My fear is that technology and innovation have almost made our civilization regress at an inverse relationship to innovation. Don’t misinterpret my statement. I love technology as much as the next person, just ask my iPad sitting next to me. The concern is not so much with technology itself as with the mis-application (or over-application) of it. Instances of misapplied technology in planning and development can often be found in connection with an over-dependence on specialists or experts.
We cannot take the word of the specialists as seriously as we once could. For example, many of the goals in development in today’s society revolve around sustainability. Sustainability in its simplest terms equals self-sufficient or independent. Very few places are capable of claiming to be self-sufficient, but you can bet that many do claim to be sustainable on a daily basis. If a place is ‘sustainable’, it is usually because it is not yet efficient to be dependent on others, or it is a conscious effort to be that way.
Consider storm drainage as an example of our failures from innovation. Prior to the highly effective mode of storm sewer pipes, manholes, etc., drainage used to be handled above grade, through infiltration. Today, this “new” innovation is referred to as “Green Infrastructure”, “Low Impact Development,” or “Light Imprint.” This is not anything new, this was common sense and at one time, the most cost-effective thing to do. In all actuality it still is the most cost-effective, though not used as often because it is much more main-stream (no pun intended), to design pipe infrastructure. If you are a civil engineer who is a specialist at designing pipe infrastructure, your efficiency is not readily available to think in terms of infiltration.
This fundamental problem with “specialists” reminds me of an interaction I had a few years ago with a transportation engineer. There was discussion of considering mass transit along a corridor in lieu of extensive highway widening equipped with miles of concrete clover leafs. When mass transit was brought up, this particular engineer told me quite candidly that “these sorts of things should not be brought up in a public meeting.” I asked why, and his response was “Well, I don’t know how to design that.” This response has remained in my head since as a problem with our society, as I am sure that this was not isolated to this individual only.
The following is an excerpt from a great book titled “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution.” It exposes one additional element that contributes to the over-design of our places:
“One reason that buildings are inefficient is that the compensation paid to architects and engineers is frequently based directly or indirectly on a percentage of the cost of the building itself or of the equipment they specify for it. Designers who attempt to eliminate costly equipment therefore end up with lower fees, or at best with the same fees for a greater amount of work.”
In the end, we have to question whether the “experts” are the actual experts when it comes to building communities that are truly “sustainable”, “cost-effective”, or just plain livable. We also have to question whether designs that are technologically impressive are necessarily the best. Expertise has incredible value in itself, but our society tends to depend too much on a diagnosis by a specialist instead of examining all the options and opinions surrounding an issue. This is true across many areas of life -- think of our typically blind dependence on medical doctors. The best physicians view the body as a whole, and take into account all the systems instead of focusing too heavily on one “specialty”. In the same way, our communities will benefit from a holistic approach to planning in which the advice of the experts is tempered by a panoramic view of what will be desirable in the long-term.
But it’s easier to just take their word for it, and hail technology as the final word in “smart” planning. That’s where we get to make the decision whether to be lazy or vigilant in our quest for more livable places.