From Game to Dynamic Simulation: Collective Learning in Maps and Pictures

Simple Model of Basin to support discussion- used for first workshop

As simple model of the situation under study is presented to stakeholders well acquainted with the issue. Here we’re concerned about flooding, and the interaction between agriculture, mining, erosion, rainfall, and dam water releases. The knowledgeable stakeholders discuss among themselves and provide feedback.

Components from Playing 1st Workshop

Now it’s time to play! In this role playing game the participants play as lowland farmers, upland farmers, or dam managers under conditions of normal or heavy rainfall. The lowland farmers plant either rice or vegetables and are vulnerable to flooding caused by erosion from upland farming, and/or unfortunately timed releases from dam.

Map of Low Level Flooding Phonsi Village- workshop 2 p11

Of course that first group didn’t have all the information. Now we go out to the villages, and get them to give input on how they are affected by the floods, e.g. where flooding occurs and negative and positive effects such as destruction of fishing equipment or increases in soil productivity.

Village plus basin combined map from 3rd workshop

Now we’re ready to link the river basin scale and village level dynamics in a game that includes even a wider group of stakeholders (see the white village maps). Here, white stones represent water, and black stones represent sedimentation.

Action cards from 3rd Session

Of course, what drives sedimentation, as well as people’s vulnerability to the impacts of flooding, are human actions. The game allows people to take actions based on those they would take in real life.


Final Presentation of simulation

The common understanding of the drivers and impacts of funding has now been developed and checked multiple times. This understanding is formalized in a computer simulation which helps policy makers plan, analyze, and predict the effects of different management options

Presentation of Game

And for those who want a more dynamic and engaged understanding of the flooding issue, an electronic version of the game is also delivered.


Lessons from the Failure of the Stormwater Rule: The Need for Meaningful Public Participation and Relevant Analysis

Those of you who know me know that I am very proud of the four and a half years I worked at the U.S. EPA’s Office of Water, first as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Fellow and then as an environmental protection specialist and economist. Fewer of you will know that every major effort I worked on as a federal employee more or less failed. This was not due to any failings on the part of the people there, the staff and management remain one of the smartest and dedicated groups I have ever met. And even the undeniable budgetary and partisan political troubles can not take the full share of the blame. No, our failures stemmed from how poorly institutions and organizations set up in the 1970s are suited to deal with 21st century environmental problems.

So what I took out of my time at U.S. EPA were the lessons of failure. And nothing taught more lessons than the high profile failure of the Stormwater Rule.

Stormwater 101: Trees and dirt have a different hydrology than roads and buildings. This has environmental implications.









Taking dramatic action to deal with the damage to U.S. waterbodies caused by stormwater running off buildings and roads wasn’t a bad idea. Dramatic changes were necessary in how stormwater was managed and regulated in the United States to prevent further degradation of said waterbodies. The U.S. EPA had more or less left the issue to the states for many years and while some had made significant and exciting progress, many were doing virtually nothing.

Our specific regulatory approach itself wasn’t bad or uninformed either, it had been developed by some very smart people with decades of experience with the issue area itself and the nuts and bolts of how to get things done in Washington, D.C. In many ways we were implementing a tried and tested U.S EPA approach to environmental regulation: let the states experiment, and then use the lessons from that experimentation to set a minimum technical standard that the states that were straggling behind would have to meet.

No, the problem was the institutional context in which we were operating, which as I noted above, was still tuned to fix the environmental problems of the 1970s where the problems could be easily traced to some big building with a pipe spewing gross stuff that killed the fish.

Before U.S. EPA management and the White House could come to a final decision about the proposed regulation, however, the agency was going to have to go through the full regulatory process, which means that even the most sensible sounding and pragmatic policy (such as we thought ours was) has a lot of hoops to jump through before it becomes law.

This is because decisions, particularly decisions by public authorities, often have unintended consequences and attempts to solve a problem in one area may lead to frustration, misunderstanding, and even adversely affect public health, the environment, and people’s livelihoods in other areas. The solution is to create an opportunity for affected and interested parties to make their voices heard, and in the U.S. a federal requirement that authorities include the public in their decision making process has existed at least since the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969. And “public participation” requirements in some form or another are pretty commonplace in Europe as well, as I would imagine they should be in any nominally democratic society.

And we can imagine the ideal public participation process. New information is brought to the public authorities, they reconsider and redesign their policy appropriately, and the harms the policy would have caused are avoided or at least minimized. Perhaps the process takes a bit longer, and the final policy costs a bit more, but overall society is richer, more equitable, and just plain better off. But how often is this ideal realized?

I can’t say exactly. On the margins, when minor tweaks to the policy are required, maybe exempting some small population from the regulation or giving them extra protection, say not requiring businesses below a certain size to fill out a lengthy report to the government, or putting some extra resources into inspecting potentially toxic substances in schools, public input and participation can be very effective.

But when the changes to the anticipated policy become more than little tweaks, simple participation may not lead to any meaningful improvement of the policy, and may just lead to confusion and distrust. Some problems just aren’t that easy to characterize or solve, and the public authority may very well find its attempt to solve the problem characterized as being a problem in itself. In these “Wicked Problems” even formulation what the problem is, is a problem, often problems are not understood until after a solution has been formulated.

Let’s say for example you have too much waste piling up for the city dump to handle. The problem may be that the dump is too small, that you need a recycling program, or simply that the citizens should not consume as much stuff (NRC 1996).

As stakeholder groups (waste haulers and environmental activists in the above example) are likely to have varying solutions, they likely won’t be able to agree on what the problem was in the first place.

So we moved forward with our formulation of the solution (which was tied to our formulation of the problem, i.e. the need for U.S. EPA to set a standard) for the damage caused by stormwater runoff from streets and buildings. Our solution being a regulatory requirement that would require newly developed and redeveloped land to try to mimic natural hydrology. We believed that this could be implemented in a relatively cost effective manner as we had seen a lot of very attractive projects which had used green infrastructure such as rain gardens and green roofs and new “low impact development” techniques to accomplish just this. Some had even saved money and seen higher sale prices because, well, people like plants.

We had listening sessions across the country where people commented on our proposed changes to administrative law. Some people liked our program, some didn’t. And many just brought a lot of new information to the table. For example, a major barrier to the use of green infrastructure was that it wasn’t allowed under local building codes. For something like this we could issue guidance and allow local authorities some time to revise these codes. Other issues weren’t so easily resolved. For example, we were only looking at regulating new and redevelopment within urbanized areas, what if this perversely pushed more sprawl as developers sought to avoid the costs of regulation? And could the new techniques, which infiltrated the rainwater and anything it was carrying into the ground lead to groundwater contamination? And how burdensome would this be for the construction industry, would it substantially increase home prices?

These questions and many others were debated inside and outside of the U.S. EPA for the entire rulemaking process, and many of the debates go on even though the rule itself died in March 2014. And the process and the extensive information gathering, modeling, and analysis that were connected to it were not able to build any kind of broad consensus for or against the regulation we were proposing.

Which sounds funny. Having collected and analyzed all this information we should have “known” more and so it should have been clearer whether the regulation was a good or bad idea. But we hadn’t dealt with the fact that we had a wicked problem on our hands, or rather we were trying to deal with one aspect of a whole host of interconnected issues relating to urban development, and we couldn’t convince stakeholders that we could pursue our goals without stepping on their toes and causing problems in the issue areas they cared about.

Now, as I learned in our efforts to make sense of what happened, the problem of building consensus and understanding around government actions which involve difficult to interpret science and political disagreement was not unique to this effort. Back in 1996 the National Research Council (NRC) took a stab at addressing similar issues which had been encountered by a number of U.S. entities, including the U.S. Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, EPA, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and American Industrial Health Council, and the Electric Power Research Institute in its report Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society.

The thinking in the report remains state of the art today and it contains many concrete examples of where the process to inform the public and develop the appropriate scientific analysis was done correctly, and where it was done poorly. If the recommendations of the report had been implemented broadly at U.S. EPA, we would have been far more likely to have avoided the expensive and very public failure that was the process to establish a Stormwater Rule.

And process is the key word here. The final rule could be challenged in court if we did not comply with certain federal requirements which included when you have to publish notices in the Federal Register, how long comment periods need to be open for, what additional statues have to be considered, and what analyses have to be conducted. Where we fell down with the Stormwater Rule is that we formulated the broad outlines of the problem, and the solution, relatively early, and then treated the (admittedly substantial) process requirements that had been given to us as boxes to be checked, or hurdles to be jumped, on our way to a final decision. Don’t get me wrong, we did listen and conducted the elements of the process with complete sincerity, but how open we could be about changing our approach was limited by the fact that we knew basically where we wanted to go, and we didn’t have much time to get there as we started work in earnest in 2009 and planned to propose by the end of 2012. That is a very very aggressive schedule for a government action of the size we were conceiving.

In the above mentioned report (Understanding Risk) the NRC is emphatic that the process must be gotten right (NRC 1996, p. 22), and the process element which the NRC warns most strongly against using without broad based deliberation was exactly the element which killed our rulemaking, that is the cost benefit analysis (NRC 1996, p. 104) and the many “judgements that are implicit” in the techniques that makes such an analysis possible.

Now the superficial reason that the cost benefit analysis killed the Stormwater Rule was that costs were higher than benefits, and no doubt having higher benefits than costs would have strengthened the political hand of U.S EPA management and made them more likely to issue the rule. But getting high “monetized benefits” around water issues is notoriously difficult, and many regulations have been issued in which costs were much higher then benefits (I recall a rule of thumb for water rules being that costs should be no more than three times benefits).

The reason that federal agencies are allowed to issue regulations is even when a cost benefit analysis is unfavorable for taking an action, it may still make sense to take the action. This is because the meaning of costs and benefits in the context of a formal analysis is deceptively narrow and technical and understanding precisely the final numbers of any given analysis requires not only a significant background in economics but some familiarity with how methodologies were implemented in that specific study. In the environmental context, these terms are even less intuitive because one must rely on “non-market valuation” which depends on a very specific and even more technical body of research.

To cover quickly how “cost” and “benefit” are used in everyday speech as opposed to in a formal analytic setting, let’s consider that while many of us consider increasing equality to be a “benefit,” there is no way that equality can be considered in the framework of a cost benefit analysis . Other qualitative factors of interest such as sustainability, resiliency, or innovativeness, might be translated into monetized terms in a cost benefit analysis, but it is likely that after the translation process such terms would only bare a tangential relation to our everyday usage of the terms, and thus the analysis would be likely misleading in broader debate.

The point is: cost benefit analysis is only useful if decision makers and stakeholders understand how to interpret the results. And when it comes to complicated environmental regulations this is rarely if ever the case. Air regulations often have much higher benefits than costs but this is because small particulate matter is likely to lead to human deaths. Now it does seem that avoided deaths should translate into HUGE benefits, obviously human deaths are first and foremost what we wish to prevent, but discussing human death in a cost benefit analysis requires putting a monetary value on human life, in the case of the U.S. government standard values are between $7 million to $9 million per human life (these come from very technical studies about how much money Italian miners demand for more dangerous work). Check your intuition on these numbers for a second. Then consider that simply multiplying one of these numbers together by the number of expected deaths likely forms the core of the several billion dollars in potential benefits reported in the news regarding a big new air regulation.

If you have any skepticism about placing a value of $7 million to $9 million dollars on each individual human life, you probably would have preferred to look simply at the number of people likely to die without the new regulation. Then you might be able to make a judgement call based on what you thought was a manageable cost for industry. The problem we are now faced with is that we as a society don’t have a nice analysis to make the implicit judgement for us. What you decide is “manageable” will say something about your judgement, and thus also about you, and your judgement is likely to be inextricably linked to whether your child suffers from asthma or you have to install the control technology on your coal plant, whether you’re a Greenpeace volunteer or a Koch Industries lobbyist. Very quickly what seemed to be an entirely technical matter has become a political one.

And here are the Scylla and Charybdis which any decision making process which is at the same time scientific and yet political must steer between.

I’m going with the overly political process running into the old Scylla monster.

Overly technically and analytically oriented decision making processes threaten to confuse and obscure understanding of relevant stakeholders, the public, and even the decision makers themselves; overly politically oriented processes may never be able to arrive at a consensus on the facts at hand. But in a well tuned process, consensus and understanding go hand in hand, just as technical analyses can support and inform political deliberation.

Now designing and carrying out such a process is more of an art than a science. But this is an art that can be informed by prior cases, as the “Understanding Risk” report shows. An example of a successful effort comes from the Man and Biosphere Program (MAB) which was organized by the U.S. Department of State. I assure you, given the scope of the issues involved, success was not assured:

In a MAB activity over several years, more than 100 natural and social scientists from various federal and state agencies and from universities have considered policy options for managing surface water so as to maintain a sustainable ecosystem in and around Florida’s Everglades (Harwell et. al., in press). Changes in the ecosystem and possible responses to them entail risks to endangered species, to drinking water quality in nearby metropolitan areas, and to the livelihoods of sugar growers. The scientists considered all these risks carefully, but from a perspective different from that typical to risk assessments.


They defined the problem not as one of estimating and reducing risks, but as one of developing a shared vision of desired conditions of the ecosystem. The then identified development strategies consistent with such a vision and proposed governance structures that could adaptively manage the social-ecological system and it changed and new knowledge developed. They considered several scenarios for change in human management of the ecosystem and analyzed them in terms of their compatibility with goals of sustainable economic and social development and with a widely shared vision of ecosystem use. The MAB effort is noteworthy for its problem driven approach, particularly its extensive and explicit efforts to understand the decisions to be made, rather than presuming that decision makers would gain the understanding they needed from estimates of the ecological, health, and economic costs and benefits of previously defined choices. In fact, the process generated policy options that had not previously been considered and might be more acceptable, both socially and ecologically, than any that might otherwise have been considered (NRC 1996, p. 18-19). (Emphasis added)

In addition to specific cases such as the one mentioned above, there is a good deal of general practical knowledge out there and agencies would do well to direct more of the attention to the “craft” of meaningful public participation. Such effort shouldn’t be seen as a distraction for scientific work to inform policy, but rather as a necessary step to ensuring that the data gathered and analyzed answer the relevant questions. And what the relevant questions are is never clear at the outset of a policy making process which involves a complicated mix of politics and science.

And those of you who know me very well or read my post at the beginning of the year, have heard of the huge potential I see in participatory modeling, particularly participatory modeling exercises aided by computer simulation. Such exercises have been shown to help stakeholders from diverse backgrounds to come to a common representation and understanding of the problem, and thus a common and trusted vision for a way forward. As I develop my work with an approach that uses these exercises, my experiences with the Stormwater Rule and stormwater issues more generally will certainly be foremost on my mind. And I invite any practitioners or researchers struggling with these issues to contact me through the comment form on this blog or at chris.moore [at]

Stern and Fineberg. Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society. National Research Council. 1996.

Level up to Systems: From Design to Game Design Thinking

Design thinking has enjoyed incredible success in the for-profit sector and is increasingly extended to products and services aimed at positive social impact. To tackle systemic and persistent “wicked” problems however, design thinking will have to be enhanced with techniques from game design.

Where there are start-ups, there is design thinking, and the reason why is relatively clear. When developing a radically new product or service, there are a lot of risks and a lot of unknowns that mean even brilliant start-up ideas won’t make sense as an ongoing business concern. At least not as it was originally conceived.

Design thinking mitigates such risks, or at least increases the chances of revealing them before you’ve dropped millions of dollars in development.  Empathizing with the user and maintaining a laser-like focus on his or her experience and developing rough and ready prototypes for feedback often means that either an idea fails quickly, in which case you move on to the next one, or that the final product or service offers exactly features and experience that the user wants.

The design thinking approach can be contrasted with the waterfall development, a model rooted in the age of mass manufacturing.

Waterfall Development (c/o Wikipedia)

The waterfall model was originally adopted for software development, and the reasoning was also fairly clear: it follows far more closely our ideal of a rational course of action than design thinking. Figure out what the end user wants up front and then figure out the most efficient way to get it to them. Easy peazy, lemon squeezy.

The hard part is when the user doesn’t know what he or she wants up front. Or thinks that she knows, but changes her mind once she starts using it. Doesn’t like this feature, would really like to have this one. Or even worse, maybe there is just something “off.” Here design becomes less of a rational or linear process, but rather one of empathy, intuition, and experimentation, and this is where design thinking excels.

If we check out the design thinking’s Wikipedia entry we see it is associated with addressing wicked problems, “a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing” (Rittel and Webber 1972). Wicked problems include those such as persistent poverty, which has proven to be more than a match for efficient manufacturing processes and many of our current environmental problems, which the successes of mass production played and continue to play their role in creating.

But while design thinking has shaken up the hotel industry through AirBnB and IDEO, and the leader in the practice is now moving to disrupt the remarkably resilient consulting industry, we have yet to see any exciting new businesses make progress on disrupting the problems we really care about, our persistent and evolving social and environmental problems. And while social impact accelerators and incubators exist and are producing all sorts of exciting companies and ideas, we have not yet seen social start-ups scale to make inroads on the pressing problems of our day, and even the most successful are currently not within any reasonable distance or disrupting or acting as a reasonable complement or alternative to our current, highly inefficient and unsatisfactory political and policy making processes.

The reason is that design thinking was developed primarily for developing consumer products, it gives the consumer what he wants. But there is no single product or service to ensure that water is used in a socially equitable and sustainable way, or to eliminate poverty, i.e. the problems that Rittel found to be truly wicked. Fortunately there was an approach developed explicitly for wicked problems, and it has been used with success by a community of practitioners working in renewable resource management since 2000.

The approach, ComMod, has an orientation that will not be completely foreign to practitioners of design thinking. Empathy is inherent, as is prototyping. The difference is the type of client it is aimed at, and the type of design problems it aims to take on. It is geared towards solving problems in social and ecological systems by assisting with the design of institutions, and thus by necessity it is equipped to deal with a higher degree of complexity and uncertainty than design thinking, as well cope with very diverse values among the clients, i.e the users and managers of the resource system. The client is not an individual consumer, the client is society, or rather the segment of society that is concerned about or involved with a particular wicked problem.

To deal with the complexity endemic to issues such as protecting biodiversity, and promoting best practices of land and water management, ComMod puts researchers at the center of the process. Clear decisions on such issues are of little use if they do not have an adequate scientific and technical basis. But as these are wicked problems, and thus are not clearly formulated, it is not clear from the outset where the researchers should devote their time. Different stakeholders will have different understandings of the underlying problem, as well as what the solutions are likely to be, and thus different takes on which factual matters need further research and which are irrelevant. If the researcher merely begins research without consulting the stakeholders, her work is likely to reflect her disciplinary background research interests which maybe be academically interesting and useful. But if she consults the stakeholders she gets a problem similar to the one our design thinkers deal with, stakeholders will be unable to give a common or coherent view of what the goals and requirements of the research should be.

And this is where the game design and prototyping come in. Starting with one stakeholder group the researchers are able to get one perspective on the underlying problem, and possible solutions, and then are able to represent that understanding of the system of interest through a role playing game. This artifact, the game, can then be played by other stakeholders in the system and critiqued and iteratively improved. Stakeholders with diverse backgrounds are now working from a common object, understanding the assumptions and important facts of others, and seeing their own views incorporated and critiqued.

They also engage with and “play” with the problem and each other, which can allow them to temporarily put aside their own frame of reference, and thus better understand those of others and become more open to creative solutions. This avoids the situation often endemic to wicked problems, where stakeholders continuously argue past each other. It also looks a lot like the “second generation” model of planning advocated by Rittel and Webber, one that is an “argumentative process in the course of which an image of the problem and of the solution emerges gradually among the participants, as a product of incessant judgment, subjected to critical argument” (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

A ComMod river basin game (c/o Paolo Campo)

A ComMod river basin game (c/o Paolo Campo)

Prototyping isn’t everything. The final research product to support decision making is accomplished by simulations based on the final prototype in a computer environment. But this research product is far more likely to be relevant to the important decisions at hand, as well as understood and accepted by the involved parties, because they played a role in creating it.

ComMod has been applied successfully in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and Oceania, it has been used for issues surrounding agriculture, biodiversity, water scarcity and flooding, livestock, fishery and forest management. That it is not more widely used and known is likely a function of language, the approach was developed by French researchers (ComMod standing for Companion Modelling being a somewhat awkward translation from La Modélisation Comme Outil D’Accompagnement) and because the practicing community has remained largely in academia. Both of these are changing however, as new geographic settings bring new linguistic settings, and as private practice is increasing. Lisode is a private firm that serves French language clients, and Sim4Act, which will bring ComMod to English language clients (full disclosure: I am a co-founder of Sim4Act), is currently in its start-up phase.

These are welcome developments, as the increased use of ComMod is important for communities facing traditional wicked and commons problems such as resource scarcity and ecosystem management, or ones trying to grapple with new ones such as climate change adaptation. ComMod promises to be an important tool in the hands of policymakers and citizens trying to deal with politically contentious risk management problems where science is necessary but not sufficient to drive decision making. It fits neatly with the National Research Council’s (NRC) recommendations a number of U.S. entities, including the U.S. Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, EPA, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and American Industrial Health Council, and the Electric Power Research Institute in its report Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society. ComMod fits the bill of the “analytic-deliberative” process that the NRC recommends, and offers an excellent alternative to cost benefit analysis, an approach which the NRC openly warns against as being bureaucratically convenient, but often poor at informing the public.

In an era of persistent and multiplying wicked problems, it’s time to take extend design thinking’s successes based on empathy and prototyping our urgent social and environmental problems through game design thinking. It’s time to scale up from individual users to systems.

Rittel, Horst W. J. 1972a. On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the First and Second Generations. Reprinted from: Bedrifts Økonomen (Norway), No. 8, October, 1972. Reprint 107. Berkeley: University of California at Berkeley, Institute of Urban and Regional Development, as cited in Buchanan 1992

Rittel, Horst WJ, and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy sciences 4.2 (1973): 155-169.


Managing Power Inequalities in Policy Making: An Encouraging Case

Those with the power make the rules, and with a few notable exceptions, the rules usually benefit those with the power. This is a general truth in human affairs.

For those of us who live in democratic societies, this often means living with the contradiction of nominal equality before the law and in political power (“one man, one vote”) versus reality: the few who wield economic power have a disproportionate voice in the political process through their lobbyists, and extra protection before the law with the help of their high-end lawyers.

Requiring that everyone have a seat at the table, and thus a voice in the process is a common way to assure that actions in the public arena do not neglect society’s less fortunate. But even if the less fortunate are able to make it to the table, just a seat at the table doesn’t make you an equal, and certainly doesn’t guarantee that your interests will be represented in any final decision. Power dynamics have a way of playing themselves out around a table, too. Continue reading

Coming to a harbor near you, surf!

While bushy blonde hairdos are not uncommon in Finland, there’s a reason there are no songs about surfing Hel-sin-ki. So imagine my surprise to see video of surf-able waves on Helsinki harbor. Naturally my curiosity was piqued. This Californian has spent a good portion of his life living in and visiting places with no surf. And fellow stranded surfer Atso Anderson was kind enough to show me the surf machine he had proposed to Aalto University upon returning from a week of surfing in Portugal.

Container and power plant

The container, at this “break” the pulley system is attached at the far side so surfers ride from the power plant towards the container (when the water surface isn’t frozen).

The system is built to be mobile. All the components of the surf generator fit inside a shipping container. All you need is a waterbody, a place to attach the pulley system on the far side, and an electric power source. Switch it on and the pulley system pulls two “wings” though the water at the depth of 1.5 meters. You’ve got surf!

For the exact physics of the system you’ll have to look elsewhere. My social science and more traditional surfing experiences are not good starting points for explaining how you produce a breaking wave with a pair of airplane like wings. A few master theses have been produced on the subject and a couple of professors at Aalto University are working out how to adjust the shape of the wave for optimal surf-ability.

I was interested to learn from Atso that this project has been integrated into an urban renewal and development project by the City of Helsinki, interestingly enough with a water quality component. The presence of the power plant and industrial legacy of the harbor front meant that many residents perceived the water as polluted, even though it is now flushed with sea water and the power plant filters its cooling water. The presence of the wave got people in the water immediately. Continue reading

(Herbert) Simon Says: We do not live in a market economy, but in an organization economy.

As I’ve noted, the ongoing ardent private/public debate has more to do with ideology and the political battles of yesteryear, than with anything to be reflected among either scholars studying the water sector or any interesting debates in the economic community. Yes, markets remain indisputably important, as is their study, but before we get to discussing politics we have to discuss organizations because, as Herbert Simon notes, organizations cover far more of the earth’s surface than markets do.

As we talk about organizations either in the private or the public sector, we are talking about bureaucracies. They are imperfect creatures that attempt to minimize uncertainty through hierarchy and procedure. Yes there are fine distinctions about organizational forms that may be taken under public or private law, but the ideological debates are not based on these. For a case of how meaningless this distinction can be one need look no father than the case of water utilities in Hessen. When faced with a mandatory price reduction from the “Cartell Authority,” the utilities chose to simply change their legal form (in this case from private to public) as this would allow them to avoid the Cartell Authority’s authority and maintain their price structure.
No, rather the debates are about whether given bureaucracies should orient themselves around fiscal or social motives or, as is more likely these days, some mix of both.These debates will go on, but they should not distract us from the fact that no matter what goals are counted or valued, any bureaucracy is at some point likely to fail. And this failure may have significant and previously unforeseen effects on its internal or external stakeholders, or for society at large.

Sometimes this failure can be understood in the language of politics and economics, but more often than not, this failure must also be understood in the language of public and business administration. And it is a dull, boring, unfortunate, but vital language of human affairs. Indeed, if there is something you want to accomplish, put rhetoric in your quiver, pull science from its sheath, but boredom is your armor, if you hope to fight another day:

 “I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

― David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Continue reading

The Lab and the Field, and the Temptation of Rigor

“Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge.” -F.A. Hayek, 1945


As it was in 1945 it is today. There is the sense that if you can’t say something scientifically, you haven’t said it properly. And, more dangerously, there is a sense that better science requires more rigor and more formalization. The result is general confusion, and often bad science, as we attempt to talk about what cannot be said, or should not be said scientifically, in scientific (and more rigorous) terms. This sense has led to a butchery of many humanities departments, a good deal of blood-letting in the social sciences, and the emergence of weird quasi-disciplines such as “management-science” (shudder).

I too am sometimes tempted by rigor to the detriment of other considerations, and I wish to explore the twilight areas between scientific knowledge and straight-up knowledge in a series of blog posts. I am going to start with a couple of my favorite disciplines, philosophy and political science, and discuss the damage that the need to state all knowledge in scientific terms, and to go all too far down the road of rigor and formalization can cause.

With philosophy I couldn’t even start in academia. My love of the subject from high school was quickly quashed by two dreadfully comitted professors (one a very old Kantian, the other  fearfully into C.I. Lewis). It took me almost a decade to recover and rediscover the discipline. I did so outside the academic, by listening to podcasts by Hubert Dreyfus while working a dead-end job, and through the work of Robert Frodeman around interdisciplinary research.

Dreyfus is a wonderful and perceptive humanist, and have no worries, he will be well covered in further posts. Frodeman is lesser known, but also highly significant, and his term “field philosophy,” is a nice starting place for reclaiming the aforementioned, and other disciplines lost to the perils of misplaced scientific rigor. He explains the term briefly here:

Another group of philosophers, myself included, is experimenting with an approach we call “field philosophy.” Field philosophy plays on the difference between lab science and field science. Field scientists, such as geologists and anthropologists, cannot control conditions as a chemist or physicist can in the lab. Each rock outcrop or social group is radically individual in nature. Instead of making law-like generalizations, field scientists draw analogies from one site to another, with the aim of telling the geological history of a particular location or the story of a particular people.


“Getting out into the field” means leaving the book-lined study to work with scientists, engineers and decision makers on specific social challenges. Rather than going into the public square in order to collect data for understanding traditional philosophic problems like the old chestnut of “free will,” as experimental philosophers do, field philosophers start out in the world. Rather than seeking to identify general philosophic principles, they begin with the problems of non-philosophers, drawing out specific, underappreciated, philosophic dimensions of societal problems.


And there is a lesson that the political science discipline could take from the distinction between lab and field work. When I was at U.C. San Diego I was incredibly surprised by how the political science PhD students were completely unrecognizable from the feisty undergrads and Capitol Hill staffers I had previously had the pleasure to study and work with.

This new breed of political scientists to the one had a mathematical model from which they worked. And unless you wanted to talk econometrics (an interesting subject in its own right, I’ll give you) you really couldn’t engage them. A curiousity in the novel, the interesting, and what happened out there in the real world, the “field” just wasn’t there. While the previous political types I had met, scientific or not, would love to get into the specifics, or more likely a debate, about a  theory, or policy, or campaign, this breed couldn’t even be bothered to talk about what it was like to work among the Congressmen whose votes they were aggregating and analyzing.

Those of us looking for political science solutions around specific environmental problems, should also consider the significance field work. “Governance” puts a charmingly technical and abstract common term on a wide set of of problems. But just as the geological context of the problem may be “radically individual” in nature and thus only interpretable comparatively, so may the political or “governance” problem. And particularly when these political and geological (and biological and economic) problems are linked together, understanding of the problem(s) and solution(s) must start out in the field, even at the sacrifice of rigor and formalization.



Decline in Italian Design

How are Italian water services like Italian airport security?

They both go downhill.Declining Design 1

And that’s a good thing.

Gravity can be your friend and has been Italy’s friend since Roman times as water from the Alps has been directed to do what it does best: flow downhill. In doing so it quenches Italy’s thirsty crops and cities. And the result, says Dr. Antonio Massarutto of the University of Udine, is that Italy spends substantially less on pumping water than flatter countries such as Germany.

Not that all is calm in Italy. Like U.S. cities, Italian cities have underinvested in water infrastructure for quite some time. Legislation that was unanimously passed in 1994 to make up this gap resulted in, always unpopular, rapid tariff increases. The public expressed their displeasure in an initiative in 2011 in which 95% of voters voted to overturn a provision stating that tariffs must fully cover the costs but which was perceived (incorrectly) as guaranteeing profits for private companies.

Indeed, as elsewhere, privatization has become a political hot point. And sadly one withDeclining Design 2 the potential to distract from the underlying issue. That is when tariffs are kept too low for many years, substantial increases are needed to make up the difference, and in the short term customers will not see the value they are getting for their money.

The national regulator continues to require full cost recovery in the tariffs and whether it can do so is now in the courts. The court’s decision will be handed down in the next couple of weeks.

My conversation with Dr. Massarutto in Florence also covered issues such as raising private capital, the benefits of public participation, and subsidies to address income inequality. You can look forward to learning more in a paper I am working on with funding from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and hosted by the Ecologic Institute.

The solutions for sustainable water infrastructure aren’t simple anywhere. But as the very clever gravity operated system at the security line at Pisa airport demonstrates, sometimes you just can’t beat Italian design.

Water Sector Privatization: The Anger and the Analysis

Yesterday I presented my project to a wider audience at the Ecologic Institute. I believe that it was quite well received and there was a lively question and answer session after it was over. Not surprisingly, the privatisation of water sector assets and management came up. This is clearly a burning issue brought up by former colleagues in D.C., the press, and on the ground here in Berlin where the utility is now fully back in public hands. A couple of weeks ago I started digging into the debate and the literature, and I feel like I’m starting to get a handle on this issue.

I started my investigation with a strong critique of the World Bank’s promotion and financial support of private involvement in the water sector. The critique comes from the Corporate Accountability International (CAI), a group that cut its teeth in a boycott of Nestle for its practice of promoting baby formula despite unsafe conditions in developing countries. It’s very clear they’re very upset, and for good reason. As they point out in the report:

  • more people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including even war; and

  • waterborne diseases are a leading cause of death among children under five, killing more infants than HIV/AIDs, malaria and tuberculosis combined. (CAI 2012, p. 2)

And despite these challenges, CAI believes that the World Bank has spent the last two decades promoting privatization as the one and only solution without evidence and often despite strong public resistance in recipient countries. Additionally, despite high profile failures such as with Manila water, where a tidy profit was made despite any significant progress on connecting more households, the World Bank continues to push privatization and take a financial stake in the profitability of such projects through the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

The CAI admits that the World Bank acknowledges that hopes of private investment in water infrastructure, particularly for expanding access, have been largely dashed and that the World Bank has retreated to promoting the operational efficiency that can come from private sector management.

Indeed on the failures of privatization to attract significant private investment in water infrastructure, the World Bank and CAI are largely in agreement. The CAI’s critique largely rests on World Bank documents such as this. Where they differ is whether the term operational efficiency has real meaning or is a cynical cover for promoting continued corporate profit.

I believe that here is where CAI goes to far. They start mocking successes by private management at  the reduction of “non-revenue water” water and enforcing bill collection. Given that non-revenue water is just an industry term for water waste, CAI shouldn’t get so cute. Wasting water, moreover wasting water after it has been treated, is a problem for society as a whole. And the ability of utilities to collect sufficient revenues to sustainably run their operations is an area of significant concern, even in wealthy countries such as the United States.

And so CAI’s critique, while quite well written and informed at many points, can be summarized as a laying out failures of the past that the World Bank acknowledges and ending the appearance of impropriety from the IFC’s taking a financial stake (where they have a point). But ultimately it falls flat, as one can imagine, many systems were public before they were private, and everything wasn’t perfect back then either.

So at this point I started looking for something that could provide a different perspective on this public/private divide. Given my political science background I was quite tickled to try a 2006 article on governance in the water sector by Gordon McGranahan and David Satterthwaite at the International Institute for Environment and Development. Their treatment of the issue certainly has a lot more nuance than those of the CAI and World Bank, pointing out how the urban poor are often underserved under public systems as well as private, the importance of small scale private water entrepreneurs in filling gaps in the system, but also how corruption can even exist between public and private systems as public systems take kickbacks from the small scale entrepreneurs, who in turn gouge the poor. As corruption rears its ugly and very slippery head, we are told to focus on governance, a part of which is comes from improving economic circumstances of the poor, which maddeningly is presumably related to the availability of functioning infrastructure.

Needless to say, this is not a satisfying solution. Suddenly we’re into all the messiness of the world and having to fix multiple issues at the same time  as they all interact with each other in only partially understood ways. At this point one starts to appreciate how exciting the previously grand ideological commitment the World Bank had to privatization must have been. And the clarity of the CAI outrage which is based on very clear wrongs.
Even though one was clearly wrong and the other offers no clear direction beyond an alternative ideology, at least they offer clear guides to action. Which probably explains the continued salience of the private/public debate. It’s clear there are no panaceas in the water infrastructure arena. But the terms themselves awaken memories of intense ideological debates of the past, not least the policies of Reagan and Thatcher and the Washington Consensus. And they no longer stand for any coherent and comprehensive program for fixing our water infrastructure problems so much as they are markers of who one is and where one stands in relation to other people.

A (Technically Unsound) Technocratic Dream

I submitted this to the NYTimes as an op-ed last week. It wasn’t good for them. Passing up on stuff like this, no wonder they’re losing money! (Kidding).

An op-ed by Henry Petroski, civil engineering professor at Duke is an old reincarnation of the technocratic dream, get the politics out and just let the experts do their work, and everything will be fine. But while we’re almost always better off with experts than without, sometimes they get it wrong. As JFK said following the Bay of Pigs “All my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?”

Prof. Petroski himself diverts about halfway through the article from a rather nice discussion of changing perspectives on infrastructure and the limitations of cost and risk benefit analysis to make a political argument of his own. “Underdesigned” systems risk physical damage and human life we are warned. Yes an “underdesigned” system is always bad, but so is an overengineered system, which will needlessly waste resources with no benefit.

Prof. Petroski unfortunately does not realize that he has begun to make political arguments of his own, declaring that engineers are absolved of any responsibility to change their ways as we deal with climate change, we just need to give them enough money.

He holds up the efficiency of the Hoover Dam project as the ideal we should aspire to in contrast to the embarrassingly expensive and delayed Bay Bridge in California. But this equates the efficiency of the planning and building of the project with an ultimately successful outcome from the project. The Hoover Dam also took the brakes off growth in the arid Southwest and allowed massive cities and a thirsty agricultural system to sprawl in the desert. To the extent the dam aggravated unsustainable growth in this water poor region, we can say it was a disastrous and expensive failure, no matter how good the engineering was.

I worked for four and a half years at the U.S. EPA and spent much of my time working on water quality problems from stormwater runoff, a problem created by the last generation of engineers when they came up with what seemed to be a logical method to protect developed areas from flooding. In response to the water quality problem, a new generation of green infrastructure technologies, such as rain gardens and green roofs, and planning methods that favor preservation and connection between existing green areas have been developed to address both water quality and flooding problems in a cost effective manner. The technologies also offer carbon sequestration to adapt to climate change and reduce heat island effect which can help cities adapt to it.

These technologies didn’t develop in a vacuum or in a silo, they were the product of engineers and decision makers recognizing a problem and working together to make sure that the “know how” to address current problems existed and that the policy and political environment was such that this know how could be applied. Despite their promise, these techniques are often seen as unproven and resistance is still strong among those trained in the last generation of techniques and the policy environment can often hinder their adoption.
The challenges we face are immense and no professional or academic discipline is exempt from periodic re-examination of its role. Indeed, there is much consensus that the solutions to our problems will be interdisciplinary. And here Prof. Petroski might do well to consult economists and political scientists before laying the blame at an amorphous “political climate.” Because if we currently had all the money and the proper political institutions and decision making frameworks to solve our infrastructure problems in the face of a changing climate, they wouldn’t really be problems in the first place.