Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Future Sound of Puget

As I mentioned the other day on my plus account, last Thursday we held a small conference on the Future of Puget Sound. The guest panelists were Amy Snover and Howard Frumkin from the University of Washington, the chief analyst technical fellow at Boeing, Bob Peterson, and Diana Gale of the Puget Sound Leadership Council (though she is also a lecturer at the Evans School of Public Affairs at UW).  Larry Susskind closed out the day with a keynote on collaborative decision-making methods.

Marina opened up the day by presenting a short talk on how deeply uncertainty is intertwined with our decision making processes, and how we may be going about the question of how to deal with it the wrong way.  Her argument is pretty simple, at its core:  We cannot pretend that we can dismiss uncertainty and reach an 'optimum' solution; rather we need to explore and embrace the uncertainty that is a part of our knowledge processes and try to find solutions that are robust and adaptive.

One of the tools for tackling this problem is scenario analysis, and Michal gave a brief (but very informative) presentation on the Snohomish Basin 2060 Scenarios as an introduction to this way of analyzing uncertainty.  The thing that makes scenario development interesting is how it combines quantitative technical knowledge derived from research, qualitative and quantitative local knowledge, a fistful of models, and synthesizes them into a series of digestible, diverging narratives.  The importance of narrative in presenting information to the public cannot be underestimated, as I have said before.

This was followed by a discussion from the panelists, who each gave a short statement about dealing with uncertainty in decision making, and then took questions.  Each of the panelists had a very distinct view of the world, but all tended to mention a point that I've heard before:  genuine dialog between participants in decision-making processes is key.  All of them tended to emphasize this for different reasons.

Howie Frumkin pointed out that working on the large problems we face means having to engage in a lot of interdisciplinary work, where dialog between different participants is incredibly critical to actually getting anything done. Amy Snover drilled down into the idea that all of our work dealing with climate change is necessarily iterative and temporary (and therefore must be dynamic and responsive), and needs to be informed honestly by society in terms of what success means, what action is needed, and what we actually have the capacity to do.  Bob Peterson unexpectedly (for me, anyway) brought a modelers approach to the discussion, and talked about how models are as much (possibly more) tools for learning, exploration and provoking dialog as they are for the purpose of making accurate predictions.   Diana Gale commented most directly on the Puget Sound, and highlighted the intensively collaborative nature of the goal of rehabilitating the Sound, with 165 jurisidictions on the Sound alone.

Each also had interesting insights on how they related to uncertainty in their work.  Frumkin pointed out that doctors have to be able to tolerate a very high degree of uncertainty, and how different that might be from how other professionals approach their work.  Mz. Snover tended more to focus on the issue of sorting out what we know with some certainty from what we don't, and how important it is to try to keep the public informed on that.  Bob Peterson had probably the most humble take on this issue.  He pointed out that all certainty is ultimately contingent and just a best guess, and that we almost always ask the wrong questions about uncertainty by trying to find what is "right" (what is most likely) rather than what is most robust.  Mz. Gale approached the issue in a way that I am familiar with from conservation biology and environmental management:  you deal with the uncertain outcomes of your policies by monitoring you system, evaluating the outcomes, and adjusting your course of action.

The Q&A portion of the panel discussion was interesting, but diverse and doesn't lend itself well to summary, so I'll just hit a few highlights.   One emerging theme was the need to destroy the Academic Silo, and get people in diverse fields talking to each other.  I personally am a product of this desire, and tool to further it, so it's always satisfying to hear this theme come up.  At the end there was also some stress put on the need to do more applied science, which is also always nice to hear for those of us interested in doing work that is immediately applicable to the problems of practitioners.

The toughest question posed was about the limited power of dialog, and how it can fail badly when there is a deep conflict of values.  This is a perennial problem, and was a key question at SXSW Eco when I was there. Larry Susskind intended to address this very issue, but it was pointed out that sometimes while it's frustrating to not talk about what is causing climate change, we can still manage to do work to mitigate it.  The Northwest as a whole seems to be far less divided on this issue than many other places in the country, fortunately.

I'm not going to dig too deep into Larry Susskind's presentation on consensus building, collaborative decision-making and management.  As he said himself after the fact, all of the material is in his books and on the web.  The basic outline is that a convening body (like a legislature) hires a neutral mediator to gather a comprehensive groups of stakeholders (including the convener) to address a certain problem.  These stakeholders inform who will be at the table, the timetable, etc, and ultimately hammer out an agreement that satisfies more or less everyone.  This agreement (which can be quite flexible and loaded with trigger clauses, etc) goes to the convener as a package to be approved and acted on, or not.

He's a charismatic speaker, and he presents a very strong case for using the consensus building process to arrive at functional win-win(ish) solutions to tough problems.  I wanted to ask him a question at the end, but we ran out of time, so I will instead put it here.

The main problem with his model strikes me as this:  it requires the convener of the process to be a) powerful (in the sense of being able to act authoritatively, often with force of law), b) genuinely motivated, c) trustworthy, and d) willing to give away much of the power to develop a solution.

These do not strike me as trivial problems.  Susskind himself lambasted various government projects which claimed to be employing collaborative methods for being deceptive and unwilling to cede any power.  This approach also rests on existing relationships of power, and cannot do much to disrupt them.  The hands on the levers never really change, though they may appear to do so.  Stakeholders can invest a tremendous amount of time and effort, reach an agreement, and have their work thrown away if it is not satisfactory to the people with the actual power to act.

Overall, the conference was a good time, and quite interesting, even if I have heard many of the sentiments that emerged several times before.

(Bonus points to anyone who gets the joke in the title of this post!)

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