You Can’t Get There From Here

2015 01 15 You Can't get there From Here Framer
Photo: Elle Neill

We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters.
– Peter Thiel, Founder of Paypal

The Tokyo Metro is a marvel of efficiency and practicality: beautifully clean and well-designed with excellent people flow. There are well-marked exits for the entire area around each station and, remarkably to a Westerner, there are clean and modern comfort facilities in every station. The London tube is also a marvel, a global icon with one of the world’s best-known logos, wonderful station names, a rich history, and a surprising Victorian Era experience when you take the creaking elevators at stops such as Holborn or Regent’s Park.1) Tripadvisor Reviewer Dissatisfied with Creaking Elevator at Regent’s Park. Accessed August 1, 2020.

Tokyo’s Metro carries 3.16 billion people per year, while London’s carries 1.065 billion,2)Busiest Subways: Accessed August 1, 2020. ranking #1 and #11 in the world, respectively, so these are two of the most important systems.

So why isn’t the London Tube like the Tokyo Metro?

Of course, the people running the London tube travel the world regularly and have seen the metro in Tokyo (and Hong Kong, and Singapore, and other modern subway systems). The UK not only has access to, but also supplies many of the world’s most advanced engineering services. It can’t be a question of scale, as they’re roughly the same scale within a factor of 2x. And I don’t think it’s a question of money. People in London already pay a lot for their system – more than in Tokyo – and there is a huge demand for fast and efficient transport services in London.

The answer is quite simple but has profound implications for economics and policy (and flourishing). You can’t get there from here. There is no path for the tube in London to transform itself into a system like the one in Tokyo because of the tube’s starting point. It’s not feasible to redesign the system without basically stopping London. The Tube is what it is because of history and its path of development going forward has to work under the constraints of that history, which culminates in the current state of the Tube.

This phenomenon is not restricted to the Tube. All of our Complex Economic Ecosystems (CEEs) – health, education, housing – exhibit the same characteristics. Built up over long periods of time, the pieces are largely in place, and a single firm’s actions have limited effect upon improving performance of the system. As one wag suggested during the Obamacare debate in the US (to paraphrase): Obamacare is not ideal… but if we wanted the perfect healthcare system, we wouldn’t start where we are.

Canada has changed very little over the past several decades. The same companies dominate the economic landscape – our banks, our iconic brands (Canadian Tire, Tim Hortons). Toronto buses look the same. The streets are in the same places. And houses – inside and out – look pretty much as they did in the 1980s, although a few more have granite countertops.

And this lack of change cuts across many sectors:

  • Despite huge jumps in understanding in medicine, the delivery of healthcare is similar to 30 (even 60?) years ago. The primary care physician spends 10-15 minutes with the patient. The same information is provided again and again to specialists, for even though electronic medical records are now in place for over 93% of Canadians,3)See Canada Health Infoway: Canada Health Infoway Accessed August 1, 2020. they have not become universal. And the system is still too reactive (rather than proactive) to truly improve wellness and flourishing.
  • While there are pockets of tremendous and positive change, education overall has not embraced new ways of learning in depth. Many e-learning companies have not found the success they envisioned (including the one Andrew launched and another of which he was Chairman). Until Covid-19 enforced a degree of largely temporary change,  students from Grades 1-12 continued to sit in classrooms of 20-30 with much of the talking being done by the teacher, in spite of a policy trend toward more student-focused learning. While universities adapted more quickly to the pandemic and will continue to offer largely online delivery into 2020-21, Canada’s elementary ans secondary schools have not done as well, and will be returning children and teachers to arguably unsafe classrooms (of 28-30 kids, in Ontario) despite the continuing threat of the global pandemic.
  • Our transportation networks in developed nations have not changed much (although Toronto got its first train from Union Station to Pearson International in June of 2015), with only small changes in the balance of public and private transportation and the identical economic ecosystem of car manufacturers, car dealers, roads, gas stations, and the oil industry that we saw as children (albeit GPS has made it a little easier to avoid getting lost).
  • Despite having “an extensive network of hydroelectric dams and nuclear plants providing the majority of its power, [Canada] has been slow to adopt other forms of low-carbon energy and cut its transport emissions.”4)Josh Gabbatiss, “The Carbon Brief Profile: Canada,” October, 2019 at The Carbon Brief. Accessed August 1, 2020. And we continue to profit from an environmentally unsustainable oil and gas industry that simply must be replaced. We are the world’s 10th highest greenhouse gas emitter!

Peter Andreas Thiel – who gave us the quotation to open this article – said it best.

Despite massive (and continuing) advances in medicine, material science, our understanding of the brain, alternative energy, and a myriad of other areas, we seem only to have scratched the surface of translating these advances into improvements for ordinary people and an increase in flourishing. Indeed, in many of life’s most important arenas – health, financial security – anyone below the top 5% in the developed world is essentially treading water or going backwards.

Nature abhors a vacuum and, in a natural ecosystem, species fill ecological niches both adapting to and also affecting their environments. In the Amazon rain forest the canopy absorbs almost all the light, creating very difficult conditions for creatures trying to flourish on the forest floor.

Economic ecosystems are no different, and as Complex Economic Ecosystem niches are filled, the resulting structures are increasingly difficult to dislodge. As discussed in When Feedback Fails, there is no empirical evidence that any kind of feedback mechanism exists to push the economic ecosystem in the direction of better performance for the system as a whole.

Perhaps the biggest gap in economic ecosystems is the sub-optimal urban designs that persist for decades or centuries. Toronto, for example, is located on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, and taking proper advantage of its position would make it among the most attractive cities in the world. Unfortunately, in the mists of time, the decision was taken to place the Gardiner Expressway between the city centre and the waterfront, the results of which persist today, despite huge advances in the discipline of urban planning.

So where does this leave us? CEEs that are not fit-for-purpose will not change on their own. Only public policy can solve these issues and policy makers need to be much bolder about breaking down existing economic ecosystems that are hindering flourishing.

One place to start would be with the role of alternative energy for transportation. Basically, electric cars will become mainstream only if an entire infrastructure to support them is put into place. And only the state can be bold enough build this infrastructure given the scale, the risks, and the need for public policies simultaneously.

Canada must implement this and other radical policy reforms, if it is to foster flourishing that reflects respect for the autonomy and dignity of its people.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Tripadvisor Reviewer Dissatisfied with Creaking Elevator at Regent’s Park. Accessed August 1, 2020.
2. Busiest Subways: Accessed August 1, 2020.
3. See Canada Health Infoway: Canada Health Infoway Accessed August 1, 2020.
4. Josh Gabbatiss, “The Carbon Brief Profile: Canada,” October, 2019 at The Carbon Brief. Accessed August 1, 2020.

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