By Paolo von Schirach
June 19, 2013
WASHINGTON – Sadly our societies do not progress in a linear fashion. The cliche of this hyperconnected era is that now everybody can take advantage almost instantly of the latest technologies and tools. Information technology is all about universal and affordable access. It is about reconfiguring all sorts of activities, so that they become easier, faster, cheaper, and more effective. New knowledge also means the ability to redirect resources from unproductive endeavors and concentrate them instead on what makes sense, in terms of resource allocation and improved experience. Well, not so. The old ideas, the old parameters and all the interests tied to them are surprisingly resilient and impervious to change. Here are some examples.
Does anyone want cheap education?
The US higher education system has become extremely expensive. A good college education costs a fortune. College graduates have to carry the burden of student loans for years and years. But there is a way out, provided by a combination of accessible IT and the possibility to produce high quality courses to made available on line. In other words, the course content prepared by a star professor at Harvard or MIT can now be repackaged for on line distribution and made available to hundreds of thousands. Thanks to IT and new technologies, knowledge can be made available to all.
This is stunning; but real. And yet, this new paradigm has not been embraced. Most colleges and universities keep doing the same stuff as if this revolution had not happened. Some will see the light and jump on board. But countless others will not. Because of this inertia, millions of students will follow the only path known to them and waste tens of thousands of dollars buying an education that could be available to them at a fraction of the current cost.
Getting around cities without a car
Almost a century ago it appeared that the private automobile seemed to be the best solution for affordable personal mobility. And so the car industry became the pillar of US manufacturing, supporting an enormous web of other interests: tire manufacturers, parts suppliers, oil companies, construction companies building highways and more.
This idea was fine for a while. But now it is obvious that the private automobile is a really bad solution for mobility in large urban areas. More and more cars mean endless congestion and traffic jams. This results in a horrible waste of time for millions of commuters world wide, and a huge waste of energy. Is there an alternative? Of course there is.
And this is called Bus Rapid Transit. There are established examples of BRT systems in place now around the world. (It all started long ago in the city of Curitiba, Brazil). They include a seamless network of buses travelling on dedicated bus lanes. This means having all the advantages of underground rail systems in terms of speed and reliability, minus the extravagant costs associates with digging tunnels. The net result is affordable, dependable and fast urban transportation.
The wrinkle here is that one would need to convince millions of motorists that, for a change, a public service is really better than using one’s own car. This means changing an established mind set, even though it is obvious to all that the current system based on the private automobile is producing diminishing returns. Anyway, BRT systems are here for the taking; but there are very few takers.
We keep doing more of the same
In conclusion, if we would let our collective biases go, we could have –very quickly– high quality, affordable college education and easy to use urban transportation systems. These proven, affordable and dependable solutions are available today –off the shelf. And yet very few know about them, and even fewer appreciate what an improvement they would represent.
While we are supposed to bask in the light of the new knowledge economy, we seem to prefer the darkness of outmoded thinking and the old fashioned tools that go with them. Even though new, cost effective solutions are available to us, we keep doing the same old stuff, even though it costs more and it produces disappoint results. What’s wrong with us?