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Special Innovation Zone: Imagination Without Regulation
Alex Steffen, 24 Jun 09
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Existence is the ultimate proof of the possible. Every time a bold new project is tried, and works, we advance our sense of the achievable. Given how much transformation we need in order to meet the challenges we face, we need many more attempts at innovation, and we're not getting them. The achievable is not advancing quickly enough.

Why does it matter? Because our perception of what's possible dictates our standards of what's acceptable, and the biggest barriers to social innovation and bright green experimentation are almost always institutional, legal and regulatory. We may have tons of new technology, promising designs, ambitious plans, but in most of the Global North, it's exceedingly costly and difficult to try new things at any scale. A few examples:

* Cutting edge green builders often encounter all sorts of local building code barriers that prevent bold designs (sometimes even when those designs are well-proven elsewhere);

* District energy plans are often stymied by national, provincial or local laws governing utilities, which often make it difficult-to-impossible to implement new ideas for improving the grid or building local energy at scale;

* Existing utilities and agencies may resist new ideas because they stand to lose revenue if, for instance, a new water-recycling system with living machines and biodigesters takes a building off the sewer system (and would thus exempt it from paying sewer fees);

* People attempting to make woonerf-style pedestrian streets may find that municipal insurance in the U.S. may demand that streets for which the city is responsible be built at a certain width to accommodate emergency vehicles moving quickly, and companies may oppose street grid innovations which inconvenience cars on the theory that their workers or customers may have difficulties getting to their businesses;

* Banks may refuse to fund new business ideas that depend on governmental permissions or exemptions from rules, and investors may be similarly shy of getting behind projects which are both innovative and face potential regulatory or legal challenges;

* Neighborhood opposition may slow down to the point of infeasibility any project which local NIMBYs think may bring "undesirable" people or activities, even if those activities are perfectly legal and may even be welcomed by other neighbors.

Each of these examples is based on a story I've heard of an innovative project that died not because it was a bad idea, but because of societal inertia. Given how tough it is to start new projects (and find financing and support) under normal circumstances, innovators facing this kind of opposition often end up contenting themselves with incremental -- sometimes downright meaningless -- gains.

This is not just a problem for the innovators, it's a problem for everyone. Breakthroughs in the way we make our biggest things -- buildings, vehicles, infrastructure systems -- need to go through a process of trial and error to reach the cutting edge. We may never know how many great ideas were lost forever, simply because the thinkers behind them couldn't find a place to experiment boldly and in public.

What might that place look like?

In his recent Long Now talk (MP3 here), economist Paul Romer tells a story. In the early 1970s, China was stuck in a societal inertia after the death of Mao. However, right next door, Hong Kong (administered by the British) was a thriving city-state based on trade and innovative manufacturing. Chinese leaders decided to see if they could copy Hong Kong's success on a limited scale, and set up four "Special Economic Zones" where foreign investment was encouraged and capitalism was unconstrained. The experiments were so successful economically that their rules soon more or less became the guiding principles of the Chinese miracle. As Romer says, “Hong Kong was the most successful economic development program in history.”

In many ways, the Global North is as hamstrung in the face of bright green challenges as China was in the face of capitalism. What if the answer is a sustainability and social innovation equivalent of China's answers: a sort of "Special Innovation Zone"?

Imagine a place -- perhaps a shrinking city, or a badly savaged brownfield neighborhood -- where laws were set up to strip rules and regulations down to a do-no-harm minimum (maintaining criminal laws and protecting health, safety, workers' rights and civil liberties, but perhaps limiting liability and certainly slashing red tape and delays) allowing for wild deviations from existing patterns for buildings, systems and operations. Imagine a free-fire zone for sustainable innovations, where new approaches could be iterated and tested rapidly, and, when they work, sent to proliferate outside the Zone. Conversely, some of the freedom might paradoxically come from imposing boundary limitations that can't yet be made practical or survive politically outside the Zone, such as bans on broad classes of chemicals or strict greenhouse gas emissions limits.

To be sure, there are places out there where people are already starting to experiment successfully with this blank-canvas mentality. Vancouver, B.C. has seen wonderful results in urban design from its discretionary zoning policy, which favors case-by-case evaluation of projects in pursuit of regional goals, rather than setting blanket standards. And in Greensburg, Kansas, the devastated landscape left behind after a tornado ripped through the town in May 2007 became a laboratory for innovation, as people from within the community and around the world resolved to rebuild Greensburg as a resilient, efficient and sustainable example of bright green living. Our allies at Re:Vision Dallas have offered up a full block in Texas's third largest city as the site for a new "sustainable model for the world." Although the final product will need approval at all levels, the design charrettes for Re:Vision Dallas put city officials and design visionaries in the same room, where they could tackle institutional stumbling blocks with more immediacy. If the winning designers have their say, the Re:Vision renovation will indeed push the envelope and the imagination. But these are small, limited exceptions that prove the rule.

I imagine that anything actually set up to work this way would have a half-life that shortened the better the Zone got at producing innovation, either because it would fly apart (like so many brilliant artistic scenes) or because it would get so profitable that funding would pour in and crush the creativity (as happens to many unfettered intellectual booms). But while it lasted, a Zone like this might well spit out more proven innovation in a handful of years than gets built on the ground in decades during the normal course of things. It might well be a flare that could illuminate a whole series of interesting paths out of the darkness.

Image: The design for "XeroPlace" was one of three winning entries in the Re:Vision Dallas design competition.
Image credit: David Baker and Partners Architects and Fletcher Studio, with rendering assistance from Mike Brown and Megan Morris of Medized.San Francisco, CA.

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This (coincidentally?) sounds a lot like what Michael Reynolds tried to get the state government to set up in New Mexico, around his Earthship communities: architectural "test sites". Or at least, that's how he pitched it to the legislature in Garbage Warrior.

At the very least, it would be wonderful if we could de-centralize a lot of the regulation to the city (or city-state...) level, and let each individual municipality try their own thing, but even then it's hard to change. Witness the potentially catastrophic difficulties that the Washington Village co-housing development in Boulder, CO has had getting permission from the suburban neighbors, to re-develop a now-closed elementary school into a high-density, mixed use urban co-housing community. Neighbors are opposed to everything I want: the high density, the mixed use (increased traffic) the restricted parking provisions (I don't drive, and don't want to pay for parking, and the site is 8 blocks from downtown, and right on a transit corridor). The result: open community space that faces the road, instead of being safely within a courtyard, lower density, poorer economics for the development, and a higher chance of failure overall.

If that's the best we can do, we're screwed.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 24 Jun 09

You say: "the biggest barriers to social innovation and bright green experimentation are almost always institutional, legal and regulatory".


And now I realise why I find WorldChanging so frustrating.

The biggest barriers to social innovation are values, belief systems and world views.

Until you have a transformation of consciousness at all levels of society - individual, community, business and government - those institutional, legal and regulatory barriers will stay in place.

WorldChanging keeps pumping out innovative technologies, processes and systems and all I can think is: "Great, but it will never be implemented in time to save civilisation unless *we* change."

This is why I consider myself a "Deep Green".

I never added to the "The New Environmental Spectrum" post you did a while back, but I think you fail to make a distinction between "Dark Green" and "Deep Green". You seem to lump the two together.

For me the Dark Greens are the pessimists and doomers like Kunstler, Greer and Orlov, and the misanthropes like Derrick Jenson and the other anarcho-primitivists.

The Deep Greens are those who hold a more wholistic, ecological and yes, scary word - spiritual world view. These include the the Deep Ecologists such as Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry and David Korten, Evolutionary Spirituality advocates such as Barbara Marx Hubbard and Andrew Cohen, social ecologists and many of the people within the Transition Towns movement.

For the Deep Greens there has to be a wholistic approach - head, heart and hands, and we have to transform on the deepest of levels, and all levels - individual, communal and political. For me the Deep Greens are as positive and optimistic as the Bright Greens and believe we can create a sustainable world that will bring an appealing quality of life.

The Deep Greens that I know aren't against scientific and technological progress - those I know in the Transition Movement are putting solar panels on their roofs - but you can throw as much technology as you like at the world's problems, but unless you get people to change, we will be going nowhere.

And you won't get people to change by berating them like Sterling does (to your credit, Alex, you are much more respectful). That's not a revolution I, and I suspect a lot of other people, want to be a part of. I also don't belief it's a revolution that will work.

With regards to your example of China... I read recently how the experiment of participatory democracy (surely something those of us who are progressive thinkers are in favour of) in California is bringing the state to it's knees because of voters' rampant materialism, self-interest and individualism: citizens vote for more services, but less taxes.

If you want the same rapid and comprehensive change as the Chinese, then you need to replicate the China political system - state fascism.

In the "Global North", as you describe it (the latest terminology which excludes those of us in the South who are developed countries - my country of Australia shares many of the same values as the US), we need to change our values so that we become more compassionate and less concerned about our own self-interest and more concerned about what's good for the community.

I keep hearing from the technological optimists "All we need to do is swap out oil-based transport for electrified transport" or "All we need to do is retrofit our urban environments into paragons of sustainability" or now, "All we need to do is change the regulations that are holding innovation back".

But it's not "All we need to do." You skip right over the very important step of having to change people first (or concurrently, at least). Until we change people's values the latest, greatest sustainability-enhancing widget, technological breakthrough or grand social plan will stay on the drawing board.

There endeth the rant. But we are more-or-less on the same page. :-)

Posted by: Sean FitzGerald on 24 Jun 09

This sounds like an excellent approach to rebuilding and revitalizing New Orleans. Are you aware of anything like this happening, or being attempted in that area? And if not what's the bottleneck and where is the red tape coming from?

Posted by: Brad on 24 Jun 09

Your comments pretty well sums up the discussions on architecture at a recent 'festival of ideas' I attended at University of Melbourne.

Urban planners, architects, building code regulators, environmental planners... all have solutions, yet none appear to have much idea of how to engage with the other disciplines (this is being belatedly acknowledged)

We had a talk about a design for a new urban centre in Hong Kong, able to house 250,000 people in low-medium height (6-8 storeys) buildings within 800m of the rail station. Nice idea, but it got canned because the development was given to another department: one more intent on developing the rail corridor (ie want skyscrapers)

We were told how Melbourne could accommodate the projected 2050 growth in its population by concentrating on increasing the accommodation density (oops! *intensity* is the new term... stay tuned for *experience*) of just 6% of the properties facing on to transport corridors. It was criticised by a town planner saying that existing building codes would guarantee that the high density dwellings being proposed would be cheap rubbish.

The result is that Melbourne's solution to its urban sprawl is, for now, more sprawl.

True, Sean, the institutional, legal and regulatory barriers Alex describes derive from values, belief systems and world views, and it is those that need to change.

However, in order to change those, you need to be able to propose a constructive vision based on differing world views by way of example.

I know it isn't very clearly put by me, but the Hong Kong centre described above is such an example based on how different utilities prioritise the land use. Check out 'the Responsive City'

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 24 Jun 09

Thanks Tony. I had a quick squiz at the link, but to be honest I don't have the time to watch more videos, read more blog posts or attending conferences on the latest, greatest scheme for creating a sustainable society.

Perhaps it's just a matter of preference, but my concern is that until such time as something else changes these projects are all just great ideas that will never get off the ground.

The failure in the example you give proves my point.

Don't get me wrong, I think the work that is being done on new technologies and projects is great and needs to be done, but it's all pointless unless we address behavioural change as well.

And I agree that we need to have these positive visions to show people what's possible, but is it enough?

Posted by: Sean FitzGerald on 24 Jun 09

This is an area I'm quite interested in - went on about it over here : recently. Something I didn't mention that I've come across recently - where I come from, boat design / construction seems to be completely unregulated - until you get into insuring them for commercial purposes, but if you wanted to do wild experiments with personal housing etc, you could do pretty much whatever you want, so long as what you're doing floats.

Hell of a lot cheaper than normal housing as well. And rising-sea-level proof.

Posted by: Nick Taylor on 24 Jun 09

Greensburg, Kansas was not a "blank canvas" for rebuilding. The devastation by an EF5 tornado should have sent the townspeople a message that their first priority should be tornado-resistant construction, per FEMA 320 as a minimum. At least one construction method is available which will stand up to an EF5 tornado. Some others will take an EF3. The greenest buildng materials and constructions are those you don't have to use because the building you already have withstood the next strong tornado that blows through. Instead, these uneducated, obstinate fools took a syllable out of the town's name to put "green building" atop their priority list, and tornado-resistance only occasionally and grudgingly done. They'd have been lost in, say, "Brownsville." This is a very bad example for others: they're not facing facts logically, and ignored the advice in FEMA 320.

Posted by: Jean SmilingCoyote on 25 Jun 09

Jean: I'm pretty sure you can build green *and* disaster-proof.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 25 Jun 09

Sean, while I'm also "Deep Green" and very aware of the questions Kunstler and friends ask (the right questions, but not always the right answers), I have to disagree that "first" we must change human behaviour, spiritual values, etc, because it’s just not going to happen. I wish I could push a button and have everyone wake up Deep Green, but dream on.

"First" we must support ANYTHING that's moving in the right direction! We need to kill the quest for everyone to become enlightened self-sacrificing guru's, because it isn't going to happen, and EMBRACE certain new technologies that might do "less harm" while we try to figure out the bigger picture. So I for one think that the "Better Place" electric car + battery swap system might be a good thing, as might Claude Lewenz's "Village Towns" as depicted in "How to build a village". These are both important technologies, as are the many other developments Worldchanging documents. One does without the need for cars in the first place, the other provides a sustainable car where absolutely necessary.

"Second", we must realize the connection between new technologies and cultural and behavioural change. The very post you are critiquing for “ignoring” this links to a Long Now podcast that demonstrates how technology changes behaviour, even legislation. They list a few examples, but I’d like to emphasize that just as the development of the steam engine railway in England's early Industrial Revolution eventually lead to a more democratic England (because more people witnessed first hand various conditions and political boundaries across the country), so to modern mobile phone cameras are witnessing the atrocities in Iran and blogging them to the net for all to see.

If we get behind blogs like Worldchanging and do our little bit, hopefully we’ll muddle through as the “Better Place” shemes and “Village Towns” create something new. And these last 2 seem to be about to happen, driven from the bottom up forces of the marketplace. Keep dreaming and questioning, but I think there’s hope in SPITE of the average citizen! And as this article suggests, as people start to see the advantages of living in a "Village Town" then maybe their values and cultures and thought lives will change.

Posted by: Eclipse Now on 26 Jun 09

Eclipse Now: I'm not saying that behaviour and beliefs need to change *first*, just that if we don't address beliefs and values that lead to resistance to change *as well* we are only doing half the job.

I agree that practical innovations can engender changes in behaviour, even beliefs and values - the disruptive, democratising nature of the Internet is a prime example of that, but I question whether change as a result of innovation is enough, and if it will come in time. I'm afraid I don't share your faith in technology alone to do the job.

I don't think we can leave it to the marketplace either. Look at the disappointment of "green products" over the last two decades... we were told as the more conscious consumers started paying a little extra for these more expensive green products economies of scale would kick in, prices would fall and the less committed would follow. This hasn't happened because, no matter how concerned about the environment consumers say they are, they just aren't willing to sacrifice their material standard of living for the cause.

Posted by: Sean FitzGerald on 26 Jun 09

We need (a little) chaos, or we're not going to learn anything very fast. Trial and error is mostly error, but it's the only way to really explore a new knowledge space. We should make our mistakes quickly, and at small scale, rather than slowly and nation (or world) wide, and make sure we keep track of what works, and what doesn't.

I think one of the major problems with getting our values and social institutions to change is that we lack (or sometimes... ignore) examples of how things can be done better, or differently. The idea of setting up regulation free zones is, I think, largely one of providing a space within which such examples can arise, and be visible, nearby. When the solutions are visible, and corporeal, they have a much better chance of winning our hearts and minds than when they are confined solely to academic papers and blog posts, coming sometimes from far-off lands.

Here in SoCal, we face resistance to moving away from cars, and toward bikes as transportation. People often respond that it would be "impossible" to live here and get around without a car, but I do it, and if you're willing to visit Japan, or Denmark, or even Germany, you see plenty of other people doing it too, in other cities, great and small. But people ignore it, because it's far away, and foreign. If there were one city in SoCal that was different, would people still say that? The law I'd try to get out of the way first: parking requirements in zoning regulations.

Another example: Arizona has some pretty reasonable graywater regulations, compared to the rest of the country; California does not. If instead of having this kind of regulation take place at the state level, it was done at the city level, we would probably have examples to learn from and copy right next door. Instead we have the "Graywater Guerillas", who are great, but this is one change that should not require civil disobediance! Given our rainfall and water use patterns in LA, if we collected all the rain that falls here, instead of flushing it out to sea, and also re-used graywater for all our landscaping irrigation and toilet flushing, the City would be self-sufficient in water, without desalinization, and without overdrafting the aquifers (ignoring for the moment, of course, all the virtual water we import as food...).

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 26 Jun 09

I've actually had thoughts roughly along these lines before, especially during the bush administration era when stem cell research and cloning research were so taboo. The examples above add to that thesis.

I think, if such a zone were to come with a sincere, lavish investment in education (from primary to university), infrastructure (you need that to get the labs up) medical facilities, local job creation and economic growth, and by allowing the fruits of the research to be enjoyed by those in the country in which the zone is established essentially for free, you'd be on to something.

The goal would be to establish a model different from what has been the norm, in which outside companies invade the "global south" merely to extract and exploit and then take off, instead of planting a home base and involving the locals in its success.

Posted by: drew3000 on 27 Jun 09

The video of Romer's talk has now been posted, if anyone prefers that format. Unfortunately, they didn't include the usually excellent mediated Q&A for some reason.

He also has good ideas about the very basic differences between material and informational goods, though I think he fails to acknowledge that ultimately, we have to figure out some way to close the materials loop, no matter how good our technology and rules become. Here's an article by Kevin Kelly from a while ago, about Romer, and here's an interview with him by the sometimes-interesting, sometimes-corporate-shilling Reason Foundation.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 27 Jun 09

Alex again you are negotiating the reasonable and the visionary with practical grace and I think the innovation zone idea has real application and possibility. I can't be the only one thinking 'Detroit!'

To the deep and dark green dispute, I want to note gently that displayed here is the very essence of the 'narcissism of small differences.' You are splitting hairs within what is becoming a remarkably strong rope. Stop to consider what has happened in the last five years: A great deal of harm from business as usual, yes, and the formation of resistence to change as much as change. But the change! Perhaps its hard for any of us to recognize that five years ago the debates and the ideas that WorldChanging and other blogs regularly put forward were at best limited to conferences of the most progressive sectors (not widely distributed, recognized or debated), and the capability for having them globally via the internet was still in its infancy. Now we already take such paradigm shifts for granted. We shouldn't. Taking a little distance on the period we're living in, assessing trends a decade ago to trends and debates now (in environmentalism, in design, planning, architecture, etc) you might give yourself whiplash.

I'm not saying it's fast enough, I'm not saying it's all good, and I agree there's a terrible mountain to climb. But that we've begun, and that we've mostly joined together in the identification of the mountain's contours, I think is undeniable. And nothing in the disputes over innovation zones or other spots here or elsewhere convinces me there's substantive difference in the shades of green, other than just plain disputation, which is okay. 'Embrace chaos and small change': yes.

Posted by: mikefox on 27 Jun 09

As someone who toiled in the public sector advancing sustainable planning and design for twenty years, I think a critical missing link between values change and bureaucratic inertia is the almost total absence of organizational development/organizational management (OD/OM) capacity at the state and local - and federal- level.

In the state in which I worked we brought on an experienced OD professional to work with our Environmental, Transportation, Housing, Agricultural and Economic Development agencies. The focus at first was on listening to their concerns, and not simply preaching the need for smart growth, (or whatever the name was at the time!)

We made some real, albeit limited progress. Progress required that middle managers realize over time that our agenda - smarter growth - was their agenda as well. In turn we identified much more clearly the bureaucratic, legal and institutional barriers that needed to be systemically dismantled - a process that continues to this day.

It's retail work, one agency and bureaucrat at a time, but in the absence of an awareness of its importance and the recognition that there are professionals out there capable of guiding change, capacity change will always lag, and values will never be what 'we' would like them to be.

This is not an argument against Special Innovation Zones. Quite the contrary. It suggests a means to make these zones more likely to happen.

Posted by: Herb simmens on 27 Jun 09

Are we truly only allowed to make innovations in large cities? May I suggest a lovely little place with NO BUILDING CODES WHATSOEVER in southeastern Arizona? Yes, it is three hours away from the nearest airport, and no, there are no coffee shops or art galleries (the horror!). But on unincorporated land in Graham County, you can build whatever you want. Not that I'm actually suggesting you urban centric, completely blind to the ways of the world beyond our coasts, move there.

But what I am suggesting, is that places with little or no regulation exist - they are just primarily underdeveloped / underpopulated.

And if you really want to rewire the electric grid in this country, you need to look at the people who wired 80% of it in the first place: Rural Electric Co-Op. They were and are hugely influential in making decisions about how electricity moves across the country. They are Republican (or at least farm/rural centric, so maybe Dixiecrat. With guns.) But they care A LOT on getting a return for Co-Op members.

Your ideas aren't pie-in-the-sky, but like most people who want to "change the world" you really mean you'd like to "change y'know, my neighborhood, and maybe where my parents live." The places where you can innovate are the places humans have always innovated: on the fringes, the edges, in the unwanted spaces. Quit trying to change New York or LA! People want them. Change someplace nobody gives a damn about.

Posted by: Mike on 28 Jun 09

Sean, I'm a student of Cohen's, and I think what Alex Steffen is trying to promote here at worldchanging is also an expression of the evolution of our social consciousness and values - how could it be otherwise? And part of developing those new values might also include a real clashing with the old values. But the highest ones will win out eventually.

This emerging level of environmental thought and design is tangibly higher than the prevalent green perception of 'do less' and therefore cause less harm to nature. The new 'bright green'idealism embraces complexity where the old green values try to simplify everything down out of a fear of complexity. also, the new paradigm, such as that espoused by cradle to cradle guru William McDonough, is very much one of creativity, positivity and joy for the future which is very refreshing, especially when many of my environmental colleagues sound more like McCarthyists..."you flew?!"...

As someone alluded to above, regulations are often the concretization of the present values and fears in consciousness - they often appeal to the lowest values based on fear for the future.

My sense is that it's important we all help establish those new bright green ideas that we recognize as being more evolutionary than anything before into our social collective consciousness. Then, as Zane commented above, we'll see what's possible. We need more examples of bright green, whatever it takes and wherever it appears.

Posted by: Blake Ludwig on 29 Jun 09

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