loria, a former astronaut. His talk focused on leadership. One story from the Q&A stuck with me throughout this week because it illustrates so perfectly the attitude with which we approach urban problems.



Have you ever wondered how zero gravity in space affects even mundane activities? If you think about it, even the most basic actions can become highly complicated to execute in space. Take drilling a hole — the example Colonel Loria shared. On occasion, astronauts need to drill holes, but without gravity to hold shavings down they become miniature projectiles that could damage eyes and lungs, or gum up critical systems.

As Colonel Loria tells it, a group of scientists and astronauts were tasked with devising a solution to deal with this problem. How would you deal with this? Did you immediately dream up an apparatus to cover the area and contain the debris? The consensus quickly coalesced around this intuitive approach and the scientists focused on a contraption consisting of a box and a vacuum to isolate the shavings while drilling.

During the brainstorming, one of the participants suggested something unusual: shaving cream. The others initially shrugged this idea off, but the scientist persisted. He had worked on airplanes and had learned to apply shaving cream to an area before drilling to capture the metal filings in the dense foam. Once the others had heard him out, the solution was both obvious and simple, and this is the method in use today on the International Space Station.

The impulse to build a bigger, better machine is deeply ingrained in us. As Colonel Loria pointed out, the solutions borne of consensus-building often suffer because of this dynamic. Our instincts to do more, coupled with a predisposition to accommodate everyone’s vision often produce complex solutions where each person contributes something to the mix — a sort of Rube Goldberg machine. It’s often easier to “buy” consensus with this complexity than to advance a simple but unintuitive idea. A good leader, according to Colonel Loria, is able to draw out the best solutions, however unconventional, and is also willing to push back against consensus in pursuit of excellence over merely getting the job done.

A related human quirk is a failure to see past the rigid categorizations for objects and ideas that we develop in our minds. Shaving cream is not an object typically used in home improvement; therefore, shaving cream was not initially considered by NASA scientists as an ideal medium for capturing drilling detritus. It took someone redefining the purpose of shaving cream to help the scientists see its application to their problem.

Our cities are subject to the same pressures. The Move MN campaign is a great example of building consensus by addition rather than questioning a fundamental premise. One of the strengths of Strong Towns is that it seeks to redefine the problems cities face such that shaving cream becomes an obvious solution.

Does your city have too much traffic congestion? Congratulate yourself on having a place worth visiting, then densify and build more destinations near existing residences.

Is your city struggling to pay for road maintenance? Stop building new roads.

Is housing becoming too expensive? Make it easier to build housing and eliminate opportunities for speculation.

In many cases the Strong Towns approach to issues contradicts the prevailing attitudes in the planning and engineering professions. That’s not because planners, engineers, and politicians are all fools or unthinking automatons. Rather, it’s a consequence of our very human tendency to gloss over the definition of a problem and focus on solutions that conform to our biases and preconceptions. And by the way, the professionals and politicians who steer the direction of our cities are probably more sensitive to the zeitgeist than you think.

This is why Strong Towns’ focus is on finding 1,000,000 people who care. Lasting change won’t emerge from the upper levels of government; it can only be accomplished through a shift in our collective culture.

(Top photo source: NASA)

Related stories