Monday, July 14, 2014

The Built Environment’s Social Costs, Part 2: The “Shortsightedness” of Homo Sapiens

Part 1 of this series focused on how a more deliberate quantification of productivity and health impacts, as well as the larger social costs associated with the built environment, could impact the decision making process relative to short and long range planning, value engineering exercises, related policy formulation, etc. Yet this is rarely performed as part of the master planning, design, retrocommissioning or post occupancy evaluation processes.

One reason for this is that our evolutionary history has indirectly led to a form of shortsightedness. Our “stone-age” or hunter/gatherer brains and cognitive abilities evolved in the vastly different and more limited context of our ancestors. The people dealt with on a daily basis were fewer, the geographic area and environmental variability smaller, and the “future” limited to the annual cycles of weather, migration, etc.  Most of our evolutionary history was spent in this type of environment. As a result our analytical analyses and emotional responses tend to over emphasize those events, threats, etc., that have immediate impact on our daily lives. Examples include job loss, daily deadlines and initial costs as opposed to 5+ year paybacks, the long term health implications of safe routes to schools or the regional economic impacts 20 years in the future from green house gas (GHG) emissions.

In addition, the degree of our reactions, responses, urgencies, and calls to action end up being relative to our perception of the impact on both ourselves and those we call our own.  Current and projected crises in other countries or regions, or that affect different social/cultural groups and are not perceived as providing us with risk, may not result in a response or change in our behavior. It’s easier to see the short term, first cost benefit from value engineering out those extra HVAC zones than the longer term productivity/health benefits to future building occupants and tenants you may not even know if you’re the designer/contractor, developer and/or building owner.

Fortunately, this picture begins to change when decision making shifts from the individual and very small group level to larger groups. If cooperation and group unity is achieved, decision making is often made with respect to the common good.  Delayed, long-term benefits are given more weight by groups, such as whole companies, community boards, city voters, etc., than by individuals. For example, the development, modification, and acceptance of building codes is a group endeavor; one that generally increases initial cost while at the same time providing for a safer environment over the life-spans of our buildings, which may be multi-generational.  This is also a reason why longer term considerations are given more weight the more integrated the planning/design/construction/occupancy process is; the collective “group” is larger and includes more representation from all of the relevant key stakeholder subgroups.

Essentially the more people involved in the decision making process, the better we’re able to account for long term costs/benefits and the more “pro-social” our behavior is, all else being equal. I did a pilot study on this specifically with respect to sustainable construction decision making back in 2009 (paper/slides available here), and the results fell in line with this. If you’re interested in learning more about the research that underlies decision making relative to environmental risk, encouraging “pro-social” behavior and evolutionary multi-level selection theory, I recommend starting with the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions and Evolution: This View of Life.

Part 3, the final part in this series, will look at how all of this correlates with successfully managing common pool resources (such as energy and water), and apply this framework to some specific examples, including Kansas City’s recently begun implementation of the City Energy Project.

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