Principles of Large-Scale Project Creation (1995)

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The following principles have been developed by social thinkers and can be adapted to create large-scale employment projects. At a time when automation and neo-conservative policies are cutting jobs on a hitherto-unknown scale, these principles may help to identify new areas of work.

1. Only Unworkability is Visible

Workability is invisible; only unworkability is visible. Any tool or machine that works usually does not attract out attention. But the squeaky wheel does and it gets the grease. My computer, so long as it works, receives little or no thought at all from me. However, the minute it ceases working, I order it to be repaired or replaced. I perform work on this machine when it ceases to work. With the exception of preventive-maintenance programs, we usually do no other work on anything until it ceases to work; that is, until the situation becomes unworkable. Therefore all opportunity consists in recognizing and addressing unworkable conditions that present themselves to our everyday attention. This principle invites us to sharpen up our ability to notice unworkability.

Here is an example of a service that addresses several urgent areas of unworkability and produces profitable workability in several other areas in the process. Changing World Technologies has designed a process that will turn a wide range of waste materials into oil, gas, metals, and carbon, producing as its only byproduct water safe enough to be released into municipal sewers. It relieves the country of a massive animal-waste problem. It impacts the problem of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) by diverting animal waste away from the domestic livestock feed stream into a benign remediation process. It provides a means of getting rid of hazardous wastes such as anthrax spores. It promises to alter our way of handling municipal effluent and garbage landfills. And in the process it produces such products as oil, gas, fertilizers, carbon black, and minerals. It is estimated that, were all municipal, industrial, and agricultural waste to be treated using this process, the United States would realize a significant reduction in foreign oil imports.

This process moves the situation in question from being one of urgent unworkability to one of high workability.

2. Value is a Function of Social Agreement

A second principle that we need to be clear on is that a change, solution, or opportunity has value only because we say it has value. Take the case of nuclear missiles. To the best of my knowledge, every intercontinental ballistic missile that I am aware of has only either sat in a silo or been launched up into the air to fall into the ocean. In fact they had value only because Americans regarded them as valuable. They served no direct useful function as, say, a car serves a function by transporting its passengers.

Moreover, though they served no direct useful function in the same way that a car does, yet they were massively funded by the American people.

Thus, a new solution or opportunity shouldn't be measured in terms of fictitious 'inherent' value, but in terms of the value that a reference-group attaches to it. If a country deemed the ending of hunger and poverty within its boundaries as valuable, then money would be found to pursue those aims.

This principle gives us permission to allow ourselves to explore unheard-of or unthinkable opportunities and to focus our attention on how to create agreement around value rather than looking for non-existent inherent value. Value is not inherent in a thing or event. Like beauty, value is in the eye of the beholder.

3. Social Solutions Must be Global

Global problems cannot be solved at the level at which they were created, Albert Einstein reminds us. Real change occurs at the level of the problem's context. Thus, when automation shrank the work force, we could not solve the problem of unemployment caused by additive, arithmetic answers like giving each of the unemployed a computer and setting him or her to work; we CAN solve the problem by looking at the context in which all these workers fit -- the context of the world -- and tackling a context-wide problem like hunger, poverty, epidemic disease, or illiteracy. Such a multiplicative or geometrical approach creates whole new areas for employment rather than single jobs. This principle encourages us to avoid add-on, band-aid solutions and look for system-wide solutions.

4. Alignment Requires Deadlines

Successful social change requires social alignment. Social alignment requires targettable, society-wide deadlines. If we want to attain a system-wide goal, we cannot agree to accomplish it “some day.” Putting a man on the moon succeeded because John F. Kennedy gave all of society a targettable deadline of 1970 for the attainment of the goal. Similarly, any other large-scale program will require a firm, fixed deadline to succeed.

5. Win/Win Solutions Dis-solve a Problem

Win/win solutions leave no one out. Only they solve problems without creating new ones (that is, only win/win solutions will dis-solve problems). Many society-wide programs do not work because they create as many new problems as they solve. They leave a festering residue, transferring a burden from one shoulder to another. Programs to fight crime, help minorities, or combat disease go on within a fragmented context, with some people left out of their scope, some people winning at other's expense, and some people identified as the cause of the problem and penalized.

Thus a residue of injustice among one group is the price paid for bringing justice to another. Later the injustice visited on the first group must be redressed and redressing that in a win/lose manner creates yet another new class of victims. Only win/win solutions, which leave no one out of their scope, will succeed without leaving a residue.

6. The Resolution of Dissonance Creates Paradigmatic Breakthrough

Most paradigmatic breakthroughs occur as a result of the personal resolution of dissonance. Max Weber created a distinction considered fundamental to sociology out of resolving an ongoing family disagreement. His father, a rabbi, disputed Weber's sociological arguments with unprovable religious arguments. These Weber labelled 'values'; his own provable assertions he labelled 'facts'. By intellectually resolving the nature of his family disputes, he created a division between values and facts that remains a basic distinction in the sociologist's toolbox.

Martin Heidegger discovered always-already-available ways of being out of not being able to find answers to his ontological questions from any of the accepted authorities of his day (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle). Failing in his search for answers, he turned to his own already-available ways of being. As well as finding the answers he wanted, he discovered an important inherent patterning mechanism in thought.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, before becoming an anthropologist, was a fire insurance investigator. He found that people caused fires out of misunderstanding linguistic labels. A worker would see an “empty” oil drum and drop a lit match into it, overlooking that it was “full” of flammable vapours. An office worker would throw a coat over a cone heater and turn on the “light” switch, not knowing that the switch activated the cone heater. When the light didn’t go on, after the worker toggled it several times, he would assume that the “light” doesn’t work, leaving the cone heater on underneath his coat, causing the coat to smoulder and burst into flames. In the course of resolving these linguistic miscomprehensions, Whorf stumbled upon what has become known as the principle of linguistic relativity – that things will be for us as we see and describe them -- called after him and his teacher, Edward Sapir, the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis.

Finally, Thomas Kuhn, working as a historian of science at a junior college, found the writers of outdated history texts touting their own age as the pinnacle of science. Each era touted its own science as the apex of achievement even though the age that succeeded it might thoroughly discredit it. Puzzled at how all eras could regard themselves as the height of attainment, though the science of some eras went nowhere, he arrived at the notion of temporocentrism – that people self-servingly tend to represent their own as the best of all possible eras.

Therefore, by generalizing our solutions to the dissonance in our own life or work, we can arrive at paradigmatic breakthroughs in thinking and acting that have a wide social application. The importance of dissonance in facilitating paradigmatic breakthrough should lead us to welcome paradox, confusion, double binds, dualisms, and the clash of opposites.

7. Critics Identify Their Own Expertise

A seventh principle encourages us to look upon our critics in a productive way.

Any genuinely new activity cannot be fully planned in advance. The answers to many of the problems it addresses are found in the course of accomplishing the activity itself. The example of changing animal waste into oil produced large numbers of nay-sayers on “blog” sites, dedicated to the discussion of current affairs.

Some project planners see them as detractors and try to answer them. Others see them as potential contributors, speaking from their own areas of expertise and sometimes identifying important actions that need to be taken. The latter group co-opts these critics and reassigns them to bring their expertise to bear towards the solution of the problems they point to.

Thus, two things are important for the project's success when viewed from the standpoint of this principle: (1) someone to hold the space for the project succeeding, and (2) someone able to co-opt its critics and have them take charge of finding solutions to the problems they point to. John F. Kennedy co-opted critics who said the right construction materials were not available to build adequate space vehicles. The founder of the Hunger Project, Werner Erhard, put those critics who could see distribution and political problems in the way of ending hunger on the planet in charge of finding distribution and political solutions. This principle reminds us to turn the negative to our advantage and harness the energy of those who can foresee the problems that stand in our way.

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