Thursday, October 29, 2020

Reversing your thinking

 I was speaking with a good friend whose vacation home was threatened by wildfires out west.  We spoke about issues like climate change, and controlled burns and other issues that lead to more fires, and more destructive fires.

His parting shot to me was - you are an innovator.  What can innovation do to change issues like climate change that lead to these destructive fires? I told him that there are many types of innovation - product, service, business model, as well as innovations that impact society and politics.  The innovation I am familiar with, and can happen in a reasonable time frame, is service and product innovation.  What he is asking for is societal and political innovation - where we all agree to change our collective behaviors to create a long term benefit.  These are more difficult innovations and either 1) evolve over time as perceptions or generations change or 2) change immediately due to a "burning platform".  Lasting political change occurred during and after the Great Depression and Second World War, in a way that hasn't repeated itself (yet).

As a side note, let me first say that my heart goes out to anyone who has lost property, homes or lives in fires in California, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico or any other state.  We've seen a rash of fires and I have to believe they will only accelerate over time.

What I encouraged him to think about instead is reversing the problem.  Rather than thinking about how to keep forests from burning, which threaten the neighborhoods and houses where people live, perhaps we should spend a lot more time thinking about what happens when these forests burn.  In other words, stop trying to curtail fires where fires are likely, and start thinking about fire resistant yards, fire resistant structures and so on.  Why don't we innovative with the mindset of success when it burns, rather than trying to prevent something that is only likely to occur more often, and by trying to prevent it makes matters worse the next time?

Why reversing this problem may make more sense

We innovators are always looking for interesting problems - wicked problems - to solve.  However, there are some problems that are so intricate, that require so much agreement from so many different participants or require systemic or organizational change that these problems are difficult to solve and take a long time to solve.  Fires out west is a good example.  

First, we've started living on land that is susceptible to burning, yet we don't allow it to burn.  Second, dry timber from old trees and other brush piles up, creating a tinder box in some areas.  Third, the overlapping governmental bodies (local, state and federal) have different rules about what can be burned or cleared.  Fourth, while people understand that the dead undergrowth is dangerous, they also don't like a local burn to reduce the load.  There are a lot of competing interests, which stymies quick action.

So we have societal pressure, environmental pressure and government regulations that reduce controlled burns - and we haven't even started on the issue of a drying west or climate change.  These are complex issues that will take significant societal and political will to solve.

Accepting that burns will happen

If we then accept that a lot of land is likely to burn more frequently, then our key question (from an innovation point of view) should be:  How might we improve the survivability of structures, neighborhoods and property when the forest burns?

For example, we might insist that all remote property has at least two methods of egress.  The city of Raleigh, where I live, has mandated that builders cannot build more neighborhoods with cut-de-sacs because they are difficult to get to for fire and rescue and have only one exit.  If people are threatened, they should have more than one way to exit.

We might also start to consider alternative building components like brick or concrete, which are less likely to be destroyed in a fire, or perhaps entirely new building materials can be introduced.  Further, we can innovate completely new building materials.  For example, a house built primarily out of earth would not burn.  Maybe we need to use older ingredients with modern engineering. 

This exercise requires far more brainpower than one person on one blog.  It requires rethinking how we build, where we build, and what materials we use to build.  A really robust brainstorm would consider the question:  How might we build to survive massive fires when they occur, rather than asking how we can keep them from occurring or stopping them before they threaten lives or property.

Operating from "givens"

If we start with the assumptions that factors like drought and climate change will continue, and that people want and need to live on land that is susceptible to burning (a significant portion of the west and parts of the prairie), and that these conditions are only magnified as drought occurs or population grows, or more people use the forests, then we can begin to see that one of the best ways to think about this problem is to expect fires and then ask - what's the best we can do to survive a fire and sustain the least amount of ecological and property damage possible once the fire burned?

It's entirely reasonable to continue to seek societal and political alternatives to climate change, a drying climate and a lack of interest in controlled burns.  But if we wait for these options to emerge, we may see more fires destroying the landscape and dwellings.  What could be more useful and create more practical solutions more quickly is to reverse the thinking and accept that fires are a natural part of life, and may only increase.  Then we can ask, how might we build to survive a fire.

Just an example

While the illustration above about building fire resistant or even homes that withstand fires is an example of reversing thinking, this approach is viable in so many other innovation needs. Too often, we frame problems around what we want to prevent, rather than what we want to protect, or what we want to avoid, rather than what we wish to achieve.  

Sometimes turning the problem around - reversing your thinking - can lead to different outcomes or at least new perspectives.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:56 AM


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