To Solve Sustainability Problems, Ask Those Most Affected

by | Jun 30, 2014

lawrence, gary, aecom“You may talk of the tyranny of Nero and Tiberius, but the real tyranny is the tyranny of your next-door neighbor.”

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.

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