Making Sustainable Decisions

By Yiran

There are thousands of “sustainable” ideas in the world, BRT, metro, GPS, etc.; but not every city is adopting every single one of them. Why not?

Despite the financial and technological constraints, the major question we should ask at the beginning is, “Is this idea really suitable for our city?” Only when the answer is “Yes” can the quote mask could be removed from the defining word “sustainable.” However, in rapidly urbanizing cities, this question has been long forgotten and the supposedly “sustainable” ideas that are not suitable for the cities are now creating an unsustainable future for them. Therefore, how public sector and private sector can work together to make real sustainable – sustainable and suitable (S2) – decision for cities remains a critical problem.

Public Sector: Decision Maker

Focusing on the public sector’s needs is very important because they are the final decision maker. What do those politicians want? Political benefit, economic growth, and, if it is a moral politician, public good. It’s not uncommon that first two needs could outweigh the third pursuit, and this situation produces unsustainable decisions that are not in the long term public interest. For example, following the first subway project started in 1965, China now has 25 cities constructing subways[1], and 18 cities constructing BRT[2]. Are metros and BRTs really necessary and feasible for so many cities? Unfortunately the answer might be “No”. My investigation with World Bank Transportation unit of one of the cities, Nanchang, China, indicates that the massive 5-line subway construction plan will add a heavy financial burden to the small second-tier city. However, subway and BRT projects are attractive to politicians because they meet their needs as follows:  First, the “large” and/or “advanced” projects could bring to the city huge funds from various sources as well as achieve apparently high GDP in short time [from short term construction projects], from which the leaders could obtain economic interests. Secondly, these projects are “advanced”, “sustainable” and very visible, so that they could easily draw attention from the central government, and thus the politicians could build up their political profiles.

Private Sector: Game Player and Change Maker

Despite the perception that some leaders tend to make decisions for their own interests, there are entities who are trying very hard to make the decision making process more scientific. The auxiliary forces include experts from planning and design department and institutes, and from non-government sectors such as the World Bank, etc. To some degree they could influence a mayor’s thoughts, but more often they have to give up their insistence and choose the second best alternative in order to meet the leaders’ requirements. Without guaranteed authority, the experts’ power is limited.

A smart move for private sector firms to increase their influence is to tailor their sustainable ideas to meet the politician’s needs. One example is to visualize the proposal of a transportation mode using a simulation modeling to help the politician see the possibilities to could really understand what result their decision would lead to[3].

Institutional & Legislation (I&L) System: Regulator and Interest Balancer

Not only could politicians make unsustainable decisions solely for their own political and economic interest, but the private sector could also make unsustainable proposals that could maximize their financial benefits, and cater to politician’s interests, but not be beneficial for the people. Thus, an I&L system that guarantees public good is indispensable. The I&L system should have an institutionalized project prioritization process that could make the selection of competing projects to be invested more scientific. The I&L system should have a regulatory and punishment mechanism that could prevent the sole realization of city leaders’ political and economic interests by ensuring experts’ power. The I&L system should include a viable public participatory institution that is special-designed for each municipality’s condition, so that the peoples’ voice could be heard and the I&L system and democracy could be mutually-promoting and mutually-supplemental.  Therefore, in the long run, a scientific I&L system could lead to a more collective and rational selection among competing goals and interests.

In sum, by focusing on the needs of decision-makers first, then making private sector and public sector work collaboratively with each other, the best decisions can be identified and then adapted through an institutionalized project prioritization process that leads to sustainable decisions.

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