Individual Behavior and Collective Sustainability

By Rami Sarafa

How individuals respond to large-scale projects is a core consideration for developers. Real estate, infrastructure and transit projects aimed at creating greater efficiency and savings can seem ideal as blueprints, but necessarily in practice.  It’s essential for the curators of a given project to incent and educate constituents in order to shape behaviors or a new style of living; this approach is especially essential in pursuing large-scale projects that strive to provision for future generations. The Dharavi case study is an example of how developers must consider particular needs/desires, while hopefully incenting individuals to live differently than how they’re accustomed.

sponsorship dubai metro

A particularly salient example is the potential development (or redevelopment) of a country’s transit system. Such projects are only as successful as its potential beneficiaries allow it to be. One case example I’ve personally witnessed is the construction of the metro in the emirate of Dubai. In theory, the project’s massive cost should be offset by time, environmental and financial savings given the state’s busy highways and streets. However, the system has primarily attracted tourists and joyriders rather than actually serving as a transit alternative for Dubai’s motorists. Individuals still prefer to expend resources (i.e. petrol money, time) fo  the convenience of driving. Individuals have also smirked at the prospect of being in crowded trains with strangers (especially cross-gender) given the state’s Arab-Islamic identity.

Dubai metro station

Dubai has pursued some policies that have been effective and others that are unsuccessful. One retroactive measure the government has pursued is installing automated tolls on the city’s major highways to disincentive drivers and promote public transport. However, this measure has had little impact on motorists who live in one of the wealthiest states in the world. The project designer’s integration of different cabins by class (premium vs. economy) and gender-segregation has been more successful. For instance, work commuters can use Wi-Fi in the premium class, which takes into account their specific needs/wants. Since the metro line is still limited in terms of breadth, shuttles connect metro stations to other parts of the cities. But because these shuttles were the same design as public-city buses (which traditionally only blue collar workers utilized), wealthier individuals did not want to take them. Distinctly designed, metro shuttles now connect the stations, which has helped encourage use. Such lessons are now being applied to the second and third phases of the project, which are aimed at provisioning for future decades.

Dubai metro is an example of how understanding and alignment (or lack thereof) can be a principal determinant of whether a project is successful or not. It is not enough to simply rely on factors of convenience or cost to encourage behavior. Policymakers should seek to understand the unique needs of individuals before committing to major projects. Allowing stakeholders to be part of the decision-making process can be a potential solution. Also,  continuous learning and a flexible approach to a project help provision for unanticipated requirements.


2 thoughts on “Individual Behavior and Collective Sustainability

  1. An important point that you highlight in your post is the importance of communication in the planning and development of large scale (and even some small scale projects). There are multiple scales and perspectives to this issue, government/private/residents and rich/poor cities. The first refers to a point of view and stakeholder while the second refers to the capacity of a city to consider and incorporate the concerns of all various stakeholders. So, while the needs, desires, and behavior of community members will determine the success of a project, the broader and longer term vision of the local and/or national government cannot be discounted.

    Since “all planning is local” the proximity of the development body will determine how well they understand the local economic, political, and social climate. Once a particular overarching goal is set by a governing body, such as lowering carbon emissions, the policies must be multi-pronged and rather than try to counter current behavior, use local behavioral patterns to inform the types of policies that will work towards achieving the goal.

    Because of the incredible influence communities have on infrastructural and real estate projects, government agencies and private sector developers have begun using participatory planning. Through this process, the community is involved in the early planning stages, so in addition to the developer understanding their particular opinions and needs, the community also gains a feeling of ownership in the project.

  2. I could not agree more that policy and decision makers should understand the needs of their constituents before implementing or conceiving large-scale projects. The example of Dharavi highlights how policy makers, real estate developers and American trained architects have a hard time connecting and solving the problems of slum dwellers. Simply put – they have no idea what the problem truly is.
    The theory is that in democracies voters elect representatives who in turn appoint bureaucrats to make policies. Elected representatives understand voters’ problems and craft solutions with bureaucrats to solve them. In large bureaucracies with many layers and top down planning, this machinery breaks down. Real estate developers building luxury high rises in the heart of South Mumbai, never having experienced a slum cannot hope to understand the true issues and thus face massive resistance in their plans.
    Public hearings are supposed to solve this problem by giving a voice to the people. However, these are generally either completely devoid of discussion or filled with emotionally charged discussions that have little value add.
    An effective solution would entail reengineering the entire process to give a greater voice to people. Constituencies should be smaller, forcing accountability onto elected representatives. Representatives of a particular constituency should be forced to attend public hearings, which should be greater in number and involve smaller geographical areas, thus making the hearing less of a convention and more of a discussion.
    This solution is not an overnight game changer and will be a slow process eventually leading to greater accountability, not just in infrastructure projects but in the general governance of an area. The most obvious drawback is that this solution can only be implemented in democracies and so impossible to implement places like China and Dubai.

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