Thursday, November 11, 2021

Looking for Solutions

About a decade ago the word "solutions" swept America. Among those caught up in it was the company I worked for at the time, which rebranded itself "Louis Berger Solutions." The NY Times brought in David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg to create a column called "Fixes" which reported on solutions rather than problems.

Bornstein and Rosenberg are now ending their column, and in their final number they have some interesting reflections on their run. They complain about how much more media attention crises get, as opposed to resolutions. Rosenberg: 

We journalists have been conditioned to believe that “news” actually means “bad news,” and that you can’t talk about solutions without falling into public relations. Back in 2015, I wrote about the Ebola vaccine’s startlingly rapid development. Everyone knew about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014. But I was shocked by the number of readers who had no idea there was a successful vaccine. There’s a successful treatment for Ebola now, too — how many people know about that? Here’s a lesson: if we report on the epidemic, we should report on the cure.


You find what you’re looking for. If journalists go out looking for harmful actors, we’ll find them. On the other hand, if we go out looking for helpful actors — people who are, in good faith, trying to solve problems — we’ll find them, too. A lot of them. At one point I had a spreadsheet with 800 story ideas.

I thought this from Rosenberg was especially important:

This is a strange lesson for a column about new ideas and innovation, but I learned that they’re overrated. The world (mostly) doesn’t need new inventions. It needs better distribution of what’s already out there.

Some of my favorite columns were about how to take old ideas or existing products and get them to new people. As one of our columns put it, “Ideas Help No One on a Shelf. Take Them to the World.” There are proven health strategies, for example, that never went anywhere until some folks dusted them off and decided to spread them. It’s not glamorous to copy another idea. But those copycats are making a big difference.

One of the results of all this solutions talk is a couple of internet databases that track stories about solutions to problems, like the Solutions Story Tracker. The goal, I suppose, would be that if you are confronted by a problem you would Google it and find all the different ways other people around the world have solved it. Which is, I think, a noble dream. Come to think of it, the whole "life hacks" thing might be another side to this; if you find yourself wasting a lot of time with some task, do a quick search and see if someone else has found a better way. 

If we could deploy the world's knowledge, we could make life better. We don't need a revolution in either morals or politics, just a consistent effort to be good and do our work as best we can. So here's to David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg for all the work they put into spreading that message.


G. Verloren said...

Maybe... just maybe... our society's primary means of informing the public about important events and topics shouldn't be built upon a for-profit system that ruthlessly prioritizes money over truth, morality, and societal good?

Mmmm... nahhhh... gotta worry about that slippery slope, after all! If we make news prioritize educating the public over profiting off "engagement", what's next? Healthcare that prioritizes public health over profiting off sickness? A criminal justice system that prioritizes preventing crime over profiting off incarceration? Where does it stop, I ask you? Do we really want to live in that kind of society?


John said...

I agree there are serious problems with capitalist media, which is why I gave up watching the news more than 30 years ago. But government control of the press hasn't worked out very well, either.

G. Verloren said...

We don't need a revolution in either morals or politics, just a consistent effort to be good and do our work as best we can.

Managing to get the average person - or even just the average empowered policy maker - to make consistent effort to be good and do our work as best we can WOULD be a revolution in both morals AND politics.

I am constantly complaining in my comments about how many (if not most) of our problems are based in a lack of will - overall we'd much rather be lazy, or greedy, or petty, or cruel, or proud, or afraid, or indifferent, or a thousand other things, than to sit down and just employ fixes we already know exist and work.

Our healthcare system is awful and insanely expensive, but there are a huge number of comparably affluent countries that have affordable and effective healthcare which we could take notes from and pick and choose best practices and changes to enact.

Yet we simply don't have the will to do so, because there's too much money involved (greed); and because certain people would decry other people not "earning" the right to the healthcare they themselves enjoy (pettiness and pride); and because other people who just reflexively resist change and cling to the status quo (fear); and because some people don't care if other people lack healthcare because they themselves do possess it (indifference); etc, etc.

Why is our prison system so awful? Much the same reason - certain people are making a lot of money off it, other people want it to be awful as "punishment", other people are just averse to risking making changes, other people just don't care, etc.

Why is our primary education system so laughable to the international community? Why is our infrastructure crumbling? Why are wages stagnant? Why is police brutality such a problem? Why are we so reliant on fossil fuels and so hesitant to employ renewables? It's not because workable solutions don't exist! It's because we lack the will to fix things, preferring the maintain the status quo for unjust reasons.

You're 100% right - we "just" need a consistent effort to be good and do our work the best we can. But that's a huge "just"! Most people don't want to be good! Most people don't want to do the best they can! They want to be bad instead. They're amoral and selfish. It's not anything intrinsic to them as people - they are just the product of our dominant cultural values. We, as a society, value greed, pettiness, cruelty, pride, fear, indifference, and all the rest, far more than we value being good and doing our best.

Getting people to change their ways and start wanting those things would be precisely the kind of revolution in morals and politics you oddly claim we don't need.