Daniel Bonin is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his second article for the program. He infrastructure projects as an example of the way myopic thinking sabotages how we as humans invest in our own future.
Myopic and self-serving decision making seems omnipresent. Think about people who display NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitudes. Or infrastructure companies and politicians who plan with wrong assumptions and within short cycles. It can constitute a blight upon future infrastructure projects. This attitude is fostered by the way we think, the way we judge, and the way we decide. The way we view the blueprint of the greater socio-economic system we interact with. It is built into the very characteristics of infrastructures.
People tend to act myopic and self-serving in contexts where decisions are (a) made seldom, are (b) costly in terms of money and cognitive load, (c) receive delayed feedback on the impact and their own contribution to the outcome and (d) would be required to forecast future emotional states to come to an educated judgment. It has to be said that making decisions about infrastructures is a perfect breeding ground for myopic and self-serving decisions.
Infrastructure planners and politicians often assume lay people to be just as knowledgeable and rational as they are. Experts often fail to acknowledge the emotions that are at play when lay people consider planned infrastructures as risky and expect adverse consequences in their backyard. The result is a manifestation of self-serving and myopic thinking, famously known as not in my backyard attitude.
Political and business cycles also foster myopic and self-serving decisions. Politicians have an incentive to postpone uncomfortable infrastructure decisions to secure votes by redistributing economic funds to other social issues or ban projects that are subject to protests of their electorates. Also for businesses, short-term bonuses and serving terms are undermining long-term orientation, thereby facilitating a real diabolic mentality, namely corruption in planning, building and running infrastructures. This severe issue of corruption is encouraged when short-term and self-serving thinking becomes a normal way to behave in organizations and institutions.
There are a few positive developments with respect to our weaknesses to be mentioned: more immersive ways to experience the impact of one’s myopic decisions in the present on one’s future-self have shown to reduce our hunger for instant gratification. This might help to overcome the characteristics of decisions about infrastructures that make the evaluation of them so tricky. For instance, virtual realities can overcome a lack of imagination when it comes to forecast the impact and risk of infrastructure on daily life and thereby alleviate unjustified concerns. In a similar vein, social and frugal innovation increase the acceptance of infrastructures and help to establish their future orientation. Joint involvement of state, local communities and businesses can create win-win-situations for people as it should not be forgotten that infrastructure projects can revitalize regions.
That being said, several trends lead to the conclusion that myopic and self-serving attitudes will continue to undermine future-oriented thinking about infrastructures. Growing social inequalities make it more difficult to put oneself in the shoes of someone else, thereby heightening self-serving behavior. The gap between experts and lay people is also likely to be exacerbated by the shift towards a knowledge economy and a growing role of automation and artificial intelligence, both of which are pushed into the world by experts. The possible downturn of the nation-state and rise of city mayors and grass root movements reduces the degree of coordination and likelihood of top-down interventions that overrule not in my backyard or neighborhood attitudes. It remains questionable if a bottom up push could really lead to more long-term thinking. Much will still depend on the location of infrastructures compared to one’s backyard or neighborhood. At the same time, growing individualism increasingly influence even traditionally collectivist societies. Demographic change and tight state budgets cause older people to seek solutions for their most pressing short-term issues. Younger generations feel ignored and fear being marginalized. A sound and future oriented society would put more emphasis on the voice and needs of younger generations. And it is this very generation and their successors that will live with the infrastructures of tomorrow in 2050.
All in all, myopic and self-serving thinking is deeply entrenched in our nature and likely here to stay. This is driven by a variety of strong factors and trends: the way humans behave together with the nature of infrastructure decision making, along with distorted incentive schemes and cycles in politics and business. These foster our short-term and selfish thinking about social inequalities, aging societies, marginalized younger people and growing individualization.
Are we too myopic and self-serving to invest in the future? Yes. Will we continue to be so in the future? Likely.
© Daniel Bonin 2018