Managing a Portfolio of Concerns Regionally, Rationally

The Bad News Industry

Bad news sells. On an average day, media show us hundreds of instances of “bad” news: natural disasters, crime, financial scandals, personal tragedy, corruption or other regional hurt. The impact of the “bad” events described interrupts businesses, disrupts the employment, careers and retirement plans of workers, and threatens the tax bases and economic fiber of whole cities, regions and countries.

“Bad” news must be reported. But hearing it constantly, pervasively, without “good” news to balance the psyche can lead to a cynicism of public and generational despair and hopelessness.

“Bad” news makes bad law. Each year America’s legislators across 87,000 federal, state and local governments adopt thousands of laws, regulations and other policy statements. In some instances, the laws they pass paper over similar concerns of past generations victimized though similar threats that spawned laws of similar outrage that went unenforced, inequitably applied or mandated as unfunded intergovernmental ideals. In other instances, lobbyists buy off enforcement efforts of laws too inconvenient for special interest profitability and tradition to accept.

The Statistics War

Ratings of bad things happening rally media support for funding budgets. Each interest group operating at federal, state or local levels practices the art of using statistics to galvanize America’s forms of democracy.

Want more bridges and tunnels built to employ more construction companies? Generate statistics showing how many bridges and tunnels are subject to collapse. Want to save the environment by saving a particular species of bird, animal or fish? Produce statistics showing the extinction of that species and its implications for the damage man is doing to the environment. Want to safeguard inner city children from poor health care and nutrition? Produce statistics on the alarming rate of obesity and asthma in poor neighborhoods.

Each expert group relies on discrete funding patterns (corporate and government budgets, foundation grants and litigation settlements). Such funding emphasizes extremism and myopia, perpetuating a “just solve this risk” mindset, instead of an “all-risk” hazards approach. Risks compete for public and private funding and media attention.

Their social concerns are real, and merit spending public and philanthropic funds to repair. The resulting cacophony of scary messages and quantified threats, no matter how valid in isolation, has led to a juggernaut of political dysfunction and a lack of cooperation amongst experts across their domains of expertise.

A framework for tapping, localizing and pooling so much expert knowledge is needed if the improvements are to be made efficiently and without delay.

Sustainable Resiliency® – Seeing Options Beyond the Bad News

The experts lack (and often acknowledge they lack) a meta-model, whereby their science and experience can coalesce multi-faceted solutions, whose total costs would be more amenable of funding than the stovepipes of coupled problem-solution pairs now so common, costly and unsustainable.

We lack the right visualization tools. There is no “level playing field” to see all social concerns indigenous to each region, weighed according to how they impact the region, or how other activities occurring in the region might reduce overall exposure to the specific risk presented. In short, we have no “market measure” of the relative health of a region’s sustainability and resiliency in light of all the risks that continually flash across newspaper, TV and web headlines.

There is a Climate Crisis. The United States also has crises in food quality, economic equity, energy, incarceration rate, susceptibility to pandemics, fatherhood in a post-feminist era, flood mitigation along coastal communities, coal and oil-dependent energy appetite and many other areas of our complexly urbanized society.

But what if we used the rhythm of “bad” news to build a composite regional livability measure? What if all the doomsayers, each expert in specific risks were to project their knowledge into a spatial and semantic context, so we could see and use it on a common map framework (like through Google Earth®)? What if risks gauged across environmental, health, infrastructure, social services and other concerns could be seen simultaneously as a layer cake of risks, like Fandango® shows the movie listings and ratings for theatres in a given zip code? What if the same expert groups (and nonprofit and university stakeholders posing new gauges and solutions) were to suggest the steps needed to guard against or respond more effectively to the risk, and to map and model the impact of such preparedness and resiliency based on a range of assumptions on outside variables, like diet, menu and carbon footprint calculators readily available on the Web?

The result would be an emerging social network of more useful existing knowledge, much like Wikipedia®, spatially capable of showing significant risks and strategies for mitigating them in their geography and weighted by their indigenous significance and feasibility.

Aggregated spatially and semantically, expert knowledge would show sustainable resiliency as a public asset to be stewarded in each region by all stakeholders – not just the stakeholders with funds or fad to fund their pet concerns in isolation.

Overcoming the Tragedy of the Commons

With sustainable resiliency, the tragedy of the commons (such as climate change) would become measurable and reversible. Collective intelligence (Internet pioneer Doug Engelbart’s term) would provide contextual knowledge in finer grained and more meaningful form. And consumer and financial markets would embrace as more meaningful and trustworthy their new knowledge of transparency. See [Means Meter] and [Ethical Banking].

For more on how sustainable resiliency would help quantify the impact of nonprofits and others in the social sector, please download this summary: SustainableResiliency020308.

Bruce Cahan

Bruce Cahan is CEO and co-founder of Urban Logic, a nonprofit that harnesses finance and technology to change how systems think, act and feel. He is an Ashoka Fellow, an Adjunct Professor at Stanford University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, a Distinguished Scholar at Stanford mediaX and a former CodeX Fellow at Stanford's Center for Legal Informatics. Bruce was trained as an international finance lawyer at Weil Gotshal & Manges in NYC (10 years) and as merchant banker at Asian Oceanic in Hong Kong (2 years). Bruce graduated The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (B.S. Economics 1976) and Temple Law School (J.D. 1979). Bruce has been licensed to practice law in California (2006), New York (1980) and Pennsylvania (1980).

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