Status quo bias and the infrastructure of an uncertain future

So why do we keep doing essentially the same stuff with infrastructure, when we know it won’t give us the change we need? An expert’s take…

This is a guest post by freelance journalist Stephen Olsen of Palaver Media. Check out their great cities content on Medium.

Geoff Cooper, GM Urban Strategy at the nation’s brains trust for the NZ Infrastructure Commission Te Waihanga, was in his element speaking at Urbanerds at Waitoa Victoria Street on Tuesday night.

A champion of urban economics and advocate of behavioural economics, Geoff wrestled his topic – ‘Holding on in the face of change: Status quo bias and the infrastructure of an uncertain future’ – to the ground and pinned it to the floor.

Firstly though, for any amongst us who find the four syllables of infrastructure somewhat daunting, we can rest easy with Geoff’s opening definition that all aspects of infrastructure can be reduced down to being about the art and science of “moving things around”. When we do that moving around poorly in our ciities due to poor infrastructure planning what we end up with, in one mode in particular, is “queuing” – also known as congestion.

So why do we keep doing the same?

Geofff’s explainer on what status quo bias entails and how it manifests in decision making opened some ears, especially the depressing thought that presenting more options for a decision may potentially create confusion and, voilà, a default decision in favour of the status quo is more likely to kick in.

Not exactly a helpful default when all about us has been moving towards increasing states of change and flux and dysfunction. On top of those challenges Geoff pointed out that we have a remarkably detached and suspended approach to pricing infrastructure in very low to non-existent ways, which then creates its own “rigidities”.

Another barrier to our readiness to respond to change is good old New Zealand Inc repeatedly imposing overly prescriptive legislation on itself, local government included. Frustratingly decisions on infrastructure aren’t adjusted at anything vaguely approaching a rational all-of-system, all-of-city level – oh no, they are just left to play out bylaw by bylaw, or consent by consent, with no regard to what changes are not just on the horizon but on our doorstep – from climate change to new technologies to changing demographics, to competitive and economic watersheds.

It must be immensely frustrating for Geoff and his cohort to know that the basic 101’s of infrastructure get wrapped up in so much misrepresentation.

Small decisions, big picture?

Geoff used the example of the classic types of development that the RMA (now under reform) encompasses and the basic understanding of network infrastructure being about balancing “concentrated impacts with highly distributed benefits”. Think sewage infrastructure, or cycle infrastructure, or schools… the immediate neighbours feel the impacts very intensely, but the benefits accrue to the whole city (and even our whole society).

Where we should land, and where Geoff said it took an “Aha!” moment for him to arrive at, is the view that infrastructure planning at its best is about improving environmental outcomes. The characterisation, he said, of everything being an “Economy versus Environment” debate is now out of place.

The bigger debate is to ask two questions:

‘What infrastructure are we underinvesting in?’

‘How do we lessen, or even better avoid, cases of bad investment of infrastructure going into the wrong places at the wrong time?’

Are we stuck in this loop?

Geoff rounded off with declaring in favour of optimism. Yes, he declared, New Zealand has a history of building big stuff. “We’ve done it before in different times, and we can do it again”.

On another optimistic note he declared “we are seeing major policy changes (from Government) right now, not far off changes but changes that are on the table”. And underlined that: “There are avenues opening up to agitate for transitions that will change the status quo. Given the challenges ahead, the very real ones that are coming our way there is even more reason to keep agitating than ever”.

The bias for sticking to no change (the status quo) is a loser!

Further reading:

One comment on “Status quo bias and the infrastructure of an uncertain future”

  • Stephen says:

    Enjoyed Geoff’s variation last night on Churchill’s quotable maxim about how the built environment shapes us – rendered as “Do we let infrastructure shape us, or do we shape our infrastructure?”

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