Denialism June 10, 2010

Denialism Issue 62

Looking to other industries is generally a good source of inspiration. At the very least, it encourages us to view our own industry and its challenges through a different lens, providing new perspectives and if we’re lucky, innovative breakthroughs.

Unfortunately, inspiration, creativity and innovation are bit like toned abdominal muscles, it doesn’t just miraculously happen; you must work at it and sometimes that means connecting dots where you don’t believe they should connect. This may well be the case with an attempt in this Ramblings to draw a connection between the design industry and an inspiring article I read in last months New Yorker.

The article was titled “Test Tube Burgers – How long will it be before you can eat meat that was made in a lab?” the author, staff writer Michael Specter, describes research being clandestinely conducted in hundreds of anonymous unmarked laboratories in universities around the world. Their ultimate goal is to create the same volume of meat in a lab that would have been provided by a million animals.

The research brings together the collaborative efforts of stem-cell biologists, tissue engineers, animal-rights activist and environmentalist; together they have now proven it is possible to grow meat outside of a body. It goes without saying that for some this is not exciting news, but a moral and ethical issue and that is why you will not find names on the doors of these laboratories.

The process sounds simple, but of course isn’t. Stem cells are placed on a biodegradable scaffold and are fed a nutrient rich mixture that encourages the cells to proliferate. Since meat is muscle and muscle that doesn’t move is fat, the cells get a bit of exercise with a jolt of electricity every now and then, which keeps the muscle toned.

Who would eat that you say! Ask the billion people in the world who go to bed hungry every night, or the people who have no choice but to dine on insects and rodents. Face it, we are pretty damn lucky in the developed world, it is hard for us to imagine going without food and we are quite oblivious to the evidence that our pattern of meat consumption is not sustainable. Besides being responsible for 20% of greenhouse – gas emission, cattle consume 10% of the world’s freshwater resources and 80% of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat. And we have not even begun to broach the inhumane practices in abattoirs

It is very sad, despite the fact that science will be able to produce a nice rump roast, people will reject the idea, say it can’t or shouldn’t be done and millions of people will still be hungry. Unfortunately, people tend to reject scientific fact in favour of personal assumptions that are based on nothing more than deep held beliefs.

The same author who wrote the article in the New Yorker addresses this topic in his book “Denialism – How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives”. My favorite story from the book is from Washington where I used to live. It is about the families living on Vashon Island who refuse to vaccinate their kids, preferring not to take a one in 1,000 chance that their kid will get a t disease like smallpox, measles or polio to a one in 10 million chance that the vaccine could hurt the kid.

Makes no sense to me, but I am sure in my own way I practice denialism, which is why I like to dress like I’m 22. We all do it, smoke or drink knowing it is not good for us, reject new technologies because we can’t be bothered to learn them, developing rationalizations for why the old way is better.

Specter thinks it’s fine if we believe irrational things, but says there is a big problem with people acting on those beliefs instead of acting on facts, particularly at a societal or organisational scale. This behaviour he says is a war on progress and he suggests it is important to embrace new technologies, acknowledging their limitations and threats, because the alternative is to slink back into “magical thinking” and that is not where we want to be.

We experience denialism to some degree with almost every project we work on. As missionaries of workplace change we bring new environments and with them come new technologies and often a requirement that users adopt new behaviours, attitudes and skills.

It is not uncommon to work with an organisation, provide data and anecdotal evidence supporting change, only to have it rejected in favour of sticking to long held beliefs that may be very individual and uninformed. You could argue it is an organisation’s or person’s choice to do what they want. This is true; however, when these views impact the success of the business as a whole it may be worth questioning.

For example, returning to Vashon Island, we could say fair go you hippies, don’t vaccinate your kid. Unfortunately, unvaccinated children are a threat to the ”herd immunity” that keeps epidemics at bay, shelters fetuses, infants too young to be immunised, old people with weakened immune systems and anyone who has been vaccinated because no vaccine is 100 percent effective. Suddenly denialism on a personal level becomes an issue for us all, and this is why it is wise to consider an issue from many different perspectives.

At the Property Council Congress in Darwin, KPMG partner Bernard Salt gave a presentation on the rise of negativism over positvism, which if you squint can be correlated to denialism. He is disappointed that Australian’s are not prepared to put a positive spin on growth, claiming we had all gone BANANAS in our attitudes towards development and choose to (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody). We are overlooking the positive aspects of urban growth and property development, choosing instead to believe any development defiles the planet and only serves to make developers rich.

We can sympathise with the bananas, there is no shortage of tragic developments, but there are also plenty of exciting developments being proposed which promise to make our cities much better places and Salt is understandable disappointed that so few business leaders are prepared to support property developments and fight the negativism with fact, reason and logic. He says no one wants the flak, but goes on to warn that every time misinformation, unfairness and economic illiteracy is unchecked it fans the flames of negativity that influence public opinion. The real enemy he says is unreasonable or plain wrong statements about planned growth and development instead of fair, reasonable, measured responses.

Our industry is by far not immune to denialism, plenty of architects and designers have their head in the sand when it comes to acknowledging and responding to changes taking place. Unfortunately, when companies ignore change it only makes them more vulnerable because they are unprepared. In our industry the fee base has eroded and competition is fierce, those are pretty big changes to contend with.

By choosing to deny, rather than formulate new responses we are selecting imminent failure. If we hope to survive we need to appreciate change has occurred and adjust accordingly by exploring new ways of marketing, communicating our design outcomes, collaborating with others and preparing documents; we need to reinvent the business of design.

This is what Sony Pictures Entertainment did when they launched their energy management training. Sony recognised their people were battling change in the market by working more, trying to get more done in less time. They also recognised time is finite, but energy is not; therefore they developed a program to maximise people’s energy to deliver the best outcomes.

By encouraging employees to establish rituals, like shutting down e–mail or taking a walk they began to shift behaviours in the business. Having senior leaders in the organisation willing to lead by example ensured the program was a success. Employees are now more focused and productive, 90% say it helps them be more energetic at work, 84% feel better able to manage their jobs.

Another industry we could look to is health care, as a whole the industry is being forced to reevaluate service and cost. Society can no longer afford to spend the kind of money it does on an inefficient health system, so are demanding new levels of accountability. One challenge with health care is they have existed in an internal bubble, most sectors have had to stream line process and have an idea of what they should measure and what their outcomes should be.

In health care they haven’t done this. When something isn’t measured, it is challenging to manage or improve. Providers can’t link costs to process improvements or outcomes, therefore, they are unable to make systemic cost reductions, the only place they can cut costs is with people and what they are paid.

The industry will argue that it can’t be held to a level of accountability, or initiate ideas applied in other sectors, because they are unique and cost cutting will only result in poor health care. Robert S. Kaplan, Harvard Business School professor and coauthor of the HBR article How to Solve the Cost Crisis in Health Care disagrees. In his article he suggests the industry must review and simplify. For instance today patients move from specialty to specialty and with each shift medical history and vital signs are taken, this duplication causes delays and can lead to bad hand offs and wasteful duplication. If hospitals organise according to patient flow they would minimise handoff and reduce redundancy and also improve medical outcomes.

According to Kaplan this takes time and requires dedicated resources, but it’s not rocket science, more like plucking low hanging fruit. The system called Activity Based Costing is currently being trialed in four hospitals. So why wouldn’t everyone be doing this if it lowers costs, eliminates duplication and will deliver better service? One reason is it reflects a change in how health care professionals do what they do, with technological and accounting improvements there will be better outcomes with fewer resources. People would lose their jobs. They are also in denial, over the need to change, the unsustainability of the system and a backward attitude about the specialness of what they do.

It is easier to pick out denialism in other industries, as opposed to our own. If you squint a bit you ought to be able to see a few similarities that can become food for thought. We maintain that what we do is unique and there are many people in our profession who have done what they do for a very long time. There are also associated risks in our industry that make us fearful of changing our processes. However, if we don’t change our processes we simply won’t be able to compete in today’s marketplace.

We cannot imagine doing design differently, but we must. It is important to keep an open mind to new ideas and innovations that may make a difference, even the ones that at first seem distasteful and unimaginable, like test tube burgers. A future where we are doing what we choose, in a different way is far preferable to a future where we have no choice, or are completely obsolete.

Kaplin, Robert S; What Health Care Really Costs – Activity Based Costing and the Balanced Scorecard – How to Solve the Cost Crisis, Harvard Business Review Idea Cast # 261, August 18, 2011
McNeil, Donald G. Jr,; When Parents Say No To Child Vaccinations, The New York Times, November 30, 2002
Salt, Bernard; The Forces of Negativity in the Trenches, The Australian, July 07, 2011
Schwartz, Tony; The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding less, Harvard Business Review, June 1, 2010
Specter, Michael; Test Tube Burgeers – How long will it be before you can eat meat that was made in a lab?, The New Yorker, September 2011
Specter, Michael, Denialism – How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.


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