Time is not on our side. And that earth-shattering insight works in two directions.
The most obvious is the situation most of us face each day, with ever-expanding to-do lists colliding with obstinate time frames. Same old days, with the same old number of hours in them.
But here’s the deal with a to-do list: What makes it useful is the degree to which it ranks tasks. And the way you decide what rises to the top of the list is to have a pretty good idea what will happen, in what sort of time frame, as a result of you choosing one thing over another. The problem is, your confidence about what will result from choices depends on how quickly the consequences of the choices unfold.
You know, it’s the old cause-and-effect thing. Hot stove, ouch. One martini, two martinis, three martinis, floor.The wider the gap between cause and effect, the lower the confidence level for choices and the less dramatic the sense of urgency. Unfortunately, the most important stuff often takes the longest time to figure out and the longest time to mount a response and measure impacts. Which means that too often there’s just too much time to be smart.
What got me thinking about this lately is the haggling over raising the ceiling on the U.S. debt in the short run and committing to strategies to lower debt in the long term. What’s keeping the sides apart is that the consequences of whatever actions they take or don’t take fall outside the time frames in which political players – and citizens, for that matter – operate. The link between choices made, intentionally or otherwise, in 2011 and impacts on a thousand different components of the U.S. economy and Americans’ daily lives is obscured by the length of time it will take for those impacts to be felt.
There goes the sense of urgency.
When it comes to big, complex challenges like this, our famously inefficient democracy is robbed of the advantages of learning from cause and effect. We’re flying blind. That sometimes works out , as Winston Churchill is reported to have observed about Americans being counted on to do the right thing – after having tried everything else. The problem comes when the cumulative effects of not-so-clever choices become bigger than our capacities for correction. When that happens, we’re back to the more familiar problem with time: Too little of it to do too much.
In planning practice, we see the cause-effect gap complicating attempts to reverse long-standing transportation policies at the regional and local scales, even when the guys at the top have bought into new ways of doing business. Despite evidence that the approaches will work and despite commitment from some thoughtful folks in Washington and in state capitals, the synaptic delay problem messes up efforts to integrate land use planning with public health, the environment, affordability, aging in place, community agriculture and economic development strategies. The effects of choices in all those categories seem too distant to trump more immediate worries like unemployment and the housing bust. We sympathize with those who are trying to get likely climate change impacts into the discussion, but that’s an even tougher challenge.
While we tend to think this failure to calculate future impacts has mostly to do with shortsighted leadership, it’s probably more complicated. There’s evidence the shortsightedness is hardwired into us by evolution, which equipped us well to focus on immediate threats but no so well for long-term planning.
So how do we get around that limitation when it comes to community and regional design?
The most successful strategy I can think of is strategic alignment. Look for chances to do something obvious fast, and make sure it plugs directly into policies that serve a larger purpose over time. Illustrate the principles of a Big Think strategy with a no-brainer project that quickly connects problem and solution and provides a foundation for moving on to a higher level of complexity over a slightly longer time frame. Keep the principles at high altitude. But find something at ground level to prove their viability.
Time might still embarrass us. But planning paralysis is worse.