Stasis Stifles Innovation, Holds Back Answers to Sustainability

by | May 21, 2013

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.

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