Saturday, December 19, 2009

No Meaningful Agreement in Copenhagan. No Surprise.

Let's see if we can grasp the so-called agreement reached in Copenhagan.

1. Many of the Developed Countries (the North) have promised to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as much as they (comfortably) can in the future. These are not binding commitments; just promises to make a best effort. And, they are all over the place in terms of the cuts they represent compared to past and present CO2 emission levels. A number of Developing Countries (the South, including China) have now promised to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Again, nothing binding and wildly inconsistent targets and timetables. And, even if you add up all the promises, you won't come close to getting the world on track to stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions at a (350 - 450 ppm) level by 2050 sufficient to forestall the worst effects of climate change over the rest of the century and beyond.

2. The The North has promised to come up with $30 billion over the next three years to help the South "fight" climate change. It's not clear, though, how this money will be used or where it will come from. Presumably, some of it will be used to reduce CO2 emissions (although it is not clear what the best way to do that is or how such efforts should be prioritized). Some of it will have to be used to help countries adapt to sea level rise, increased storm intensity, periods of draught, adverse effects on biodiversity, and other disasters. (Which forms of adaptation should be pursued, are not clear.) Also, it is not obvious how this money will be administered or who will get it (presumably a disproportionate share should go to the poorest countries in Africa). The North says it will try to raise $100 billion by 2020, but, again, it is not clear where the money will come from, how it will be administered, or who will get it. Finally, these are just informal promises, not binding commitments.

3. There was almost a new forest agreement, but at the end it got dropped. In Kyoto, the question of how to define and protect "sinks" (i.e., forests and oceans that absorb CO2) was not addressed. In Copenhagan, the leaders agreed that halting deforestation is "crucial." Funds to pay countries, like Brazil, to conserve their forests are now supposed to be forthcoming. Note that rich nations like this idea because they want to count the funds they donate for this purpose toward "carbon credits" (thereby reducing the CO2 reductions they have to make in their own countries). It is not yet clear, though, how this system of carbon credits and forest preservation would work.

4. As with all global treaty negotiations, there was a lot of uneasiness when the topic of monitoring and enforcement came up. No country can really force another to do what it doesn't want to do -- even if it has signed a treaty. Countries are sovereign. Most global agreements require countries to report regularly. But, in this case, if the reports don't seem accurate, all the Climate Change Secretariat can do is ask for more information or clarification. It can't double-check the data that countries submit or take independent measurements of its own. The South agreed for the first time, however, to report domestic CO2 emissions on a regular basis. There was some language discussed regarding "provisions for international consultation and analysis." That's as close as we'll get to verification. Some observers had hoped that a new global panel of experts might have access to all monitoring equipment, data and technical specialists in each country so that suspect reports could be verified, but that didn't happen.

5. The so-called "Statement on Temperature" agreed to in Copenhagen says that the nations agreed that any global increase in future temperature should be kept to under two degrees Celsius. Since the new agreements specifies no targets, timetables, enforcement mechanisms, provisions for technology sharing between the North and the South, or ways of enhancing capacity building, it's hard to take such a statement seriously. Saying it should be done, but not saying how, is tantamount to saying nothing.

6. None of the promises made in Copenhagan are binding. Maybe, in the next year or two, a formal Protocol will be drafted that explains how implementation of these various commitments is supposed to happen. Until then, though, we'll be operating under the Rio Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol.

What happens when the Kyoto agreement runs out in 2012? It appears that we will have no binding targets in place to bring global greenhouse gas emissions to a level (450 ppm? by 2050) needed to forestall dangerous temperature increases. We certainly won't have the level of cooperation between North and South required to tackle the climate change problem over the long haul. Many countries in the South resent the way they were (once again) left out of the last minute wheeling and dealing in Copenhagan. And, tossing money at them, no matter how many billions, without ever agreeing in principal that the North is responsible for the climate change mess we are currently in, just puts off the day we can achieve the global collaboration required to address the problem effectively. Small island nations face total destruction. The numbers of international refugees that will have to move from low-lying coastal areas devasted by meterological events is sure to increase markedly. Unfortunately, nothing will be done to jump-start Southern efforts to achieve more sustainable patterns of development. In short, after Copenhagen, the climate change problem will continue to get worse at an even faster clip.

What should have been done and what can still be done to turn this situation around? First, we need to alter the system of global treaty drafting. Each region of the world should bring together governmental and non-governmental interests on a specific multi-year timetable to produce a draft global treaty that takes account of its needs and sort out its responsibilities for achieving proportionate greenhouse gas mitigation efforts sufficient to reach the required 450 ppm goal by 2050. Two or three countries in each region should immediately mobilize such efforts. Using a common template -- developed by the Climate Change Secretariat which still has a 160+-country mandate -- each regional caucus should spell out ten year incremental reduction targets sufficient to meet the 450 ppm goal by 2050, explicit strategies that countries can use to meet these targets if they have to, the cost implications of meeting such targets (netting out the costs of not meeting them as well), ways reasonable data reporting and verification responsibilities might be met, institutional capacity building requirements, financial forecasts likely to have an impact on implementation, and possible financial or in-kind contributions each country needs or could provide). This needs to be done in eight to ten regions of the world. Each regional "caucus" should draft its suggested version of a new global agreement to meet greenhouse gas reduction requirements responsibly and designate five members from its caucus to participate in a global treaty-making council with responsibility for reconciling the differences among the proposed regional drafts. The Global Congress would have to be mediated by an international panel of skilled facilitators acceptable to all the regions. A Congress of 40 - 50 regional representatives would need a year or more to prepare a meaningful treaty the takes account the differences among all the regional drafts. The final version of the treaty would then be sent to each national legislative body to ratify (not at another Copenhagan-style type fracus). When a minimum of 2/3 of the countries in each region ratifies it, and a minimum of 2/3 of the regions ratify it, it would come into force. If 2/3 of the countries in 2/3 of the regions ratified the treaty, those 130 countries would be in a position to take action (under a range of trade and other treaty regimes) to pressure any and all hold out countries to ratify the new Climate Change treaty. If a county won't sign the new treaty, they ought not be eligible to participate in international trade regimes. If they don't sign, they ought not be eligible for assistance from any multinational banks. Since all the same countries are part of all these regimes, the climate change treaty signers would have sufficient numbers (and through the process I am describing) sufficient legitimacy, to make this happen.

Let's get to work.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Resolving Complaints About Irresponsible Corporations

Corporations are supposed to pay attention to environmental, health, safety, labor, tax, consumer protection, information disclosure, and human rights laws wherever they set up shop. But, we've all seen and heard stories about multinationals guilty of violations in far-away places. They have been charged with allowing unsafe working conditions, blocking legitimate unionization efforts; ignoring environmental and health standards, bribing officials, and turning a blind eye to human rights violations. Developing countries are often ambivalent about holding violators to account: they can't afford to lose the investments and the jobs, and they often lack enforcement muscle even if they want to act.

The 30 member nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) -- mostly developed countries -- have agreed to press multinationals based within their borders to conduct themselves responsibly and abide by applicable laws wherever their far-flung business interests may take them. There are lots of voluntary guidelines that seek to impose similar norms of socially-responsible corporate behavior, but the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises cover 85% of all foreign direct investment in the world. They also put countries in a quasi-enforcement role which most voluntary codes of ethics don't do.

Every OECD country is required to appoint a National Contact Point (NCP). All complaints about foreign-controlled corporations are channeled through the (home country) NCPs, regardless of where an alleged infraction take place. So, for example, if an environmental group in the Philippines thinks a Dutch-based multinational is operating inappropriately in the Philippines, it can file a complaint with the NCP in the Netherlands. While the NGO can also bring a lawsuit against the Dutch subsidiary in the Philippines, getting the Dutch NCP involved brings an entirely different level of international attention to the complaint. If after an investigation, the NCP in the Netherlands is unable to get the parties to settle their differences, it is empowered to issue a statement of findings -- either giving the company a "clean bill of health" or stipulating (1) that the guidelines have been breached and (2) how the company's conduct must change in the future. Neither the NCP or the OECD can shut a company down or fine them for breaking the rules. However, the NCP might be in a position in some countries to punish a non-complier by forbidding them to do business with their home country government. Any company named as a non-complier by an NCP will take a serious reputational hit (which could affect its market value) in national and international circles.

While the OECD guidelines have been in effect for a number of years, only a few hundred notifications have been sent to NCPs worldwide. Recently, though, the Dutch and Canadian NCPs (in anticipation of an upcoming OECD review of the guidelines) asked whether those of us who help to mediate CSR disputes would offer suggestions for improving the "system." On November 31st, the Dutch and Canadian NCPs met with a group of experienced international dispute resolvers at Harvard Law School to share ideas.

We heard about a number of cases. The Dutch NCP tries hard to resolve complaints behind the scenes without ever having to issue formal statements, but this is not always possible. When they try to mediate disputes, they encounter three sets of obstacles or concerns. The first relates to the roles and responsibility of NCPs. Exactly what authority do they have? The Dutch NCP is independent. While it is appointed by the Dutch government, it is made up of four individuals who represent labor unions, corporations, environmental groups and academia. All other NCPs are government officials. When they receive a notification, they must investigate. But, its hard to gather first-hand evidence in another part of the world with a small staff and a limited budget. Should they proceed if charges are pending in court or being pursued in parallel in another country? Different NCPs think differently about this. How should they decide which standards of performance to use in evaluating specific corporate actions? Does it matter whether the complainant is truly representative of the people or group it alleges to represent? What if the corporate subsidiary being charged is truly independent, and the multinational parent company has little or no control over its behavior?

A second set of obstacles or issues revolves around the rights of companies against whom complaints have been lodged as well as the rights of individuals or groups who file notices of complaint. Should companies that are charged with violations have a right to confront the evidence against them and to cross-examine their accusers? This would pit small NGOs against some of the worlds' richest companies. But, if unsubstantiated charges are publicized and used to blemish the reputation of a company, does an NCP have a responsibility to protect the company's good name? And, if someone files a complaint, is it the responsibility of the NCP to protect them from any kind of retaliation? The current OECD guidelines are not as explicit as they might be; on the other hand, maybe its better to let each NCP proceed in whatever way makes the most sense in its legal and cultural context. Does fairness require that NCPs all over the world keep a record of their findings and decisions, that repeat (global) offenders be held to higher standards or that similar charges be treated in the same way every where?

The third set of questions focuses on the roles and responsibilities of intermediaries trying to resolve CSR disputes. If the NCP promises confidentiality to get people to talk freely, can it then use what it learns if a voluntary settlement is not reached and it has to issue a statement of findings? What ethical code should govern NCP settlement efforts? Should NCPs try to mediate disputes themselves; or, as is the case in the United Kingdom, should they hire professional mediators who are not government employees? Is it really possible to create a wall between one part of an NCP that is trying to settle a dispute and another that has to pursue its investigatory obligations and issue a formal statement of findings?

As more groups around the world find out about the OECD system, and the number of notifications increases, it will be important to have effective dispute resolution procedures in place. You should contact the NCP in your country. Offer comments and suggestions (by January 25, 2010) that can be incorporated into the upcoming review of the OECD guidelines. You can view the guidelines at You also might want to read the report prepared by OECD Watch entitled Five Years On: A Review of the OECD Guidelines and National Contact Points, 2005 available at

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Harmonizing Science, Policy and Politics

At MIT, we are training Science Impact Coordinators (SICs) willing to put themselves in the middle between experts, advocates and regulators. Unless someone is able to manage these difficult interactions, we will miss crucial opportunities to protect dwindling natural resources. What does a graduate student with an undergraduate science degree, a passion for environmental improvement and an interest in managing constructive dialogue in politically-stressed situations need to know to facilitate such interactions? That's what we are trying to determine.

Six years ago, at the invitation of the United States Geological Survey (one of America's premiere science agencies), our MIT team put together a set of courses and a field-based training program to place apprentice SICs in the middle of resource management controversies all over the United States. Through an action-research program, more than 25 graduates of MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning have worked on environmental restoration in Mississippi, desalination of the Colorado River, climate change impacts in the Everglades and on the Chesapeake Bay, strategies for maintaining the near-shore fishery in the Gulf of Maine, ways of ensuring that local knowledge is taken seriously in managing the Sonoran desert; dealing with storm water run-off in Somerville, Massachusetts and Aurora, Colorado; helping coastal cities in Massachusetts adapt to climate change risks, protecting endangered habitats in the Rocky Mountains, and coping with water shortages in Eastern Washington. We work under the banner of MUSIC -- the MIT-USGS Science Impact Collaborative and our tag line is "Harmonizing Science, Policy and Politics." (See

You'd think by now that the science and engineering establishment would realize that conventional approach to injecting "science" and technical analysis into politically-charged policy-making situations isn't working. Most scientists and engineers still think that all they need to do is put their studies "out there" and the world will use the information appropriately. They are convinced that they don't have to talk to non-experts or get involved in the hurly-burly of actual decision-making. We also encounter regulators at every level who think that holding a hearing is the best way to engage concerned citizens and stakeholders in resource management decisions. The fact that nothing gets decided in such setting and that no one has responsibility of reconciling what they are saying with what anyone else is saying, doesn't seem to bother them. Finally, we see no sign that environmental and health advocates realize how important it is for them to engage in joint fact finding and collaborative decision-making with the companies and agencies they are fighting.

Getting the Right Parties to the Table

The first step in resolving any science-intensive policy dispute is getting the right parties to the table. This is best handled by calling on trained mediators (i.e. professional neutrals) to interview all the relevant groups and organizations - on a confidential and not-for-attribution basis - to scope the agenda, identify who should be involved, lay out a work plan, and engage the relevant stakeholders in specifying the ground rules that will govern their interactions. The details of how to do this are now well-known (see Susskind and Cruikshank, Breaking Robert's Rules, Oxford University Press, 2006). Students in the MUSIC program help prepare these assessments as assistants to professionals working for the Consensus Building Institute (

Joint Fact Finding

Once all the parties are at the table, including the relevant regulators, the group can initiate scientific or technical investigations required to understand the current situation as well as possible ways of proceeding given the likely impacts of alternative decisions. Often this requires developing models or forecasts. Sometimes it requires gathering new data. Inevitably, it involves interacting with a range of experts (with conflicting disciplinary and technical opinions about what ought to be done or how a problem should be approached).

Building Consensus

Eventually, the group needs to decide what it wants to recommend based on the homework it has done and the concerns of all the stakeholder groups involved. Unlike a hearing where each person sounds off and then sits down; the collaborative processes MUSIC students are learning to facilitate aims to produce informed consensus -- even in the face of scientific uncertainty and intense technical disagreements. What's interesting is how often it is possible to reach agreement in such situations when the parties are given the information and help they need. Books like Susskind et. al, The Consensus Building Handbook (Sage, 1999) offer numerous "worked examples" to show that this is possible.

Linking Informally Negotiated Agreements to Enforceable Decisions

When groups are invited to participate in collaborative resource management, that doesn't mean that government agencies are turning over to them the power to make final decisions. The product of such deliberations almost always takes the form of a recommendation. Agencies have legal responsibility for making policy choices. Most of the time, though, if all the relevant parties engage in a good-faith effort to produce an informed agreement, the regulators are likely to move in that direction. They take the informally negotiated agreement and translate it into terms and conditions imposed as part of a permit or license. This makes the policy enforceable.

What SICs in Training Need to Learn

We expect SICs to invest two years in intensive graduate study. About 1/4 of their time is devoted to field-based apprenticeships. The rest is spent taking courses dealing with the techniques of policy analysis, tools for forecasting and modeling change in socio-ecological systems, environmental ethics, environmental leadership, strategies for promoting sustainable development, and consensus building strategies. Their field-based assignments are guided by federal agency staff and MIT faculty advisors. They have to fulfill a contract each semester that requires them to produce work products that meet the needs of the communities and agencies with which they are working, and contribute to theory-building. In their final semester, they are required to produce a thesis. In early November 2009, we will publish The Best of MUSIC, highlighting some of the most important theory-building contributions of the MUSIC interns.

We are pushing hard to get the U.S. Department of the Interior to make a formal commitment to hire Science Impact Coordinators at of its headquarters and regional offices. We hope that NOAA, EPA, DOE, Army Corps of Engineers and make similar commitments. It's time to adopt a new approach to harmonizing science, policy and politics.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Life and Death of Democracy

I'm trying to make my way through John Keane's massive book, The Life and Death of Democracy (Norton, 2009). He reviews three "epochs" in the evolution of democracy: Assembly Democracy, Representative Democracy and what he calls Monitory Democracy. He then tries to make sense of where we are headed next by jumping forward and looking back at our current situation (Memories from the Future). He's not optimistic (although the book was written before President Obama was elected and America's foreign policies and international engagements shifted radically). The failure of political parties, the use of mass media to control political communications, the "cross-border squeeze on democratic institutions," resurgent nationalism triggered by "the powerlessness of joined-up global government and market forces;" terrorism, uncivil wars and nuclear anarchy; the failure of the "law of democratic peace" (that assumed democracies would not go to war with each other), America's failed efforts to "promote" a global transformation to democracy," the rise of new enemies of democracy, including hypocrisy, fatalism and ignorance; and the return of bipolarity (US-China tensions) are all to blame.

He then cites Richard Rorty to make the point that while there is no "ultimate justification" for democracy, it is certainly something to be valued. (Persuasion rather than force, compromise and reform rather than bloody revolution, free and open encounters rather than bullying and bossing, a hopeful, experimental frame of mind...) Keane argues for humility (rather than talk of pragmatic superiority), continued re-invention (or novelty), the "rule of nobody," and the importance of equality -- or the equalization of all citizen's life chances as reasons for hope. He offers seven new democratic rules --although they are aimed more at theorists than practitioners: (1) treat the remembrance of things past as vital for democracy's present and future; (2) always regard the languages, characters, events, institutions and effects of democracy as thoroughly historical; (3) pay close attention to the ways in which the narration of the past by historians, leaders and others is unavoidably an historical act, (4) the methods that are most suited to writing about the past, present and future of democracy are those that straightforwardly draw attention to the peculiarity of their own rules of interpretation; (5) acknowledge that, until quite recently, most details of the history of democracy have been recorded by its critics, or by its outright opponents; (6) the negative tone of most previous histories of democracy confirms the rule that tales of its past told by historians, politicians and others often harbor the prejudices of the powerful; and (7) admit that the task of coming to terms with the past, present and future of democracy is by definition an unending journey.

After almost 900 far more erudite pages than I could ever muster, I conclude: democracy is what you make of it. How should we "do" democracy? When Assembly Democracy morphed into Representative Democracy no one seemed to notice. When Representative Democracy gave way to Monitory Democracy (publicly monitoring and controlling the exercise of power -- "through sideways and downwards" involvement of the whole political order), it seemed perfectly normal (at that time, to the people involved). What comes next is what we say should come next. In my view, that's collaborative decision-making at multiple scales assisted by a new class of professional neutrals. Is this a shift of "epochal importance?" Yes, I think it is. It is an evolutionary step beyond Monitory Democracy that will restore the legitimacy of democratic institutions by assuming that that everyone needs to be involved, not just in discussions and criticism of what is going on, but in the co-production of everything that follows. It's not Assembly (or direct) Democracy, because there is no voting. The burden is on each citizen (and each community and each state) to come up with a way of meeting their/its own interests while also meeting the interests of others. The logistics of collaborative problem- solving are new, but the commitment to broadening and deepening basic democratic ideals keeps us on track.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What should you do when the other person is lying (in a public context)??

There's a lot of confusion about the best way to respond to a lie spoken in a public context. One strategy is to ignore it and act as if the statement was never made. I guess folks who take this tack hope they'll avoid giving a false statement any traction. A second response is to suggest that the person making the statement probably didn't realize what he or she was saying. This approach presumes that its always best to give someone the benefit of the doubt and presume there's just a misunderstanding on their part. I don't think so. From my standpoint, the most effective response to a lie is to name it, frame it, and claim it.

If I think someone is lying -- that is, deliberating making a statement they know to be false, I'll say that out loud: "That's a lie." Or, "Wow, another whopper." Yes, I'm giving visibility to the statement, but, from my standpoint, I'd rather the statement be labeled as a lie than allowed to stand unchallenged.

That's not enough. It is important to say why I think the statement is a lie and to suggest what the motive of the liar might be. I call this framing. Motive is important. If I can't think of any reason the person making the statement might have for misrepresenting the truth, then I might chalk their statement up to ignorance or reckless disregard for the truth. So, for me to call something I lie, I have to believe that the person making the statement has a motive for misrepresenting the truth. I link my characterization of their motive with the evidence that ought to convince any neutral observer that their statement is untrue. "That's a lie. That's not what it says on page 1014. They are obviously are trying to make the President look bad." Or, "No, that's not what happened on that date. They obviously would rather have us believe something that casts them in a better light. Here's reliable information to the contrary."

Finally, I think it is important to "own" my claim that their statement is a lie. That means, I need to be confrontable. If I'm going to call someone a lier, I ought to do it in a very public way -- to their face, if possible. I'm certainly not going to do it anonymously. The credibility of my characterization of their motive hinges, in part, on my willingness to stand behind my charge. "That's a lie. She is just trying to gain publicity for herself and play to her constituency. The bill doesn't say that at all. In fact, here's what it says. I'd love a chance to meet with her and have her show me exactly where it says what she claims."

Name it as a lie. Frame it by postulating the lier's motive and offering evidence to the contrary (that any neutral observer would accept). And, claim responsibility for your counter-charge.

If someone else has a different view of how to respond to a lie, I'd love to hear it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How Should You Respond to the Noisy Health Reform Critics?

Imagine you are one of the members of Congress running a "town hall" meeting to discuss pending health care reform legislation during the current legislative break. You are confronted by some very angry citizens. They are shouting at you!

"How dare you!
Don't you take my doctor away from me! Don't tell me what medical services I can and can't have!
If you think the Canadian system is so great, why don't you go live up there. People have to wait months to see a doctor in Canada.
Shame on you! I don't want some faceless government bureaucrat deciding whether my parents live or die!
I'm a small business owner. You're gonna bankrupt me if I have to pay for health care for my four or five employees.
Our health care system is already too expensive! You're going to raise my insurance premiums if we have to pay for everyone who won't take care of themselves!
The deficit is already out of control. You're bankrupting the country.
Look at what happened in Massachusetts after they passed their health care reform. Costs exploded! They can't cover everybody. Their taxes are going up.
My tax money shouldn't be used to pay for abortions.
Don't you cut my medicare benefits!
It's greedy trial lawyers who driving up the cost of health care.

There a bunch of things you want to say, but every word out of your mouth is met with another round of boos and chants of "No New Taxes," "Let Doctors Decide," and "Keep Your Hands Off." You feel obliged to set the record straight on each and every point:

No one will have to give up the health care provider they have now.
We are not proposing a single payer system like they have in Canada. The proposed reforms
passed by the House and being considered in the Senate will offer more choice for more people, not less choice. (Besides, the claims about long waits and government telling doctors what they can and can't do in Canada are bogus.)
This whole Sarah Palin "death panel" thing is a complete fabrication. There's nothing in the proposed legislation that would tell doctors or patients how to handle end-of-life decisions. There are provisions that make it OK for doctors and patients to talk about the most compassionate ways of helping people who are dying. But everybody wants that.
We are going to exempt small business or rebate some of the costs to small businesses who help their employees get health coverage.
The cost of health care keeps going up. We can't afford not to do something to bring the costs under control. Other countries get better medical results at lower costs than we do. One of the best ways of reducing the continued growth of health care costs is to get everyone into an insurance system that compensates providers for keeping people healthy (not for spending as much as possible on unnecessary procedures once you are sick)! We need a system that can bargain with powerful pharmaceutical companies to keep the costs of drugs down.
We may have to increase public spending in the short term to reform our health care system, but in the long term this is the only way to bring costs under control. We need to put the system in place and give it couple of years. Then the costs will start to come down for everyone.
Actually, Massachusetts has reduced the cost of providing health care to everyone in the state. It's not true that the new state system (that covers everybody) is breaking the budget or causing tax increases.
Abortions are legal in the United States. People covered by publicly supported health insurance need to have the same choices that people covered by private insurance have.
We are not talking about cutting medicare benefits or medicare spending. What we are trying to do is get more people who don't have insurance covered by something like medicare.
Yes, legal reform is necessary to reduce unscrupulous malpractice claims that drive up medical costs.

But, it's pointless. As soon as its clear that you mean to disagree
with what one of the questioners has said, the boos and chants begin. Nobody is listening to anything you say. And, even if you managed to get the words out, they wouldn't believe you. They have been briefed by their favorite talk radio hosts. And, many of the people there have been bused in or organized by political action groups. They have their talking points. Many of them believe fervently what they are saying -- that proposed reforms will bankrupt the country, that their medicare benefits and choices are about to be cut, that they will be forced to abandon their local health care provider or limit their medical services.

So, what's the best advice we can give a Congressperson in such a situation? Most aren't going to get the easy ride that President Obama got in New Hampshire. Hard as he tried, he couldn't get any of the 1600 people present to challenge what he was saying.

Here are five suggestions that grow out of what we have learned about facilitating public dialogue in politically charged situations:

1. Begin by saying that you want to hear what the audience has to say. Ask 5 volunteers to come up on the stage to ask whatever questions or make whatever statements they think are important. Invite them up. Make it clear that you don't know any of these people and you are just trying to find out what people who bothered to come to the town hall meeting have to say. Pick five who raise their hands and appear to represent different age or other groups. Let them speak. Tell them that the ground rule is that each person has the mike for no more than five minutes. Invite them to sit on the stage with you. (Make sure someone is controlling the mike and make it clear that it will be shut off after five minutes.) Don't try to respond to each statement. Just listen.

2. Then, after those five have spoken and gone back to the audience. Ask for 3 more people who have different points they want to make that don't repeat what has already been said.
Again, choose three from those who indicate a desire to speak. Invite them up. Same ground rule. Let them speak. Don't respond to each person.

3. When the eight have spoken (it could be 10 if you want), make a list of the key concerns or criticisms that have been raised. Re-state each argument in the most empathetic way you can -- as if you believed each claim or criticism. Show that you have listened. When you have played the points back, ask those who stated them originally whether you have understood their concerns. If they say no, spend a minute or two trying to re-state their points.

4. Then, announce that you are going to take no more than 3 - 5 minutes to respond to each of those points. Since you have given those who have concerns a chance to voice them, you expect to be given the same courtesy. If people disrupt, remind them of this ground rule. If the whole crowd continue to be unruly, indicate that you will end the town hall and broadcast your responses on the web and the radio. See if that gives you the "space" you need to have your say.

5. If you manage to get through all eight points. Then, open the microphones -- people
need to stand in line to use them one at a time -- so that anyone can rebut what you have said, respond to one of the original statements, or raise any additional question they like. Promise that by the next day, you will make available to anyone who provides an email address or a snail mail address a written version of your responses to all the questions raised.

6. Hand out a survey form to everyone in the room. Include three or four open ended questions about people's reactions to the parts of the proposed reform legislation that you would most like input or advice on. Say that you will read all the responses. Indicate, that you will also be doing a scientific survey of everyone in your district to see whether the views represented at the town hall are representative of the district as a whole. Then, do a quick overnight telephone survey of 500 people in the district to see whether the key points raised in the town hall match up with what the population of the district thinks. Publicize the results.

If the goal of the town hall is to hear what people have to say, then the suggestions above will accomplish that. If the goal is to "educate" people on what the Congressperson believes, he or she should have a handout ready with a detailed statement and evidence to backup their claims. If the goal is to generate a thoughtful dialogue, a town hall meeting is the wrong format. Better that the Congressperson selected a small statistically representative sample of residents to talk with in an extended conversation for several hours. It might also make sense to encourage the kind of "study circles" that have been used so successfully in Scandinavia to get thousands of people thinking and talking about the issues framed in a study guide. If the goal is to hammer out a consensus with regard to the district's views, it will be necessary to tap a professional mediator to undertake a district-wide conflict assessment that will produce a "map" of all the relevant stakeholder groups vis a vis the health reform issue and to involve representatives of each of category of groups in formulating an agenda, ground rules, and a process of joint problem-solving.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hey, C'mon, Why Can't Reds and Blues Agree?

I was thinking about the reds and the blues. You'd think they'd be able to reach agreement once in a while without bashing each other. But, the more I analyze it, the more I realize that the reds and blues are probably doomed. Some of the time, it's not in one side or the other's interest to reach agreement. They have more to gain by holding out for some extreme proposal, even if it throws them into deadlock. And, often, something or somebody stands in the way. It's hard to have a constructive conversation if there's too much background noise or by-standers are trying to sabotage things. And, finally, I keep forgetting that most of the reds and blues have no relevant negotiation training or consensus building experience.

It's Not In Their Interest to Reach Agreement

Let's say I'm a red, and I want to build something. I need some of the money that's in the shared kitty. (It's not my money, it's our money.) So, I announce, "I want to build one of those." Doesn't matter what reasons I give, before the words are even out of my mouth, some of the blues have lined up against it. They are against it because I'm for it. They're playing to their constituents. They think they will lose face with their constituents if they support something that a red like me might favor. If I try to make an argument "on the merits," rolling out facts to support my claim, they challenge the legitimacy of my data and marshall contrary evidence. The information is really secondary. They've made up their mind that building what I want to build will take resources away from whatever it is they prefer to do. They have different priorities.

When I suggest we meet to work something out, they might agree, but only because they want to convince me to build what they want instead of what I want. If the blues think they can move forward without any support from the reds, they will. Why talk if they can get what they want. If they can't, they'd rather go down in flames than admit that what the reds want makes more sense, especially when the thing we are fighting about is much less important in the long run than maintaining the support of their constituents.

Are there ever issues on which the fundamental interests of reds and blues overlap? You'd think so. But as soon as someone tries to frame a problem in terms of the overlap, someone else will reframe it in partisan terms -- because it is in their individual interest to do so. That's how they can stand out (and claim a leadership role) in the blue or the red community. Even in a time of crisis, when leaders on both sides know that something must be done, the temptation to frame the crisis in partisan terms (and thus force a win-lose confrontation) is overwhelming. Red and blue leaders wont' be leaders for long if they can't rally the troops. The way they do that is to frame every issue (including every crisis) in partisan terms. Reds say it is about individual rights and responsibilities, letting the market operate in unfettered ways, protecting our national identity and hegemony, and above all promoting economic growth. Blues say it is about reinforcing the social contract (fairness and group responsibility), using the mechanisms of government to correct for inevitable market failures, international responsibilities and human rights, and, above all, promoting sustainable development (so that future generations have the same choices we do). Confrontation allows each side to promote its agenda. Getting agreement pales in importance.

Somebody or Something Is Getting In the Way

Reds and blues act as if they are the only ones with something to say. That is so not true. There are whites who pursue their own individual interests and don't care at all about the perpetual battle between reds and blues. This is really hard for reds and blues to accept: whites are playing a different game entirely. For example, there are contractors who donate equally to red and blue causes. They are trying to court favor on both sides. They don't care about the issues that are central to red and blue, they only care about themselves. There are also people who have written off "the whole system." Their lives are miserable and they blame both red and blue. Then, there are global interests who, like the contractors mentioned above, court both red and blue leaders. They are not above surreptitiously making secret deals with one or both sides. Finally, there are those who make a living off the conflict between red and blue -- the chattering class. It's in their interest to turn up the flame on every controversy.

Any time a segment of reds and a segment of blues try to find common ground, they are attacked not only by hardliners on their own side, but by the chattering class. "Reds and Blues Make a Deal!" does not a headline make. You can't sell papers, you can't grab eyeballs and ears with a story about agreement. But, if you can get a red leader to punch out a blue leader, then you've got a story with legs. The chattering class takes no responsibility for educating anyone on the underlying issues (indeed, the presumption is that there is no such thing as education, only propaganda, so pick a side!). It's hard to reach agreement when you are attacked for even contemplating a meeting with the other side. The chattering class demands transparency and accountability because it is in their interest to do so. The notion that confidentiality might be crucial to the early stages of a useful conversation between reds and blues, is so antithetical to the interests of the chattering class, that they have made such exploratory moves almost impossible.

They Don't Have the Knowledge or Skills

Would you put somebody before a judge or jury who doesn't know how the present their arguments in court? Of course not. We'd make sure that they were represented by qualified counsel. Would you throw someone with no diplomatic experience into a high-level peace-making situation? I hope not. They'd get eaten alive. Would you throw someone into a red or blue leadership role who had no formal training in negotiation or consensus building? We do it all the time! Legal, political, administrative, or corporate experience is not necessarily consensus-building experience. There is a science of collaborative problem-solving that is as carefully spelled out as the techniques of political combat that are on display all the time. But, no one has asked that red and blue leaders demonstrate any consensus building competence. In fact, we seem to think that what we need are leader-warriors who will fight the good fight. Is it a surprise, then, that these leaders have no capacity to generate agreements that are in our collective best interest?

One of the most important things that skilled consensus builders know is that the rules of the forum in which joint problem solving takes place are as important as the abilities of the participants. If reds and blues want to reach mutually advantageous agreements that are actually aimed at solving jointly framed problems, they'll need to change the rules that govern when and how they meet. There's no reason they can't suspend the prevailing rules periodically and switch into consensus building mode, but they don't know that. And, they don't know how to operate in such a setting. They'll probably need a neutral mediator (selected jointly) to help them manage the conversation. Imagine, a confidential mediated conversation between reds and blues where nobody could claim victory over the other side. They'd need to conduct such conversations in private with a confidentiality rule in place. Finally, they'd probably need to agree that no agreement would be reached unless and until nearly all the reds and blues involved were in concurrence. No majority rule. No 60% cloture vote.

So, the question is, as a red or blue constituent, would you be willing to reward your representative with your vote if they produced effective bi-partisan solutions to problems
rather than post more wins than losses against the other side? How should we identify the issues we prefer to have red and blue leaders work on in this way? Is there a large enough segment of the population willing to demand that red and blue switch into consensus building mode periodically? How might we trigger such a shift?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Environment and Sustainability Studies at MIT

MIT does not have an undergraduate or a graduate major or minor in environment and sustainability. The 75 members of MIT's Faculty Environmental Network for Sustainability (FENS) are trying to do something about this. You can see our preliminary proposals for an Undergraduate Minor in Environment and Sustainability and a Graduate Certificate of Advanced Interdisciplinary Study in Environment and Sustainability at or In the fall of 2009, these proposals will be thoroughly vetted by groups across the campus. By the spring (2010) we hope to have a curriculum package to put before the MIT faculty for a vote.

I've been on the MIT faculty for forty years, and in all that time I've never seen anything quite like this. A substantial group of faculty members from all fields and disciplines is taking the initiative. I'm not talking about gathering names for petitions to complain about something or taking a stand on a political question. Rather, the FENS involves a large group of faculty from all parts of the campus working together to reshape MIT's teaching efforts in what is now referred to on other campuses as Sustainability Science. Curriculum reform efforts at MIT usually start with one member of the administration or a single department seeking to expand into a new area or offer a new degree. But the Environment and Sustainability proposals advanced by the FENS have been prepared jointly by faculty from all five schools at MIT. They represent a "bottom-up" faculty-led rather than a "top down" administration-inspired initiative (although the MIT administration has been quite supportive).

There are five issues that have made it difficult to reach agreement: (1) Is there really anything to learn about environment and sustainability that isn't already covered effectively by the 25 or so Departments on the MIT campus? (2) Doesn't MIT's new Energy Initiative (MITEI) represent a sufficient commitment to environment and sustainability? (3) How can we teach what needs to be taught when the Institute is facing severe budget constraints? (4) Is MIT currently admitting students who care enough about this field to want to take on even more than their already overwhelming degree program requirements? (5) What's the best way to administer a cross-campus, interdisciplinary degree program (when we don't have any in place at the moment)?

In 2008, undergraduates and graduate students organized Sustainability@MIT ( I'm not sure of the exact number of students in the group (since quite a few graduated in June and incoming undergraduates and graduates have not yet had a chance to sign up), but I'd guess at least 10% of MIT's 4,200 undergraduates and 10% of its 6,200 graduates students are involved. Sustainability@MIT completed several surveys last spring. Based on their results as well as input from faculty teaching "environmental" subjects spread out across the Institute, I think we can answer questions #1 and #4 above. Student interest is strong and classes currently offered are insufficient.

MIT's Energy Initiative worked hard to win support for an undergraduate Energy Minor last year. (They have not yet been able to suggest anything at the graduate level). The Energy Minor is linked to MIT's massive build up of funded energy research on the campus. The Minor will expand course offerings in interesting ways; however, given the way it is structured, it will be quite possible for a student to fulfill the requirements while focusing almost exclusively on new ways of burning fossil fuels. That's not satisfactory from the standpoint of most of the faculty in the FENS. While MIT students are always pre-occupied with technological innovation and new ways of "doing science," there appears to be a growing commitment among students in all areas of study to help find less wasteful and ecologically damaging ways of building and managing cities, new approaches to providing clean water, adequate food, new materials, renewable energy, better information management and strategies for encouraging economic development without undermining nature's services or destroying social capital. So, while there might be some ways in which the Energy Minor will generate new undergraduate courses that an Environment and Sustainability Minor might want to take, the undergraduate minor and the graduate certificate in Environment and Sustainability will focus on a lot more than energy technology.

We've looked closely at current curriculum offerings at MIT. There is a lot we
can build on. But, what's missing are interdisciplinary or interdepartmental pathways that will encourage students to ask questions that no traditional department is likely to emphasize and teach skills and methods that require different ways of framing problems. There are analytical methods (like life-cycle analysis, environmental impact assessment, carbon footprint analysis, and cost-benefit analysis that takes the value of nature's services into account) that most MIT graduates are not learning. The historical and institutional obstacles to sustainable development are not covered in most existing degree programs. There are areas like terrestrial ecology, public health, and environment law and environmental politics that are seriously under-staffed. And, finally, there are areas like conservation biology that are covered expertly by our Woods Hole colleagues, but that most MIT students never know about. We also need to expand the number of "practica" that will allow students to learn about the real-life dynamics of sustainable development by getting involved in client-driven projects in the public sector.

We have put together undergraduate and graduate proposals that assume only four new undergraduate and four new graduate subjects need to be developed. (We would like to see these offered as two-course sequences). That implies two new faculty hires. Everything else can be done by re-clustering and re-organizing existing subjects to make it easy for students to move across departmental boundaries. We hope that faculty teaching many of the existing subjects we have re-grouped into problem-focused sub-specialties will re-orient these classes so that they better serve broader audiences. We also expect MIT to ramp up externally-funded research in the Environment and Sustainability field in the same way its has grown Energy research over the past three years. We need to provide funded research assistantships for graduates and undergraduates. In addition, MIT's recent efforts to "Green the Campus" offer numerous laboratory-like opportunities for students to do research close to home.

In the final analysis, we do not see the need for MIT to devote very much "new" money to launching the undergraduate and graduate teaching programs we will propose in the coming year. We do, however, think that a new administrative arrangement will be necessary. In the end, unfortunately, this may be the most significant stumbling block we will have to overcome. Interdisciplinary, problem-focused teaching will not fit very well within traditional departmental and school boundaries, yet this is the way that MIT has always organized its teaching activities. We will call for the creation of an Ad Hoc Committee on Environment and Sustainability made up of one senior faculty member and one junior faculty member appointed by each of the five Deans. It would be best if these were faculty who teach in the Environment and Sustainability field. These ten faculty would then select their own chair and deputy chair. This Committee would oversee curriculum development, monitor teaching performance, allocate graduate teaching assistantships for cross-cutting courses, advocate for faculty hiring to fill gaps in the curriculum, and organize a range of campus-wide activities (i.e. speakers, job fairs, career counseling, etc.) in conjunction with Sustainability@MIT. This campus-wide Committee, rather than a single Department or School, would administer the undergraduate minor and the graduate Certificate Program.

There are, of course, numerous other models for how to organize degree programs and interdisciplinary minors in the Environment and Sustainability field. Schools all over the world, including MIT's sister institutions (of science and technology) in Japan and Europe, have already created similar programs. But, each context is different and the institutional drivers are different. So, we are not suggesting that any other university ought to do things in the same way that makes the most sense for MIT, or that MIT ought to copy anyone else. We are keeping an eye on what other schools are doing, but mostly so we know what others are doing. We look forward to sharing ideas and experiences with colleagues around the world. For the next year, though, our goal will be to build a consensus within MIT on how to address growing student and faculty interest in Environment and Sustainability Studies.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Measuring Progress in the Fight Against Climate Change

At a recent Burlington, Vermont meeting hosted by Robert Costanza (the leader of the ecological economics movement) and the Seventh Generation Corporation, we tried to figure out how to measure progress in combatting climate change over the next five years. ( I'm of the school that says "If you can't measure it, you can't fix it." So, five years from now, what do we have to measure and how do we have to measure it to know that we were making progress in the fight against climate change?

50 years vs. 5 years

Next year's global gathering in Copenhagan will be focused on how many parts per million of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) we are pouring into the atmosphere and what we should do about it in the long term. National negotiating delegations will try to set reduction goals for 2050 and 2100 -- fighting about what the developed world ought to do FIRST (because of the mess they have already made) and what the developing world has to do (because of the even larger mess they will make in the years ahead if they copy our unsustainable patterns of development). The Copenhagan Climate Change Conference needs to make sure that we don't permanently raise the earth's temperature by more than 2 degrees F. The key number for them seems to be 350 parts per million -- we need to stabilize emissions at 350 parts per million. Unfortunately, we are already beyond that level and climbing. (See Bill McKibbon's We are not going to see global CO2 levels reduced any time soon. So, how can we measure progress in the fight against climate change over the next five years while the nations of the world fight about what to do over the next 50 years?

The four most important things to measure

My colleague Tom Dietz and I came up with four things to measure in the short term -- over the next five years. The first is reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achieved through increased energy efficiency. Its pretty well documented that individual households could achieve 20% reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in just five years using off-the-shelf energy efficiency devices and strategies. (We are talking about liquid fuels as well as electricity.) Most households would probably save enough money in something close to five years to get back whatever costs are involved! The agricultural sector, the industrial sector, the government sector, and the commercial sector might not achieve 20% reductions in five years, but they could probably come close. More work needs to be done to set reasonable percentage reduction targets for each sector. No matter what our 50 years targets, increasing energy efficiency in the short term works to our advantage -- both financially and in terms of ecological sustainability.

The second thing to measure is increased reliance on renewable energy supplies.
About half the states already have something called Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) that commit them to generating 20% of their electricity by 2020. Let's assume that the other half of the states catch up and pass something similar. Each state can meet this goal by stressing renewables that make the most sense in their part of the country -- solar in the west, terrestrial wind in the plains, biomass in the southeast, off-shore wind in New England. In five year's time, a 5% increase in reliance on all kinds of renewable energy would be reasonable.

The third way to track progress over the next five years in combatting climate change would be to see whether all states, and cities with more than 25,000 people, had put in place disaster preparedness plans and procedures. We saw what happened in the aftermath of Katrina. If climate change has already started, we are likely to see rising sea levels, increased precipitation (in some areas), storms of greater intensity, saltwater intrusion into freshwater marshes and wetlands, increasing numbers of really hot days (in some places), drought (in some places), and the like. We better be ready. An indicator of progress in the short term would be clear evidence that coastal communities, in particular, had put appropriate measures in place to protect their population and to make sure that key ecological services (like the supply of clean drinking water, the cooling provided by shade trees, the replenishment of the soil needed to grow our food, etc.) will be protected. Reductions in vulnerability to probably can't be measured in a single number, but we could determine whether every place that should have a plan for reducing vulnerability to climate change has a credible plan ready to go. That's a reasonable five year goal.

The fourth measure of progress would be enhanced resilience in all these same cities and towns. Think of the worst storm in your extended family's memory. How long did it take your people to recover? Houses had to be rebuilt, although soil erosion made that impossible in some places. Insurance coverage began to disappear. Farms (and crops) took a while to restore. Water supplies were ruined in some places. Infrastructure (including roads, bridges, waterfronts, energy facilities, parks, sewage treatment plans, water pumping operations, etc.) had to be rebuilt. If we know that climate change is going to increase the number and intensity of such storms (What if they were going to occur once every 10 years rather than once every 100 years?), we must do some advance planning to make sure that places that are hard hit can spring back. This might mean building protective seawalls or higher dams. It might mean replacing or relocating certain roads, bridges and pumping stations. It might mean swapping which lands uses are allowed near the water, what building standards have to be met (maybe all structures along the water need to have a freeboard that can be raised to let water move underneath them). Climate change resilient cities will probably have to do version of all of these things. Five years from now, if a city hasn't put a Climate Change Adaptation Plan together, it probably hasn't made sufficient progress. We need a national advisory group to help set appropriate standards for adaptation planning. In the most vulnerable areas (i.e. with the lowest elevations near the water), just having a plan in five years isn't good enough. The top 5% of the vulnerability list should have begun implementing their adaptation plans by then.

Most cities and towns in the United States are still operating as if the 100-year flood should set the standard for how development and ecosystems are managed. These are not climate-change ready communities.

Who should do the measuring?

Measuring climate action progress will require collecting technically-credible information on a regular basis. We collect consensus data for the nation as a whole and make it available on line to everyone every five years (state) or ten years (federal government). So, we could do the same thing to track climate change progress. We know how to measure changing levels of employment, shifting population characteristics, spending patterns, and a whole host of other things while still respecting individual confidentiality. We need to get cracking with a Climate Change Measurement Project led by a team of federal agencies and states. All kinds of interested groups and organizations should be invited to collaborate. We only need to set targets for the first five years. After that, once we've see what has happened, we can produce a better set of targets for the following five years. Each set of five year targets will be set in light of the long-term goals established in Copenhagen, but we can do something now and keep making adjustments along the way (as we learn more).

Getting the word out

It's clear that greenhouse gas emissions are in the process of altering our environment. Those alterations will eventually eat away at our economy (in the same way that a terrible month of rain in June cut deeply into the profitability of tourism in New England). While we need to set long-term CO2 reduction goals, we also need to track progress in every single place along the way. Cities should benchmark their progress in the fight against climate change. So should states and national agencies. This is true in every country, not just the United States. Different places will set more or less ambitious targets; that's fine. But they need to set measurable five year goals that can be used to chart their progress. And they need to use appropriate indicators that reflect the world's long-term efforts. If we don't measure how we're doing in the short term, though, we'll never get started and we'll never get better.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Sovereignty Claims of Indigenous Peoples

Think about it from their perspective. Assume you are part of a group that has inhabited a place for at least a thousand years. Your ceremonies and traditions date back a lot farther than those of the interlopers who now control every aspect of your life.  Your people have been connected to that particular place for all of recorded history.  Yet, now, the national government that surrounds you wants to dictate what you can and cannot do with your land and how your children should be educated.. That national government has sold the mineral rights out from under you (and kept all the money), polluted the waters you depend on, and stripped the forest that has always been your primary source of food. Wouldn't you be angry?

There are more than 300 million indigenous people in the world in this situation. There are at least 5000 different first nations in more than 70 countries. Most of these groups are fighting for their survival -- arguing that they should have control over their ancestral lands and be allowed to decide what happens within their borders.  In most instances, though, their sovereignty claims have been rejected.  In the United States, many Native Americans live in the worst economic conditions in the country.  They do not control what happens in their lives. While some Americans blame the tribes for their current circumstances, there can be no question that the American government has refused to allow the Indians to control their land and water and has not lived up to the promises that the American government has made over the past several hundred years.  In Australia, Latin America, Asia and in parts of Europe, First Peoples struggle for recognition and fair treatment.  While the United Nations has, after 25 years of discussion, finally passed a non-binding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all with significant indigenous populations voted against it.  While the Declaration talks about recognition, it provides no imperative for the recognition of  the sovereignty claims of First Nations.

In Canada, First Nations control the land (reserves) on which they live.  They have rights of various kinds (both through treaties and constitutional mandates) that fall short of sovereignty, but guarantee greater independence than almost anywhere else in the world.  The Sarayaku in Ecuador, the Mapuche in Chile, the Amerindians in Guyana, the Adivasi in India, and the Yonggom in Papue New Guinea have far fewer protections.  In Israel, the 46 Bedouin communities in the Negev are not even listed on official government maps and their long-standing  land claims have never been addressed by the Israeli Supreme Court. 

Sovereignty (i.e. full recognition of their status as independent states) may be beyond what
First Nations can hope for in this era, but greater autonomy -- and perhaps even independence with regard to a range of resource, education, and justice issues-- ought to be negotiable.  

I don't see, though, how the sovereignty claims of First Peoples can be resolved in the courts of the very countries that have preempted their rights.  And, I don't think it is very likely that existing national governments will agree to have these claims adjudicated in international courts. To do so would mean allowing international bodies to contravene national sovereignty. (We've heard that argument a lot in the United States whenever questions of the World Court's jurisdiction are raised). That leaves the entire burden on individual First Nations to mobilize political support (both locally and globally). Given their lack of financial resources and their unwilling to engage in domestic politics (which would put them in the same position as any other interest group in a country when what they want is recognition of their sovereign rights), this is not a promising strategy. An international mediation approach might be worth considering.  In the same way that mediation has been used to resolve war and peace issues between contending nations as well as among waring factions within a country, it could be used to provide an in informal context in which national governments and First Nations could explore alternatives to full sovereignty.   

See Lawrence Susskind and Isabelle Anguelovski, Addressing the Land Claims of Indigenous Peoples published by the MIT Program on Human Rights and Justice for case studies of efforts by 14 indigenous peoples around the world to pursue their land claims.
(This can be downloaded for free at

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Urban planning: The key is collaboration

Urban planning is a profession. People all over the world are trained to be urban planners and they have been for a long time. They study a variety of things including patterns of urbanization, land use and the design of cities, techniques for financing economic development, community organizing and mobilizing strategies, approaches to ecosystem maintenance and restoration, and the history of plan making.  More than ever, planners are viewed as generalists with a specialty.  Generalists in that they need to know about all the possible ways of intervening --through a complex web of institutions -- to improve the quality of life in places and spaces.  Specialists in that the various sub-sectors in which they work (transportation systems, housing production, waste handling systems, social service provision, green building design, information management, job creation,  ecosystem management, etc.) require increasing depth of knowledge to be effective. Above all, planners must know how to reconcile conflicting claims in the face of limited resources.  It is not possible to take action in the public arena without political support. So, planners have to know how to generate an informed constituency ready, willing and able to push for change.

If planners think they only work for whoever happens to be in power at the moment, they will quickly be pushed out as new leaders are voted in and old leaders are put out to pasture.  If planners claim to be above the political fray (working on behalf of some vague "public interest" that only they understand), they'll also be out of work quickly because they won't be able to secure the political mandate they need to be effective. If they try to argue that their role is to provide independent technical advice they'll quickly be outdone by other professionals with more in-depth technical training or greater expertise.  The only way planners can make a case for the indispensable role they play is to argue that they are uniquely skilled to broker interactions among those in positions of power, stakeholders who make up the constituencies of those who are elected and appointed, and the technical specialists who have a great deal of "know how" but very little "know why." Planners need to be "implementation specialists" who can make things happen.

Implementation specialists need three kinds of specialized knowledge.  They need to know how to frame problems in tractable ways.  The need to know how to facilitate joint problem solving. And, they need to know how to read and take action within complex institutional settings. If I try to lift a heavy object in the wrong way, I won't be able to move it, and I'll hurt myself in the process.  But, if I lift it properly I can move it anywhere I like.  Problem setting, or framing as it is sometimes called, requires in-depth knowledge of the systems or environments within which I'm operating.  Especially when there are lot of players involved (and they feel strongly about things), skilled facilitation is the key to generating informed agreement and meaningful commitments.  I've got to help people use their time wisely and deal with their differences in constructive ways. Charting a course of action in a complex setting and convincing others to follow suit requires knowing how to build trust, assume the temporary mantle of leadership and communicate effectively. All these competences can be taught, although the learning proceeds more quickly in coaching (inductive) rather than didactic (deductive) settings. 

Urban planning fails whenever designs, policies and programs are imposed on unwilling or unsuspecting stakeholders.  And, phony commitments to participation or consultation don't fooled anyone. Decide-announce-defend has been the mantra for far too long (and it still is) in a many  urban planning settings.  Serious consultation requires that problems be defined jointly, options be considered together (in light of information collected in concert), decisions be made transparently and accountably; and monitoring, adjustments and learning be truly collaborative.  Decision-making responsibility and political power may be asymmetric, but it is nevertheless in the interest of those in positions of authority to find out what they can and should do that will win the broadest possible support. Planners can help. Urban planners needs to know how to build informed consensus, especially in situations where the wrong policies will put lives in jeopardy. 

The urban planning field is going through one of its periodic crises of confidence.  While the majority of the earth's population is now living in urban areas, planners wonder whether they have an important role to play.  Given the claims of other professions (like civil engineering, management, architecture and applied social science), planners wonder how they can compete. As it turns out, there is no other profession better equipped to build informed agreements on what ought to be done (to improve the quality of life in all kinds of places and spaces). There are no other professionals with a clearer sense of the kinds of changes that are important or how to build consensus regarding the most effective ways of realizing them. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Governance: What does it mean? And, what is good governance?

We hear the term governance all the time. Sometimes it is used to characterize corporate relationships among stakeholders, stockholders and boards of directors.  It is often used in international circles as a way of characterizing relationships among sovereign nations -- who are not obliged to defer to a higher authority -- or among governmental and non-governmental organizations who interact, but are on very different levels. Sometimes governance is used mistakenly as a synonym for government; but, government refers to the structure while governance refers to the style or method by which decisions are made and conflicts among actors are resolved. Politics is related, but different.  It refers to the exercise of power within governance. Governance is about hierarchy, custom, style of interaction and decision rules. When organizations or groups of actors are chided about the way they govern themselves, it often means that they are not paying enough attention to the way they involve (or communicate with) their members prior to making decisions.

Imagine a large trade association made up of hundreds of members who have chosen to join because membership guarantees them a range of direct and indirect benefits. As members, they expect to have some say about the policies, standards and rules by which the association governs itself.  They may try to be appointed to sub-committees or volunteer to join a working group to draft a report or suggest changes in policy. The full assembly, though, or an elected Executive Committee must make the final decisions.  Regardless of the size of the group, they will rely on explicit rules to control how decisions are made.  They may develop parallel unwritten customs by which certain tasks are handled (and the formal rules are by-passed with the tacit concurrence of the membership).  And, over time, every group or assembly  needs a process by which it can amend its formal rules and informal customs. Above all,  members want to be able to be able to hold their elected and appointed leaders accountable for operating "according to the rules."

Most organizations rely on some combination of voting and informal conversation.  They might appoint task forces or sub-committees to produce proposals by consensus, but require a majority (or even a two-thirds) vote of their Executive Committee or the full membership to make a formal decisions.  They might use weighted voting to ensure that there is a minimum level of support from various sub-categories of the membership before any action to be taken. The combination of formal decision rules (like majority voting) and informal procedures (like an informal commitment to continue talking until consensus is reached) constitute an organization's governance style.

I often wonder why more groups, organizations and associations (at every level) don't formally adopt a consensus building approach to governance.  I presume they rely on voting because they are worried that consensus won't guarantee a clear result when they need a decision.  But, these same organizations are likely to expect their task forces, working groups and sub-committees to operate on an informal consensus building basis. Their worry, I guess, is that factions will form and internal politics will make it impossible to take formal action if they operate on a consensus basis.  There are three ways of heading off such problems.  First, important problem-solving and group decision-making efforts should be facilitated or mediated by trained professional neutrals. Most people don't realize that skilled mediators can help with consensus building long before an impasse is reached.  Indeed, their involvement can be the key to avoiding a confrontation. When someone who knows what they are doing (and is not trying to steer the group toward a particular outcome) is managing the conversation, it is much easier for a group to reach agreement.  Second,  the facilitator or mediator should undertake confidential and not-for-attribution conversations with as many of the participants as possible before any important meeting.  This will make it easier for the neutral to help the group set an appropriate agenda, manage time, make sure that everyone is heard, and think ahead about how fundamental conflicts might be re-framed for the good of the group or organization.  Third, the way that decisions are posed has a lot to do with whether or not consensus can be reached.  If a group is given a package of proposals (or a set of contingent alternatives) to consider at one time, it is much easier to get the group to accept what is being proposed.  It is when agenda items are considered one at a time, and each becomes a knock-down, drag-out battle that consensus building becomes difficult.  Rather than fight about who is right regarding an uncertain future, "if-then" options can allow the group to proceed with contending sides each certain they have gotten their way.  Once participants know that issues of greatest concern to them will be addressed in a manner they find comfortable, they are much more likely to let others in the group "win" on issues they find most important to them.  

We know all this, yet, most governance processes are not professionally facilitated or mediated. They do not begin with an agenda, time table or neutral manager working to ensure that the important concerns to participant will be addressed.  And, they tend to take issues up one at a time, exacerbating conflict and making it harder to reach agreement. A great many groups say that are committed to collaborative governance, but they are not.  If they make decisions by majority voting, then they are not committed to collaborative governance.

Governance that relies on a consensus building approach is more likely to satisfy all its members.  (Their interests are guaranteed to be met.)  For those concerned about the efficiency of collaborative governance, there are simple ways of ensuring that even the most divisive issues can be framed and discussed in ways likely to yield informed agreement in a relatively short time. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Green Technology Innovation

Population growth is increasing.  Efforts to raise the standard of living of the many billions of people living in poverty should also continue.  Therefore, the only way to achieve more sustainable development in the face of all that growth is through technology innovation.  More people spending more money on more things will surely use up our finite resources and create unmanageable waste streams.   Only if we can figure out how to house, feed, hydrate, transport, employ, heat, cool and nurture billions of people more efficiently will we be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and maintain acceptable quality of life levels.

So, it is important to understand how to promote green technology innovation "at scale."  We need more than a few gizmos and gadgets -- we need continuous technology innovation at a global scale that enables us to (1) substitute information and communication for transportation, (2) quit wasting enormous amounts of energy and find cost-effective ways of re-using materials of all kinds; (3) live satisfying lives at higher densities; (4) substitute renewable energy of all kinds so we can stop relying on dwindling stocks of polluting fossil fuels; (5) preserve water supplies and other important ecological resources while maintaining the full range of nature's services (that will otherwise cost us vast sums to duplicate artificially); (5) rely on local sources of food; (6) build more energy efficient and healthier buildings while preserving historical structures; and (7) do all of the above in ways that increase rather than decrease personal autonomy and enhance our capacity to live and work together. 

I believe the consensus building approach to collective decision-making is the only way we will be able to promote green technology innovation at sufficient scale to achieve a meaningful shift to more sustainable patterns of development. 

Efforts of one group or segment of society to impose its views about sustainability on others who are unwilling will fail.  The costs of contentiousness and the difficulties of enforcement make the imposition of sustainable development policies on grudging segments of society almost impossible.

The good news is that we can achieve green technology innovation at every level -- local, state, national and international -- while reducing costs (and increasing personal benefits). There don't need to be any losers in the long run.  Once this is clear, it should be possible to earn across-the-board support for green technology innovation.   There are three steps involved in getting this idea across.  First, we need to clarify the real costs (to everyone) of continuing to do things in unsustainable ways.  The costs of duplicating nature's services, for example,  when we carelessly undermine normal ecological functions, must be factored into the price of everything we buy and use.  When people see what the "true costs" are of wasteful energy practices, new investments in energy efficiency (that pay back what they cost initially in just a few years) will garner strong support.  Second, we need to make explicit the net present value of everything we do -- both publicly and privately (i.e. what everything costs us in current dollars if we take account of the long-term costs we are imposing on ourselves).  Third, we need to hold everyone accountable for the trade-offs they make when they decide to maximize their short-term self-interest at the expense of everyone else's long-term interest. 

It shouldn't be that hard to do these three things.  In the same way that supermarkets are required to post unit prices and make the contents of each product explicit (i.e., what's the per pound or per liter cost of that product? what percentage of our daily required intake does it provide?) so, too,  everyone selling any product or service should be required to show the "full cost" of what they are selling using a standard system of calculating "sustainable prices."  

In addition, we should all be required to include a simple sustainability statement when we file our taxes.  If we are using more than our fair share of natural resources or emitting more than their fair share of pollution of various kinds, we should have to pay a surcharge. All of this money should be devoted to green technology innovation undertaken by public-private-civil society partnerships.  What we call Public Entrepreneurship Networks (PENS).  See for more information.

The annual budgets of every unit of government should make explicit the discounted present value of their resource utilization patterns so consumers know what they are getting for their tax dollars.

Making all this information explicit would force everyone to make choices more self-consciously. If this were coupled with public policies setting norms of resource utilization and per capita limits on pollution,  and taxing performance outside fair share norms, funds would build up to support green technology innovation.  If innovation were supported only when it was undertaken by public-private-civil society partnerships, the new technologies that emerge would generate returns on investment split between private and public sources. 

Technology innovation follows a familiar pattern - invention, development, and dissemination. Recent theories of technology innovation, however,  show how decentralized and consumer-led modifications at each step can enhance the usefulness and the relevance of new technologies. More open innovation networks produce better results (although openness tends to undermine the return-on-investment to private owners or inventors).  When public entrepreneurship networks (PENS) are the innovators, the continuous streams of benefits that come from easier and wider utilization more than equal the benefits that would otherwise accrue to individual entrepreneurs.  To qualify for these funds, however, consensus needs to be generated among actors from all three sectors.  We see a growing number of examples of PENS-like success stories. (Email me at if you want more information about them.)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Climate Change: Adaptation vs Mitigation

There is a substantial risk that the continued release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will cause a range of adverse impacts including global warming, sea level rise, intensification of storms, changes in historical patterns of rainfall (and drought), threats to endangered habitats and the possible spread of infectious diseases.  Even if the countries of the world agree to take aggressive steps to stabilize or reduce CO2 emissions over the next twenty to fifty years, there is still a strong possibility that the cumulative effects of past greenhouse gas emissions will cause sea level to rise and storms to intensify for at least the next several decades, and probably longer.   Think about the worst storm you or your family can remember and the damage it caused.  What if storms like that occurred every ten years instead of every 100 years? 

Given such risks, it makes sense to search for low-cost ways of reducing CO2 emissions. Collectively, such steps fall under the heading of mitigation. We also need to be thinking about how to reduce the severity of whatever impacts do occur. These are generally called adaptation measures.   In the same way that cities and towns plan ahead for natural disasters like earthquakes, they should take steps to deal with the risks posed by climate change and sea level rise. This is particularly true for coastal communities.

There is a consensus building approach to managing the risks associated with climate change. First, coastal communities need to forecast the likely impacts of sea level rise, storm intensification, changes in rainfall patterns, and potential public health threats. They need to identify the ways in which their community is vulnerable. While this is not easy to do, most communities have documentation of the worst storms that have occurred in their area and the damage they did.  If there are photos, these can provide particularly useful evidence of what a two foot or an six foot rise in sea level might mean.  Communities can use various computer-based forecasting and scenario-casting tools to anticipate the risks that they face. Then, they need to inventory their options.  What can they do to protect themselves?  Our team at MIT ( has identified five types of responses:  reduce the vulnerability of the built environment by removing certain important structures from harm's way or protecting them in place by adopting new building or land use codes; protect water and waste water infrastructure by increasing water supplies and decreasing demand; protect wetlands and wildlife by preserving existing assets and enhancing their resiliency; preserve farm and forest land in the same ways; and invest in public education (including emergency preparedness, evacuation strategies, and civil defense). Once a community has an inventory of policy options, it needs to organize a public forum to consider which options make the most sense from a risk management standpoint. A lot of groups and individuals will need to be involved in joint fact finding and collaborative problem solving. (Professional facilitation can make the job easier).   Finally, communities need to enhance their adaptive management capabilities.   That means clarifying which agencies and organizations have responsibility for monitoring risks and implementing risk management strategies given new information.  

These are not merely technical tasks, they involve political choices, particularly about what money to spend and what added restrictions to impose on private property holders.  Such decisions can't be left to experts.  Communities must engage representatives of all relevant stakeholding groups in making these hard choices.  And, since we are talking about very complex "socio-ecological systems," nobody is going to get it right the first time.  A process of continuous public learning and adjustment will be required.

The global battle goes on over who should pay for mitigation and whether we can restrict
CO2 emissions while simultaneously encouraging economic growth in the developing world and economic recovery in the developed nations. Whatever these decisions, however, there is a high likelihood that we have already begun to feel the effects of climate change.  We can not ignore the risks (think Katrina and what happened when that city's infrastructure was overwhelmed). A consensus building approach can make it easier to reach fair, efficient, stable and wise agreements about how best to adapt.