Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Can Applied Social Science Solve Important Problems? We'll See.

There's a move afoot to dramatically increase spending in the United States on social science research.  Right now, the National Science Foundation allocates less than 5% of its $7.5 billion annual budget on social science. Those who advocate a massive increase want to see additional money added to bring social science spending up to the same levels as biological, engineering and geoscience spending. Members of Congress have indicated that that any increase in spending must "be in the national interest." Presumably, they want social science spending to lead to immediate economic improvements. That would be a mistake. We need social science to help us solve pressing social problems, not to help us make more money.

There are all kinds of useful applied social science research projects that could be undertaken immediately.  Social scientists could show parents how to help their kids succeed in school, that might not increase the Gross Domestic Product any time soon, but it would surely help more citizens lead happier, healthier and fulfilling lives.  Social scientists could determine which forms of democratic engagement (at each level of government) increase citizen confidence that their voices are being heard. This would create a more trusting electorate and maybe a more responsive government, even if it doesn't boost the economy.  Social scientists could help determine which patterns of urban development are more likely to reduce the stresses of everyday life and allow people to live together with less friction and greater tolerance. This would allow all of us to enjoy more peaceful lives, even if more jobs aren't created in the short term.  As the push for a massive increase in social science spending gains momentum, we need to think hard about how we want this to unfold.

Right now, some advocates of increased social science spending are thinking in terms of funding a single new center that would oversee everything.  In my view, this would be a terrible blunder. First, this would require spending a huge amount of money on bricks and mortar,  creating the equivalent of yet another college campus, diverting funds from the work that needs to be done. We have more than enough university buildings all over the country. Let's use those to house a decentralized network of repurposed social science research centers. Right now, NSF spends about $270 million a year on social science research. They would have to multiple that by almost 20 times to achieve parity with spending on other topics!   What if there were $5 billion to spend every year on social science?  How could we make sure that the additional spending leads to improvements in our lives?

Imagine that a new Applied Social Science Program were organized very differently from traditional research efforts. Instead of funding individual university-based social scientists who submit research proposals, several million dollars might be allocated to a pre-approved array of community-based research centers in the 300 or so American cities with 100,000 or more residents. This would encourage partnerships among government, industry and local universities.  Funds might be allocated every five years (after the initial round) to those centers which can demonstrate that they have successfully answered the questions they set out to address. Public opinion surveys in each city would be used to gauge whether the research results were valued by residents.  This would require each center to figure out a way of communicating its findings to the public. (A failure to do so would mean no continued funding.)  The national coordinators of such a program could distribute a list of questions they'd like all the community-based centers to consider, but the final choice would be up to each center. The national coordinators could also take responsibility for ensuring that work completed across the country was synthesized and shared.  If the point of social science research it to help solve problems, then we need to make sure that problem-havers and problems-solvers are working together.

What I'm suggesting, of course, challenges in at least four ways the prevailing logic of how social science research is currently done.  First, we would stop relying on individual university-based social scientists to decide which problems or questions should be given priority. I don't see why or how a small set of social scientists ensconced in major research universities (or running a national research program) can know which problems are most important. Second, I would not leave it to social scientists to judge the worthiness of their colleagues' performance. Social science research needs to be useful to those who have to take action. Unless social science scholars can show that their research is being used to make better decisions, they should not count on further government subsidies. So, we need to make sure that experts are working with the communities and groups that need their help. Third, I would put the burden on social scientists to figure out how to make their research findings understandable to the public-at-large. A failure to do so would mean the end of their government support. Finally, I would suggest that the usefulness of social science research findings ought to be judged in particular contexts (not in general). Context is everything in the social sciences. Efforts to generalize (in the way that makes sense in the natural sciences) don't make sense in the social sciences. Any expansion of government funding of social science research should, therefore,  be decentralized (because problems are defined differently in different places), place-based (so that public officials who need to take action are involved in defining the problems that need attention in their area), and action-focused. Applied social science researchers should be accountable for the usefulness of the work they produce.

Many social scientists want to make social science more like the physical or natural sciences. That is, they want to "do science" in a way that produces generalizable and irrefutable results.  To that end,  economics is currently moving toward randomized control trials (RCTs) -- experiments in which proof of the sort we expect in medical trials can be achieved through social experiments that control for everything except the one variable we want to study. For instance, if you want to know whether a certain approach to getting people to eat more responsibly is working, you have to find two populations, similar in almost all respects, and give one group the information and resources you think they need to eat in a better way while withholding the same information and resources from the other (matched) group.  Putting aside the ethics of withholding something important from half the subjects in such experiments,  the goal of RCTs is to strip away the importance of context. The goal is to prove things that are universally true.  Unfortunately, social science doesn't really lend itself to this kind of manipulation.  What's true in one context, at one point in time, from one standpoint, is not necessarily true across the board.

In my view, we shouldn't be talking about making huge new investments in applied social science until we are clear about WHY we think such additional expenditures are needed, especially who ought to benefit from the new work and HOW success ought to be measured.  There are a great many people in a great many places struggling with problems that social science can help them address. Helping these individuals in ways that they find useful should be the goal of government-funded applied social research. Success should be measured primarily through the eyes of those who need the help, not through the eyes of the scholars doing the work.  If the same scholars can repurpose the work they do to contribute to peer-reviewed journals, that would be great. But scholarly success shouldn't be the primary goal of social science research.



Friday, December 26, 2014

Artists As New Partners in Community Development

My daughter, Lily, described to me how she feels as an artist when urban developers use her as a way to gain attention for their latest city redevelopment scheme (and claim tax credits), but don't ever invite her or other artists to join as equity partners. Lily is concerned that art-makers of various kinds will never be able to improve their lives if all they get is access to specialized space, like performance space, rehearsal space or reduced rents.  Lily lived and worked in Baltimore for a decade, deeply invested in various art scenes, and has been on the periphery of several city efforts (like those in other cities) aimed at triggering redevelopment by encouraging investment in new arts districts.  The city lets developers know that certain abandoned buildings, in strategic locations, are for sale as long as proposals include a mix of affordable housing, commercial activities and art spaces (either subsidized units for artists, rehearsal spaces for arts groups or public performance spaces).  Developers submit bids, hoping that the sale price of the building will be low. They try to put together plans that will yield sufficient returns for them to convince insurance companies, pension funds and banks to invest in what they have in mind. Sometimes the city can add one-time federal state or local grants to help keep costs down. The arts community is rarely invited to be part of the earliest discussions.  For that to happen, individual artists or arts organizations would have to be given access to a great deal of information,  be offered technical assistance and the same level of respect that full fledged partners receive.

Nobody wants to think of themselves as the reason that someone else gets to make a lot of money. What usually happens is that a developer makes a deal with the city, gets the required approvals (while admittedly taking the necessary financial risks), finds the investment capital they need and then announces to the arts community that there will be some opportunities they might appreciate.  When a dance company or a community arts center (future gallery?) wants to design the space being offered, they are usually told that the deal has already been made and that the specs are locked in.  When artists ask whether there are low interest loans available to buy what is otherwise being offered only as rental space, they are told that the deal with the city requires that the housing units or the commercial space not be sold (meaning that they want the continued return to capital). In other words, by the time the arts community is notified it is too late to alter the design of the space and no longer possible for the artists involved to become equity (or sweat equity) partners.

Here's an alternative model. It all begins even before the city government promulgates its Request for Proposals (RFPs).  The city invites individual artists, arts organizations and related arts associations (including foundations) to hear about the city's desire to create one or more arts districts (or to emphasize art-related uses in other commercial and residential buildings). It offers to host a series of workshops for artists who want to understand more about the financial, design and other aspects of community development. Then, the city reframes its usual RFPs to indicate that it will only accept proposals in which development teams include artists or arts organizations as equity partners. The artists don't need to contribute cash upfront to be equity partners. They can earn equity shares by operating and maintaining revenue-generating performance spaces, cafes, restaurants, book stores, galleries, rehearsal spaces and teaching programs. Developers often forget that many artists work second jobs and have professional capabilities in other industries. (And, part of being  successful artist is being a creative problem-solver.) If the city proposes a co-equity model, developers and artists would have substantial incentives to seek each other out.  The city could also appoint an appropriately skilled individual or arts organization to serve as an ombudsman to ensure that any and all deals worked out between developers and artists are as fair as possible.  This same Arts Ombudsman would perform an annual "audit" for the city to ensure that all promises are being fulfilled. No one would need to take (or pay for) legal action to make sure promises are met.  Co-equity housing programs, such as those pioneered in California, have demonstrated that the inflation in property values, when split between property owners and renters, create co-equity opportunities. I'm proposing that the same idea should be applied to arts-oriented city development. If an arts organization co-owns (and, thus, operates) performance and rental space inside a mixed-use development, it should be able to count on receiving a portion of the increased value that it helps to create.

There are examples all over the world of arts-oriented development contributing to the revitalization of struggling central cities. To date, though, the success of such efforts have benefitted real estate developers more than artists. Artists have been invited to be real partners. It wouldn't be hard for cities to turn this around, ensuring a fairer outcome for arts-makers, without in any way inhibiting the prospects for economic success. Moreover, arts organizations and individual artists are likely to be good investments as well as capable partners with a passionate commitment to their city.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Winning at Win-Win Negotiation

One of my colleagues is quite upset that I have been talking about winning at win-win negotiation.  He views the inclusion of this idea in the subtitle of my new book (Good for You, Great for Me: Finding the Trading Zone and Winning at Win-Win Negotiation, Public Affairs) as a betrayal. He's part of the "Getting to Yes" Club (as am I), and mistakenly thinks that Getting to Yes (Fisher, Ury and Patton) requires a commitment to negotiating in a purely cooperative way.  That's wrong. The "principled approach" to negotiation introduced in Getting to Yes never assumed that both "sides" had to commit to purely cooperative behavior.  Indeed, having known the authors for many years, I can assure you that they expected skilled negotiators to confront the inevitable tension between "creating and claiming value," that is, balancing the cooperative and competitive elements of every negotiation.

The key argument in my book is that a negotiator is likely to do better in a negotiation if he or she goes out of their way to make sure that their counterpart(s) achieve their most important interests -- while they achieve theirs. That doesn't mean, however, that everyone should split everything equally. Indeed, it's not at all clear that an even split is appropriate.  I might bring more to a deal or agree to shoulder a greater share of the risk. If I do that, I should get a disproportionate share of the value we create.  That's only fair. So, the question going into a negotiation is who will get the greater share of the value created AFTER both sides have meet their most important interests.  I call that winning at win-win negotiation.

In the book, I describe six strategies for claiming value in a win-win context.  Each assumes a sincere effort to help the other side meet their most important interests. Indeed, I argue that you should go out of your way to formulate agreements that create more value for the other side than they ever expected.  Once basic interests are met, however, I think you can legitimately argue that since you did more to create a mutually advantageous agreement, you deserve a greater share of the total value created.

Over the last four decades, sophisticated negotiators have moved from win-lose (zero-sum) to win-win (all gain) negotiating strategies.  Now, we have to convince the win-win crowd that there's nothing wrong with claiming a disproportionate share of the value they have helped to create (once basic interests have been met on all sides). There are ways to do this that won't spoil relationships.  Do you know what's involved, or do you need to read Good for You, Great for Me?


Saturday, December 13, 2014

What's the right thing to do when you are really angry about what's happening in America?

Students are marching in the streets to protest the recent killings of Black Americans.  They want those in positions of power to acknowledge that these deaths are, at least in part, the result of unchecked racism that is still very much alive in our country. Whatever progress has been made over the past fifty years to address inequality, unfairness, racial bias, ignorance, lack of empathy and unequal opportunities, there is still a long way to go before everyday life in America aligns with the ideals we espouse as a nation.  The protesters want the institutions that they are part of to do a better job of addressing rampant unfairness and privilege in their normal course of business.  (There isn't a single class being offered in any college or university, for example,  that couldn't make a useful connection between what is being taught and the changes required to make the world a fairer place.)  They want our political leaders to re-affirm that fairness and equality of opportunity are, in fact, important goals.  They want to see explicit action and resource commitments that make it possible to achieve the democratic ideals we allude to all the time.

And, if the leaders in all the institutions and communities in the country no longer think that greater equality of opportunity and fairness in the allocation of collective resources are appropriate goals, then the protesters want them to admit that.  Recent reports indicate that the majority of our citizens no longer think the American dream is something that they or their children can reasonable hope to achieve.  That is, with the jobs they are likely to get, they won't be able to afford the housing and services they require. With the public education available to them (at increasing costs), they won't be able to get better jobs. And, with the cutbacks in government and government services, they won't be able to count on the healthy environment that is a prerequisite to living a full life and providing something better for their children.  If that's what the majority face, the protesters want those in positions of leadership to own up to that. Because once they do, it might be possible to rouse the vast majority of people from their political lethargy.

Even with increasing control of our political process shifting to lobbyists and wealthy donors, the power of social media can not be suppressed.  If the vast majority of people reach the conclusion that the inequalities and unfairness in our society are no longer tolerable, and they had an easy way to express their unhappiness, the noise would be deafening.  If that noise were accompanied by an on-line mobilization effort around a very simple agenda, it would be possible to reframe the political discourse in the country and draw in the half of all eligible voters who don't bother to vote.  It now takes only 20% of eligible voters to win a Congressional seat. It doesn't take much more than that to win the Presidency. If everyone eligible could vote on line, and their votes were clearly connected to an explicit action agenda (rather than a watered-down party platform), it would be relatively easy to engage the half of America that is too disheartened or angry to vote.

What might this new political agenda include?  Not easy bromides or slogans about divisive social issues that have no consequence for how trillions of public dollars are spent. Rather, the agenda should include free public education through college for anyone whose family makes less than $100,000 a year.  Free job training for anyone who chooses not to attend college. Free health care for anyone who needs it, but can't afford it.  Free food for any family that can't afford it. Housing subsidies for anyone who can not afford market-reate housing. A retirement wage sufficient to live a meaningful life. The programs needed to accomplish all of these goals are already in place (although there are elected politicians trying to dismantle them). They are just not funded adequately. We have the financial resources in our overall economic system to cover these costs while still allowing continued economic growth.   At the heart of everything is what we have forgotten about the role of government.  It is only through our collective efforts that our individual well-being can be guaranteed, and government is the only mechanism by which we can act collectively.  There is no way that each household can ensure clean water, clean air, adequate transportation, food that's safe to eat, punishment of consumer fraud, access to information, a legal system that holds private parties to their contractual obligations, protection from terrorism, investment in basic science, and so on.  Yet, as a country, we have been brainwashed. We think that shrinking the government is going to help us. Nothing we do privately will amount to anything without an adequate government system to protect us.  Each of us is both a private actor and a citizen.  People have been focused too much on the things they can do for themselves as private individuals, and not enough on the things we must all do together for our private interests to amount to anything.

Take the total cost of all the guarantees I have listed. Subtract the revenue raised by a reasonable tax on corporate wealth and profits. Divide the remainder by the number of households in America. Compare the remaining cost per household to the income and wealth that each household has. Calculate what a progressive system of taxation would need to raise to cover these basic guarantees. Design a system of taxation that rewards entrepreneurial effort, but only after our minimum collective  costs are covered.

What we need are some very bright people to prepare a national budget starting with a clean sheet of paper.  I think most people would be shocked to see how easily all the basic guarantees I have listed can be met. If people ran for office on a very specific agenda of expenditure and revenue priorities, we could hold our elected officials accountable (at every level of government) to fulfill these commitments (and nothing more). This would restore everyone's sense of political efficacy.  My colleague Sol Erdman and I have spelled out how this would work (what we called Interactive Representation or IR) in a book entitled THE CURE FOR OUR BROKEN POLITICAL PROCESS: How We Can Get Our Politicians to Resolve the Issues Tearing Our Country Apart (Potomac Books, $10 Kindle or Hardback). But, even if you don't look at the book, think about what it will take to ensure greater equality of opportunity and fairness of results in America. Think about the things we have to do collectively because individuals working on their own can't accomplish them. Think about using social media to mobilize people around a very simple agenda. Think about the things you can propose that would benefit the vast majority of Americans and ensure greater fairness in our society. Try to get the place where you work or study to put aside a little time to talk about the systematic racism and unfairness that people in our country face every day.



Saturday, November 29, 2014

Retire Already! Why?

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Laurie Fendrich, a professor of drawing and painting at Hofstra University, charged that anyone who holds on to a university appointment beyond age 65 is selfish and greedy. What upsets her most are senior professors who have no intention of retiring. The longer they hang on, she argues, the fewer opportunities there are for new junior faculty to be hired. Moreover, she asserts, senior faculty are staying on just because they can. (Federal law not only outlawed mandatory retirement in the academy, it made it impossible for university administrators to even inquire about the retirement plans of individual faculty members.)

There are so many wrong-headed elements to Professor Fendrich's argument,  I don't know where to begin. First, she doesn't say that faculty who are no longer effective should retire; she assumes that anyone over 65 (70 at most!) should quit; that anyone over 65 is no longer a capable teacher or scholar.  That's age discrimination at its worst.  Second, she assumes that the departure of senior faculty will lead to the hiring of new full-time junior faculty, by their departments. Given the tendency of many colleges and universities to switch, whenever they can, to adjunct and part-time appointments, students have no guarantee that the departure of a senior faculty member will result in a new full time appointment. Thus, the department of all faculty members of 65 is likely to lead to the rapid loss of quality in academic programs.  Third, it's not clear who is going to mentor all the new junior faculty she assumes will be joining the university ranks.  Anyone who thinks that excellent college instructors and researchers are born and not made, doesn't know what they are talking about. Every department and every field needs a mix of senior and junior faculty to ensure the on-going development of a highly skilled professoriate.

This brings me to the program recently adopted by my university.  When I reach 70, I can switch
to part-time status, yet still remain a member of the tenured faculty.  I can begin to receive my retirement benefits, but still receive a half-time salary.  This does not require that I switch to emeritus
status (which would basically strip me of my privileges and responsibilities).  Emeritus faculty may be assigned a group office (so they visit the campus every day), but in most cases they do not play a part in hiring, promotion, admission, or continuing teaching their courses, supervising graduate students or serving as principal investigators on research grants and contracts.  Under the new system I am talking about, senior faculty can continue to do all these things.  By switching to a multi-year (renewable) contract, and reducing my draw on departmental resources, my department has the money it needs to hire a new junior faculty member (with the half of my salary that is released).   While there is no guarantee this will happen  -- because the central administration may want to hold the "head count" constant --  if there is a new hire, I will be on hand for several years (at least) to mentor the new hire, and perhaps teach together or jointly manage a research project.

There was a reason that mandatory retirement was forbidden in American universities in 1994.  Too much experience and brain power were being arbitrarily jettisoned. Now, people like Laurie Fendrich want to go back to that system by arbitrarily shaming faculty over 65 into retiring early.  I have no doubt that many 65 year old faculty members are no longer as productive or skilled as they once were. I hope anyone who falls in that category will decide to retire and make way for a new generation of college instructors. But, that should be decided on a case-by-case basis. I would also point out that there are younger faculty who are equally unproductive or incapable.  I have no problem with a system of peer review that provides feedback to all faculty members every few years after they have been granted tenure. If,  after several negative reviews, a faculty member who has been warned (and given the help required to re-establish their bona fides) is asked to reduce their paid time and revise their responsibilities, that would not be unreasonable.  A fair, evidenced-based peer review process (such as we use to make promotion and tenure decisions) is fine. It is the arbitrary assumption that everyone over 65 is washed up, selfish or greedy that is unfair and repugnant.

Monday, November 10, 2014

What is a Devising Seminar? And how is it being used to address the risks facing Arctic Fisheries?

Arctic sea ice is retreating.  This is creating new opportunities to explore and traverse the Central Arctic Ocean, north of the Arctic Circle.  Some countries, like Russia, are eager to explore for oil and gas in this newly accessible area.  Greenpeace, which is devoting significant resources to protecting the Arctic, is pushing hard for the creation of a permanent sanctuary.  China and South Korea have declared themselves "Arctic Nations" now that their boats can, for at least part of the year, make their way through waters that used to be blocked by ice. Indigenous peoples, like the Inuit in Alaska,
Gwich'in People in Canada and the Saami People in Finland and Russia are worried about the environmental impacts that oil and gas exploration, or just oil and gas shipments might have on fisheries and sea mammals.  Because the area is newly opened, there is no scientific baseline
from which to work regarding the state of the Central Arctic Ocean ecosystems, particularly the fisheries.

The inter-governmental Arctic Council was created in 1996 to promote cooperation among the Arctic states.  It includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. The Council has offered Permanent Participant status and guaranteed consultation rights to Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic region.  Of the 4 million people in the Arctic, approximately 500,000 are indigenous.  The Arctic Circle is a not-for-profit organization that seeks to involve as many civil society groups as possible in collaborative decision-making about the Arctic.  More than 1,000 people participated in its recent annual meeting in Iceland. So, there is an official body and an unofficial body trying to draw attention to the need for more sustainable development and protection of environmental resources in the Arctic.  Unfortunately, the Council has no enforcement powers and existing treaties, like the United Nations Law of the Sea, as well as bilateral fishing agreements in the peripheral portions of the Arctic Ocean, don't guarantee that governmental and non-governmental parties will do the "right thing" when it comes to preserving the extraordinary marine resources of the Central Arctic or protecting the interests of Indigenous Peoples.

Several weeks ago, at Harvard Law School, the Program on Negotiation (PON) (an inter-university consortium committed to improving the theory and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution) organized a two day Devising Seminar, the goal of which was to identify "good ideas" that might infuse formal decision-making by governments, First Peoples, industries and civil society groups whose actions could either doom or protect newly accessible areas of the Arctic.  For several months prior to the meeting, the PON team interviewed (privately and on a not-for-attribution basis) more than 45 of the government officials, local leaders, industry stakeholders, science organizations and environmental advocacy groups with long-standing interests in the future of the Arctic.  Those interviews were incorporated into a Stakeholder Assessment -- a 30 page document summarizing the views of each category of stakeholders (without attributing anything to any individual) in response to seven questions. Interviewees were asked about: (1) new risks to various Arctic fisheries posed by retreating sea ice;  (2) strategies for protecting fish stocks; (3) gaps in scientific knowledge; (4) the possible need for new monitoring systems; (5) concerns of indigenous communities; (6) ways of reducing the impact of oil spills that might occur; and (7) the possible need for new treaties or new institutional arrangements. The key findings are summarized in three one page tables.

Based on the Stakeholder Assessment, PON invited 30 participants, representing most of the key stakeholder groups, to the Cambridge meeting. The ground rules were simple: we would talk through
the six questions and see whether the group as a whole could come up with suggested responses that might meet the most important concerns of ALL of the relevant stakeholder groups.  That is, we defined good ideas as responses to the questions that could win nearly unanimous support from everyone present.  There were no speeches allowed. There was no opportunity to rehearse long-held official positions.  Those were all summarized in the Stakeholder Assessment that everyone received ahead of time. You can read the Stakeholder Assessment here http://scienceimpact.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/AFDS_StakeholderAssessment.pdf

Because everyone was participating in their "personal" rather than their official capacity, and no names would be appended to the eventual summary of good ideas, participants were free to engage in open-ended "problem solving," without fear that their statements would get them in trouble "back home."

The conversation was facilitated by the PON team (which I headed).  As the discussion unfolded, good ideas were captured in real time on a large screen behind the facilitators at the end of a
large horseshoe of tables and chairs around which the participants sat.  What people saw weren't minutes (again, no one was named). Only emerging points of agreement, summarized at the end of each segment of the discussion by the facilitation team, were recorded.

By the end of the session, the group was somewhat surprised that many points of agreement emerged, especially regards the desirability of a temporary moratorium on oil and gas exploration as well as fisheries development in the Central Arctic Ocean. This would permit collaborative scientific efforts a chance to build an accurate baseline and prepare generally accepted forecasts of changing conditions. Several groups were quite concerned that such a moratorium should only be freely adopted by each country involved, and not imposed.  Most were not willing to think in terms of a permanent moratorium, at least not at this time.  You can read the Summary Report here http://scienceimpact.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/AFDS_SummaryReport.pdf.

A Devising Seminar is a carefully constructed and facilitated forum in which a wide range of stakeholders, who often have no opportunity to engage in constructive face-to-face problem solving because of the political and institutional setting in which they operate, can, in fact, explore their differences and search for well-founded agreements. Such sessions can only succeed when they are preceded by the preparation of a full-blown Stakeholder Assessment,  prepared by a team of neutral facilitators trusted by the parties. Participants have to be assured that what they say in informal conversation won't come back to haunt them. The participants in the Devising Seminar must include a range of technical or scientific experts who can offer well-informed answers to factual questions that arise (even if they disagree among themselves).  The facilitation team must allow all the participants a chance to review and revise the draft Summary of the Devising Seminar report, even though no one's names are ultimately mentioned.

The Summary Report of the Devising Seminar on the Arctic Fisheries was presented at a recent plenary meeting of the Arctic Circle in Iceland.  More importantly, the document is now in the hands of the senior leadership of each of the Arctic Council countries, First Nation Permanent Participants and many of the most active scientific and civil society groups with a stake in the Arctic.  They are all free to cite or draw on the good ideas in the Summary Report in any way they want.  What's unusual, I think, is that they can put forward any recommendation contained in the Summary Report with confidence that almost all of the other stakeholder groups involved are likely support these ideas.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Social Venture Capitalists, Where Are You?

I was reading yet another story about the impact that venture capital companies are having on the economy of Boston.  Good (scientific and technological) ideas emerge from the laboratories at MIT, Harvard and other Boston area universities. Venture capital firms swarm the best of these, offering start-up funding and a lot of advice on how to get new products to market and convince others to invest in them.  The venture capital firms have learned a lot over the past few decades about picking winners and losers.  They know what to look for. They  measure their success in terms of the private investment capital they can attract (often by going public) and the increasing valuation of the companies they create, when they are later bought and sold. They don't actually have to make money in the short term to be considered a long-term success.

There are a lot of us around who know how to help companies, communities, organizations and agencies build social capital.  That is, we know how to help companies improve corporate-stakeholder and corporate-community relations.  We know how to build trust where only suspicion once reigned.  If you can do this, you can multiple the return to capital realized by the venture capitalists AND produce fairer, more sustainable results. We know how to help extractive industries like mining and forestry, for instance,  avoid the endless legal battles and costly delays that make it hard to get started and harder to function in a cost-effective way. They need to change the way they interact with host communities, regulators, and people likely to be affected by what they do.  We can show them how to do that.

The largest hydroproject in Chile was just stopped by the courts because the companies involved did not make sufficient efforts to engage residents (including indigenous communities) in thinking about what to build, where to build and how to minimize impacts (by making smarter locational and design decisions).  They never got around to talking about compensation for adverse impacts that could not be mitigated. Secret corporate decisions led to harsh public opposition.  Legal and political advocates were able to delay and ultimately stop what looked to be a done deal. Huge oil and gas projects proposed in the Arctic are likely to be stalled in the same way, and appropriately so, if companies don't invest sufficient time, effort and money now in building trust, sharing decision-making responsibility, and minimizing social and environmental impacts.   Oil, gas and mining interests in Africa are sitting on huge new finds, but they face long stalemates if they don't  figure out how to build social capital. If local interests don't stop them, international NGO's like Greenpeace will.  The old models that ignored the need to build social capital (i.e. good working relationships with those likely to be affected by what is being proposed) no longer work.

At the local level in the United States, its much the same story. Energy companies know that we need more electricity to support a growing economy; yet, efforts to initiate fracking (natural gas exploration), the siting of renewable energy facilities (like wind farms and large solar arrays) and large scale mixed use development projects in many cities are facing increasing opposition. What's sad, is that it would not be that difficult to help the companies involved generate the social capital required to permit (appropriately-sized sited) projects go forward without obstruction. Think in terms of Community Benefit Corporations.  Any developer proposing to build any large project in a city or in a region would create a private corporation. This legal entity would own a portion of the assets created by the project.  It would then distribute shares in that project to every resident or stakeholder. These shares would not be worth anything at the outset, but if the project goes forward with community and stakeholder support, the shares would gain in value.  Thus, the developer and the community have a joint interest in finding a version of the propose project that everyone can support. Shareholders, or course, would be able to speak at annual meetings.  They wouldn't have to plead for an opportunity to address the owners (to complain about unexpected social and environmental impacts), because they would be the owners.  The directors of each Community Benefit Corporation would include a certain number of members identified by the investors, several selected by elected officials and some chosen by the full membership of the shareholders.  (Rural Electric Cooperatives in the United States have been doing this for an awfully long time.)  This is just one option for building shared commitments and restoring levels of trust.

Building social capital in something that most venture capital investors know nothing about.  There are, however, organizations (mostly not-for-profits) with the knowledge and experience to provide investors with the advice and assistance they need.  Increasing social capital translates into greater economic returns.  It also translates into more socially and environmentally responsible development and restores trust that has been so eroded by the manipulation of public opinion by secret investors operating under made-up names implying they care about what happens to the average person. They don't.  The political deadlock we are in now is caused fundamentally by a lack of trust. We can work to restore trust, increase the chances for development (of the appropriate kind) to proceed, enhance the growth of the economy and cause the benefits of new development to be shared in a fairer way.  We just need to complement our fascination with venture capital (and an economy of start-ups) with a purposeful commitment to the creation of social capital.  And the people with all the money need to acknowledge they need the help of advisors from the not-for-profit world who have been creating social capital for years.