Realigning rules to work for vision

There is a misalignment between ambition and rules. Too frequently, rules determine policy, strategy and vision rather than vision, policy and strategy determining the rules. Many rules are incredibly petty, cluttering up the urban system and obscuring the bigger picture possibilities of any city. We have become regulators rather than facilitators. In times of dramatic change, the rules system must be reassessed. If rules only constrain, they have a corrosive effect on imagination. With a risk and opportunity policy we begin to think differently, do things differently and, ultimately, do different things. This is a 'glass half full' rather than 'glass half empty' approach.

'Each rule-based hurdle is a response to some disaster in history,'26 and too often rules are based on worst-case rather than likely scenarios. This is entrenched by indemnity and personal liability legislation which encourage individuals to export their risk, usually to cautious public authorities.

Each discipline has its rules or legislation to safeguard special interests. Consider a highway. Highway engineers have rules, as do environmental services or planning. Disability legislation, too, effects what can be done. Yet each discipline applying their rules does not make a good city. This highlights the need for rule-makers to collaborate to create the best solution possible by bending and adapting their rules with the overall goal of good city-making. Another example: Adelaide City Council wanted to be walking-and cycling-friendly. It suggested providing free bikes, an emblematic initiative that projects greenness imaginatively. It was blocked for legal reasons concerning who had responsibility for accidents and the need to provide certification that users could ride a bike. How could they if the bikes were free to be picked up anywhere? The idea had to be aborted. Many countries have 'advanced stop lanes' which give bikes at traffic signals an area in front of cars, making the cyclist highly visible to motorists and giving them a head start. It improves cyclist safety. The design is not covered by Australia's 'AusRoads Guide to Traffic Engineering Practice. Part 14 - Bicycles'. Few councils - Melbourne is an example - are willing to take the risk of implementing a design not covered by AusRoads. Similar blockages happen in encouraging pedestrian priority. Zebra crossings, thick black and white stripes adopted in many countries, give pedestrians the right to cross the road without pushing a stop button, with the onus on the motorist to stop. But current ministerial regulations prohibit their installation in South Australia in all circumstances. It shows how difficult it was for Adelaide to reflect its then slogan, 'audacity, capacity and vivacity'.

This all has a corrosive effect on imagination, affecting everything we do, whether in the public, private or community sectors: the plastic gloves that need to be put on when you buy food; the sausage sizzles put on by a voluntary group to raise money that were threatened because someone got food poisoning once; the cooking students who cannot watch a famous cook at work in case they slip in the kitchen.

This generates a culture of constraint, where common sense is squeezed out. Two forces are working in parallel. One is a litigious, suspicious climate that can generate a level of paranoia and leads to a loss of human interaction. The other is that, while occupational health and safety committees rightly focus on risk at work, there is no equivalent committee that looks at creative possibilities at work. As a result we focus on danger and not opportunity. Many rules are small yet cumulatively they erode initiative. Governments and cities should play a central role by thinking through imaginative regulation. Attitude and perspective are key: 'Yes. How can we achieve this?' rather than, 'But there might be a problem here.' We need to be less legalistic and more concerned with problem-solving. We need to understand that saying 'open up rules' does not equate to deregulation but rather to finding the right rules for the right circumstances.

A lively session with several hundred public servants at an Institute of Public Administration Australia seminar threw out a cascade of interesting ideas that are easy to implement, including a disposition to strike a redundant regulation off the books each time a new one comes on; allocating, say, 0.5 or 1 per cent of budgets to known risky projects; new recruiting criteria that assess the innovative capacity of the individual; a creativity index as part of annual performance assessment; and placing an innovation item on agendas, like the one for occupational health and safety. There may even be a programme like Huddersfield's Creative Town Initiative, where a business leader gave £750,000 to a programme - the sum was matched by the city - to come up with 2000 innovative ideas by the end of the year 2000. These could be in any field from running a crèche in a new way to developing a business idea.

A semantic shift can be applied to regulation by rethinking it as a source of creating added value. Normally we think of incentives as the driver, yet adroit, creative regulation can also be a driver to sustained economic growth rather than a constraint. One again thinks here of Emscher Park, which used high environmental stan dards and 'first mover' advantage to drive forward the growth of its export-driven environment-healing industries. The long-term studies of how green regulations have encouraged company innovation is further evidence of the possibilities.27 By refocusing attention to resource productivity rather than labour productivity, any city could copy this approach to generate, say, hypercars -affordable, fuel efficient, ultralight, hybrid-electric vehicles - and much more.

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