…By Way of Thoughtful Decision-Making

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According to the National Research Council, “practical decision making begins by identifying the elements of a responsible and competent decision-making process.”[1] What might such a process consist of when it comes to the question of whether to build a new road? 

Following a brief overview of what constitutes a rational decision-making process, I propose that it is hardly value-neutral. I then offer some virtues of a good road, recognizing that rational decisions not only reflect narrowly logical, technical matters but also incorporate essential elements of moral virtue, wisdom, and ultimately a respect for sense of place.

Values and Rational Decision-Making

Experts often utilize technical models to ensure that complex problems are addressed in a comprehensive manner. Decision trees, cost-benefit analysis, decision-making matrices, and calculations of expected monetary value are examples of such tools.[2]

This is not the place to delve into the specifics of such models. However, in my experience, typical approaches to rational decision-making follow generic steps, from defining the problem and opportunities to identifying constraints, alternatives, evaluation criteria, and a preferred option, all while monitoring and adjusting the strategy, if necessary.

While this process appears logical and perhaps even blatantly obvious, let me highlight a few issues. Defining the problem and the opportunities is sometimes no simple matter. For instance, in this case, the problem is not, strictly speaking, whether to build a road. Rather, the problem may be that travel times are currently too long, or perhaps—as in the case of some First Nations communities in Northern Canada—there may be a lack of easy access. Carefully identifying the problem and also the objective in addressing it (which, in this case, may consist of reducing travel times or improving access) will also identify opportunities and options that may or may not include the construction of a road and may consist, for instance, of improvements to various modes of public transport.

Other challenges present themselves within this apparently lucid and logical decision-making process. Often, constraints—notably, the impact of certain stakeholders—are ignored or under-valued. Broad consultation is essential—a point to which I will return shortly.

When it comes to identifying constraints, alternatives, and evaluation criteria, it is also important to take a broadly interdisciplinary approach, to ensure that social, cultural, regulatory, economic, technological, and ecological functions are considered in a comprehensive and ethically responsible manner.[3]

Moreover, taken-for-granted values and attitudes affect decision-making in significant ways. For instance, most decisions present risks: risk-takers will respond to such challenges differently from those who are risk-averse. Motivational and other biases often inadvertently structure the way in which a problem is posed.[4]

Distinct value systems also may color conflicting judgment calls. For instance, some people may implicitly favor a utilitarian system of values, evaluating the viability of a new road by assessing the trade-offs between its costs and benefits. Others may argue that it is wrong “in principle” to build a road that dissects a vibrant and coherent community, even if that community consists only of a single, small town amongst many others. This community’s rights may be seen as inviolable, no matter what broader utilitarian trade-offs are considered.

A fork in a dirt path

Finally, distinct paradigms may frame problems and solutions very differently. For instance, the Government of Canada acknowledges that First Nations’ ways of knowing (described as “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” or TEK) provide a unique worldview that complements standard scientific knowledge.[5]

Identifying and resolving these sorts of different, sometimes conflicting risk perceptions, personal biases, societal value systems, and worldviews is a necessary requirement of any decision-making process if that process is to be comprehensive, transparent, relevant, and judicious.

Virtues of a Good Road

 So what constitutes a “good” road, if that becomes a preferred option?

Presumably, it is one that genuinely reflects the outcome of a broadly consultative process. Through a “rational weighing of all considerations,” the aim is to make transparent the kinds of values described earlier, so that deeper, taken-for-granted roots of conflicting positions are addressed.[6] Ideally, meaningful communication moves beyond token newsletters or public forums, ensuring a genuine collaboration and respectful, personal, engaged listening amongst stakeholders.[7]

Moreover, no matter how “rational” the process, it is essential that decision-makers step back to look at the problem holistically. Does the proposed road enhance a sense of place?[8] Place is not simply a container of our activities. It reveals our culture and our explicit value systems, but, equally important, it uncovers and preserves our implicit, pre-linguistic understanding of who we are.

In that regard, I would suggest that building a road is much less a matter of imposing a rational and efficient solution with universal technical criteria than of discovering a way forward through a careful listening, seeing, and revealing of what is appropriate in each particular instance.

Each road invites diverse criteria that should reflect local conditions. There may be instances where, rather than razing the landscape, the road will more appropriately follow the existing topography—tracing the natural riverbed or mounting the hillside, providing unique vistas that would otherwise be lost by simply cutting through geological obstructions.

Rather than viewing the proposed road rationally “from above” in an abstract planning exercise, questions should be asked about the actual experience of being on this road once it is built. A road connects spatial locations, but also “every stretch of road has meaning in itself.”[9] A road that meanders through a diverse landscape will preserve the mystery of what lies ahead. Perhaps such a road will properly waver from its direct, linear route to acknowledge and pay heed to a unique village or town.

A more modest planning process ensures that the natural landscape, both flora and fauna, are respectfully incorporated into the road design. A road should find its way within the genius loci of the local forest or mountain range. It should respect and preserve animal migratory patterns by incorporating habitat corridors.

New road technologies must be developed that allow for natural drainage and are less intrusive than traditional asphalt or concrete paving.

Altogether, a “good” road reflects the positive values of the local communities. It enhances experience of place and preserves an appropriate “fit” with the landscape. And it is never easy to accomplish.

[1] National Research Council, Decision Making for the Environment: Social and Behavioral Science Research Priorities (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005), 27.

[2] See Michael Stefanovic and Ingrid Leman Stefanovic, “Decisions, Decisions,” 2005 Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Global Congress, http://www.procept. com/files/Decisions_Decisions.pdf.

[3] See C.A. Doxiadis, “Ekistics: The Science of Human Settlements,” Science 170 (1970): 393-404.

[4] Stefanovic and Stefanovic, ”Decisions, Decisions.”

[5] See Environment Canada, “Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge and Environmental Management,” in Science and the Environment Bulletin, no. 32 (September/October 2002).

[6] Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1970).

[7] A. Poetz, “What’s Your ‘Position’ on Nuclear Power? An Exploration of Conflict in Stakeholder Participation for Decision-Making about Risky Technologies,” Risk, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy 2, no. 2 (2011): article 2.

[8] See I.L. Stefanovic, Safeguarding Our Common Future (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000).

[9] M. Kundera, Immortality, trans. P. Kussi (New York: Harper and Row, 1990), 223.

Image Credit

“Fork in the road, decision tree, September, Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington, USA” by Wonderlane. (CC BY 2.0)

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