Jun 24 2013


Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs by Jonathan Koomey, Analytics Press, 2012, 222pp.

Cold Cash, Cool Climate begins with a novel, concise, and easy-to-read explanation of current climate science, as if pitching a green startup to an investor. It is a useful presentation for a society burdened by what a recent New York Times article called “climate fatigue.” It offers what could be a practical response to the unnecessary stalemate between industrial competition and sustainability noted by Michael Porter. Koomey summarizes decades of climate science, positing unprecedented levels of greenhouse gases already in the earth’s atmosphere. From there, he illustrates how entrepreneurs, would-be investors, and startups interested in turning a profit can make money while addressing the challenges posed by climate change. The book reads like the kind of policy report a consulting firm might turn out. Non-business and non-technical readers will remain engaged as he makes connections between impending crises and market-driven change possibilities. Most of this change, according to Koomey, should occur in industries prepared to develop infrastructure for renewables. He makes a surprising assertion, though, when he alleges that the Apollo Program is an inadequate analogy for the role government might play to bring about systemic change, since it is too myopic. I would argue that Congressional politics are also too polarized for government to take the steps necessary to support relevant entrepreneurial efforts. Nevertheless, Koomey argues that newer areas of innovation like connectivity and social media will allow for a more cohesive institutional overhaul of what is possible, setting the stage for would-be investors and startups looking to profit from helping to “solve” the climate problem. In Koomey’s book, the entrepreneur is both the protagonist and the target audience, cast as a convincing bringer-of-change, where slow moving institutions have failed in the past.

May 23 2013

FLEXIBILITY IN ENGINEERING DESIGN by Richard de Neufville and Stefan Scholtes

 Reviewed by Todd Schenk, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Flexibility in Engineering Design
Flexibility in Engineering Design by Richard de Neufville and Stefan Scholtes, MIT Press, 2011, 312 pp

For all our engineering marvels, the world has seen its share of white elephants and design failures – bridges to nowhere, communications networks out-of-date by the time they are deployed, and dikes overtopped leading to flooding. Perhaps these problems are to be expected; designers and engineers are always confronted with significant biophysical, social and economic uncertainty, and no model is perfect. Furthermore, the world is constantly changing, making different designs optimal at different points in time. The conventional approach to design is to use average or worst-case forecasts, add in safety factors and proceed as though we know what the future holds. Unfortunately, this leads to wasted resources when projects are overdesigned and failure when they are underdesigned.

de Neufville and Scholtes make a compelling case for another approach. Instead of preparing a single forecast of a possible future, they argue for building in flexibility so that engineered projects can be adapted easily as conditions change. One example they present is the bridge over the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal. When it was constructed in the 1960s, its designers had the foresight to make it strong enough to hold a second deck at some point in the future, if that became necessary. They also included a railroad station underneath the toll plaza in case rail connections were ever added. Thirty years later, their foresight paid off when a second deck carrying commuter rail lines was constructed at modest cost and little disruption to the transportation system.

While it may sound simple, the challenges associated with shifting the way project design proceeds, from the traditional predict, plan and build approach to something more iterative should not be underestimated. Designers and engineers need to rethink the way they use forecasting models. Budgeting and capital planning need to allow for longer-term project adaptation. de Neufville and Scholtes introduce a variety of tools to support this shift, including phasing projects and investments, Monte Carlo simulation for exploring scenarios, and dynamic forecasting to highlight uncertainties.

Strategies for making planning and design nimbler can not come soon enough, given that climate change is increasing uncertainty and budgets are regularly stretched. Flexibility should become the new design norm. This book represents both a manifesto for this important shift as well as an early guidebook instructing us how to get there.

Feb 1 2013


Reviewed by Alexis Schulman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

America the Possible:  A Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth, Yale University Press, 272pp

In the opening of his new book, America the Possible: A Manifesto for a New Economy, James Gustave (Gus) Speth—once called the “consummate environmental insider”—makes a startling claim. After nearly four decades moving seamlessly between the worlds of nonprofits, academia, and government, Speth has concluded that working “inside the system” has failed. Solving the slew of environmental and social ills facing the United States, he argues, requires nothing less than profoundly altering their driving force: our political economy.

For those who doubt that America is struggling, Speth kicks off his manifesto with a disturbing summary of America’s “firsts.” Among all OECD nations, he notes, the United States ranks number one in inequality of incomes, homicide rate, poverty rate, prison population, and international arm sales. And these are just a handful of many other undesirables. However, Speth aims less to sway skeptics than to rally the believers—those desirous of a more just, fair, and sustainable future. With remarkable comprehensiveness and clarity, America the Possible lays out the problems with our system, a vision for the future, as well as the required economic and political reforms. At the core of his vision, is a reigning in of the economic growth imperative. Drawing on the work of economist Herman Daly, Speth envisions a steady state economy, where resource consumption and population growth are reduced within ecological limits; and where economic policies seek to maximize quality of life, not quantity of output.

Speth rightly aligns his arguments with similar narratives emerging from the coalescing new economy movement. Indeed, America the Possible often reads as a Who’s Who of the movement’s rising stars (of which Speth is one), and is replete with their theories and projects, such as the democratization of wealth through stakeholder-owned companies, proposals for 100 percent reserve requirements, and reductions in work hours. Speth’s book provides one of the best new economic primers out there. The only drawback is that Speth’s own insights and cultivated wisdom are frequently lost in the mix. His voice is most original when discussing how to build the political movement to see these reforms forward. This is an important and frequently under-articulated issue, and it is clear that here Speth is drawing on his own lessons learned. But ultimately, one wishes for more of these moments.

Feb 1 2013


Reviewed by Nicholas Marantz, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Collaborative Governance: Private Roles for Public Goals in Turbulent Times, by John D. Donahue and Richard J. Zeckhauser, Princeton University Press, 305pp

In recent decades, U.S. government has relied increasingly on private corporations (including non-profits) to provide an array of services. John Donahue and Richard Zeckhauser call this phenomenon “collaborative governance,” and their book describes strategies to increase the public benefits from such arrangements. Donahue and Zeckhauser present over a dozen cases of collaborative governance in action, in domains ranging from education to national security. They explain how administrators can determine when to delegate tasks to private organizations, how to assess potential collaborators, and how to evaluate ongoing projects. But, while Donahue and Zeckhauser provide much clear technical guidance for government officials and concerned citizens, their evidence suggests that collaborative governance may be inherently upwardly distributive, an issue which they do not clearly address.

Donahue and Zeckhauser contend that, among other advantages, collaborative governance can increase public benefits by inducing private actors to commit additional resources. To illustrate this potential, the authors invoke examples from three New York City parks. While these collaborations all resulted in the commitment of additional funds and talent, they also entailed the upward distribution of public resources. In the case of Central Park, Donahue and Zeckhauser note that collaboration has produced “an upscale tilt to the park’s image, amenities, and regulations.” Bryant Park “represents a relatively large investment of public funds to create an asset with quite focused private benefits.” Private investment in Harlem’s Swindler Cove Park yielded a $3 million dollar boathouse, used mostly by rowers who live far from the surrounding disadvantaged community.

The authors acknowledge these distributive consequences without addressing whether they are intrinsic to “collaboration for resources,” as they term the relevant arrangements. Given the consistency of their evidence, the question merits attention. Collaborative Governance would have been more successful if Donahue and Zeckhauser had addressed this possibility with the same zeal and insight that they bring to other aspects of their topic.

Oct 9 2012

PLANNING WITH COMPLEXITY by Judith Innes and David Booher

Reviewed by Shafiqul Islam, Tufts University

This book presents a new theory of collaborative rationality to help make sense of the new practices.

Planning With Complexity: An Introduction to Collaborative Rationality for Public Decision-making, by Judith Innes and David Booher, Routledge, 256pp

In Planning with Complexity, this scholar-practitioner team looks at planning and public policy through the lens of complexity science. They explicitly recognize that many social policy, planning and management problems are “wicked” as defined by Rittel and Webber (1973). They argue that there is no consensus even on the definition of the problem, much less on goals to achieve. The uncertainty inherent in such complex systems means that even powerful actors and knowledgeable experts cannot predict how uncertainty in information, action and perception will manifest itself on a particular policy prescription. A central aspect of their argument is that for wicked problems, there is no solution that can be shown to be predictable and optimal.

They propose a new form of planning and policy called, collaborative rationality. This is a welcome departure from traditional instrumental rationality for decision-making. Their collaborative decision-making theory – Diversity, Interdependence, Authentic Dialogue (DIAD) – is based on three conditions embedded within it. It is theoretically elegant and grounded in the work of Habermas (1981) and the notion of communicative rationality. When all of the ordinary constraints on the free exchange of ideas (such as differences in status, power, etc) are lifted, Habermas believes that good faith discourse between individuals will allow them to reach a consensus about the truth. Authors explicitly recognize that collaborative rationality requires an equalization of power among all stakeholders (P. 111).

It is not clear, however, how pragmatic such an equalization of power is for planning and management of wicked problems. This is partly because rationality based on scientific method and positivist approach is a highly contested notion, while collaborative decision-making relies heavily on interpretive, pragmatic and experiential way of knowing. How to make these apparently dichotomous ideas into collaborative decision-making process in a politically real world is a practical challenge. Authors are pragmatic in acknowledging that “dialogues cannot directly change the deep structure of power (P. 110)” but actions can have second or third order effects. Their observation that planning has to proceed independent of trust  is somewhat puzzling. Recent literature on planning and management of common pool resources (Ostrom 2011, Susskind and Islam 2012) suggest creating trust and values to be fundamental in this regard.

To summarize, Innes and Booher have provided a fresh look and theoretical foundation on how to think about planning and managing wicked problems from complexity science perspectives. Hopefully, their future contribution will provide more insight on how to practically manage wicked problems within the context of collaborative rationality.

Oct 3 2012

BEYOND CONSENSUS by Richard Margerum

Reviewed by Lawrence Susskind, MIT

In Beyond Consensus, Richard Margerum examines the full range of collaborative enterprises in natural resource management, urban planning and environmental policy.

Beyond Consensus: Improving Collaborative Planning and Management, by Richard Margerum, MIT Press, 368pp

It might come as a surprise that consensus is not the final step in the work of a collaborative trying to generate a plan for the management of a watershed. Consensus means agreement, so once there’s agreement what else is there to do? It turns out − in the world of natural resource management − that reaching agreement on how to proceed must be followed by on-going efforts to implement whatever has been proposed. According to Richard Margerum, beyond consensus one should hope to find collaboratives aimed at implementing (or making adjustments in) plans, policies or project designs.

Margerum has reviewed almost sixty case studies of collaborative resource management, about half in the United States and half in Australia. His focus is mostly on watershed management efforts that took place between 1993 and 2010. He begins by examining the dynamics of collaboration. From there, he moves to consensus-building strategies, especially the various forms of deliberation that stakeholders can use to reach agreement, not merely share their views.

When deliberations go well, Margerum believes they lead to high quality plans with clear goals, solid factual justification and sound intervention strategies. He emphasizes the importance of social, inter-organizational and political networks in sustaining collaboratives and ensuring plan implementation. He concludes by attempting to translate his findings into prescriptions for practice. The prescriptive part of the book is less successful than his very instructive efforts to develop a typology of collaborations.

This review was originally published in full in Review of Policy Research 29, no. 5 (2012): 663–5.

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