Adaptive and Nonadaptive Policy Behavior

(Somerville Journal, submitted 2/20/2006, published 2/23/06 as "Big ideas are still useful")

February 20, 2006

Editor, Somerville Journal

Dear Editor:

This letter is in response to Roger Kolb’s 2/16/06 Journal column “Intellectual dreamers are rare.”

I agree that many people lack the wherewithal to make their big ideas real. Still, big ideas are useful: they open the conversation to innovation. In my experience, many people who pride themselves on being “practical” base their image of the world upon past glories, and act upon that image regardless of the present situation. Their catchphrase is, “the reality is,” which usually means, “don’t bother me with facts, I’ve made up my mind.”

The terms “nonadaptive” and “adaptive” are useful here. Nonadaptive behavior tries to force the world to stay the same, reflexively tries to apply old solutions to new problems. Adaptive behavior recognizes that the world changes and uses facts, figures, rationally-justified innovations, and above all, persistence to develop and implement policies that actually address a new problem.

For example, car-oriented retail in Assembly Square might have addressed Somerville’s fiscal problems fifty years ago, but today the evidence shows that it is a polluting, low-value dead end. We cannot assume that the current big-box strip mall and proposed IKEA store will ever be replaced, or even supplemented, by higher value development. Go down to Stoughton some Saturday and look at the traffic around the IKEA store, which draws customers from 100 miles around. Would you want to put your corporate headquarters there? Would you want to live or work there?

Similarly,  we cannot assume that the Green Line Extension to Union Square will actually be built as promised. Decisions are always made by the people in the room at the time, and no decision is ever final until construction is finished and maintenance is funded. Historically, members of Somerville city government have tended to go to hearings, speak their piece, receive polite nods and verbal assurances, and go home believing the deal’s done. Those who stay to actually make the decision have no incentive to protect Somerville’s interests, and don’t.

Finally: Somerville is changing; new people are arriving from all over the world. Resentment at this change is sometimes evident here in the Journal, but the new wave of arrivals have just as much moral right to live here as the previous waves did. Also, many in this new wave have specific, practical expertise that could be useful to the city, if Somerville were willing to draw upon it.


David Dahlbacka
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