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What I Learned: Global Reciprocal Discovery of Environmental Innovation

It’s cliché for a teacher to say “I learn as much from my students as they learn from me.” But consider that my students are mid-career leadership-track professionals from countries with emerging economies from around the world. They include scientists, managers, and civil engineers, from nations undergoing significant political and economic transition. When the University of California-Davis had asked me to lecture for its international Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship, I knew it was a great opportunity but I scarcely knew where to start. I was experienced in the subject matter — climate and environmental policy. But most of my practical experience was grounded in California, oriented around the state’s comparatively local idiosyncrasies. How could I relate California-specific issues in a useful way to such an esteemed and diverse gathering from all over the world?

Then, in my first lecture, I learned something both reassuring and exhilarating — these Fellows were not going to be a passive audience. My “lecture” unfolded into a dynamic, instructive, and inspiring seven-hour dialogue about the common challenges confronting urbanizing societies and the vastly different solutions being prototyped, with sometimes surprising results. With an elegance I can’t take credit for, the axis of discussion became reciprocal learning — a type of education that exchanges varied remedies to similar problems, each drawn from different points in history, and all of it decoded by intentional intercultural understanding.

The experience reminded me of an important fact: The challenges weighing upon our respective countries can speak each other’s solutions. For that reason, our differences don’t impede learning from one another; they enhance it.

In many respects, some settled and others still-debated, the institutions of developing nations face choices that our postwar United States faced seventy years ago. Government leaders are asked, how should our new public works and legal systems of property rights be designed to meet the demands of a rapidly growing middle class? How should roads, dams, utilities, and other investments allocate the costs and benefits of managing our natural resources, wastes, and wealth? And how should control of such decisions be assigned to local, regional, and national scales of governance? How will those scales balance near-term certain benefits against long-term potential costs?

The United States made choices about these questions in the 1950s through the ’70s, whose consequences — both wonderful and terrible — continue to shape the problems, privileges, and prejudices of local communities throughout the country.

In that regard, the experience of U.S. communities offers a valuable insight for today’s developing countries. As industrialization is reorganizing society in these countries, it also reorganizes the spatial orientation and ambitions of physical development. Countries with climbing GNI per capita, developable land, and an economy in transition from central planning to markets tend to exhibit the same popular pressures for car-dependent growth which governed U.S. investments when our own middleclass appetites awoke. Industrialization combined with rising living standards also fuels demand for energy, suggesting long-term national commitments to fossil fuels.

It’s simplistic to say developing countries can see through America their own possible futures. But, to some cautionary effect, the United States does demonstrate the products of sweeping cultural assumptions and political deals, whose consequences only now draw stark alternatives into the Overton window.

Take, for example, the use of high-speed car travel as a universal metric of the performance of transportation infrastructure. This view of the road’s first and sovereign priority — to allow cars to keep moving fast — has shaped local, state, and federal investments, with relatively scant dissent, since the beginning of the American automobile. It took generations to discover that, in practice, the metric actually slowed cars down (or otherwise made trips take longer). This adds to the total costs of travel, including household financial burdens and the public costs of environmental harm, economic strain, and infrastructure depreciation. Recognizing this, some states and regions are now exploring alternative metrics, such as accessibility of regular destinations as a collective goal of multiple sectors operating at once (transportation, land use, and economic development). But, in the U.S., these corrective approaches swim upstream against institutional inertia and trillions of dollars of investments already paid into our built environment.

Countries like Brazil and China, now rapidly urbanizing raw land to accommodate a booming generation of middleclass car owners, might learn from this setback. But, conversely, there are also lessons U.S. policymakers might learn from Brazil and China, as well as from India, Indonesia, Russia, and South Africa, among a host of other developing countries.

Benefitting from secondhand experience, such countries exhibit a talent for “leapfrogging,” or skipping the inferior (or less efficient) technological or industrial milestones (which continue to anchor today’s developed countries). They opt instead to move directly to the most advanced form available. Frontier markets that widely adopted cell phones before landlines were constructed are a popular example, bypassing substantial infrastructure costs and market adoption lag to immediately enjoy the benefits of 21st-century communication.

This “leap” also brought mass adoption of mobile payments, effectively turning phones into banks for communities that couldn’t dream of opening a traditional bank account. China already has significantly higher rates of mobile payments than the United States. And in Peru, Indonesia, South Africa, and India, among other countries seeking agile solutions for slum improvement, mobile payments have unlocked asset-building efforts from microfinance for enterprise development to “micro-mortgages” for new housing.

Developing countries can also leapfrog history’s high-polluting stages of development. Rwanda, for example, quadrupled its percentage of homes powered by electricity between 2010 to 2018, by skipping coal-fired plants and going straight to solar energy — harnessing recent innovations in photovoltaic and storage technology. So, while regions of Europe and North America must improvise to adapt fossil fuel-era transmission grids and regulatory regimes to accommodate renewables, Rwanda is directly deploying those renewables to remote and dispersed communities, free from the pivotal costs of grid extensions.

Where such leaps have placed developing countries ahead of the U.S., we can attempt inferences about their effects on markets, health, poverty, safety, and ecological resources. And, farther upstream, the developing country’s mode of ideation prompts us to see past the endogenous constraints of our own policymaking. Free from entrenched interests and conventional thinking that often mire industrialized countries in two-dimensional policy debates, nascent industries just taking root in a new culture can be a spring of creativity, from the level of legislatures down to the individual.

My dad grew up on an island without electricity or running water. This part of the Azores in 1950 offered living standards like the United States’ in 1850. But by the time he retired, my dad was a Blackberry-wielding executive in California’s wine industry, coordinating hourly with suppliers and customers. His work had changed from husking corn by candlelight to facilitating million-dollar deals by email.

It may be difficult for today’s native-born Americans to imagine the g-force of this amount of change taking place in the span of one career. But that rate of lifestyle change and productivity growth is not unique to the American immigrant. Rather, it’s an experience shared by communities in developing countries around the world, whose standards and opportunities are leapfrogging technological and organizational iterations that had gathered on America’s hull like a morass. Although high labor productivity growth is far from ubiquitous among developing countries, it is extending beyond newly industrialized countries to a new cohort of thriving, export-driven economies, from Thailand to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. There, a habit of progress at lightspeed embeds not only an expectation of change, but also an enlarged imagination for the possibilities.

I suggest that enlargement of imagination, and the innovations its created, can help U.S. policymakers reconcile the vestiges of our own economic adolescence. In my time dialoguing with the Humphrey Fellows, I discovered a much broader horizon of perspectives and ideas than I could have ever tapped among the California- or Washington, DC-based thinktanks. Those institutions are well-aware of the problems, but, inescapably, the proposed solutions are informed, guided, and funded by the same systems that generated the problems. Inspiration for solving the problems entwined with our history, then, may come from the cultures that are less defined by our history.

To revisit the example of performance metrics for transportation infrastructure, governments in the U.S. now know the time-honored practice of prioritizing high-speed car travel has actually been counterproductive. But they are struggling to replace it. California in particular is striving to establish access to destinations as the true measure of whether a road is doing its job. (After all, few of us get on the road for the purpose of driving quickly as an end in itself; instead, we’re trying to get somewhere). Of course, increasing access to destinations has as much to do with the destinations as it does with conveyance between them. So this new approach requires an integration of land use planning, brick-and-mortar development, community investment, and, yes, transportation.

This type of intersectoral policy is viewed as complex — specifically because it doesn’t fit into a single “sector,” which is, itself, merely a concept invented and ingrained by an American century of political, governmental, and legal tradition undergirding today’s forbidding technical disciplines. In the U.S., zoning decisions belong in a separate “silo,” apart from transportation, precisely because we said they do many years ago and over many years. (California law does require some links between land use and transportation planning, such as through general plan consistency and Sustainable Communities Strategies. But these links are either too locally isolated or too recently enacted to really bust silos). The technical delineations between land use and transportation have thus framed statutory priorities and funding programs for decades.

Of course, other countries are just as bound by the dictates of their own courts, lawmakers, and governments. They are also weighed down by their own immense contemporary urban challenges. But I suggest a particular instinct for bold creativity correlates with industrialization, and uniquely equips young leaders in developing nations to overcome these challenges. When applied to U.S. problems like travel costs, this instinct can reveal a complementarity between competing priorities where before we had only seen the tradeoffs.

The City of Curitiba in the 1960s, for instance, had transportation challenges in common with many of today’s U.S. metropolitan areas: Displaced workers, geographic concentration of high incomes and land prices, and, as a consequence, travel costs which threatened to skyrocket (as a measure of environmental damage, household financial burdens, and regional economic harm). The mindset that Curitibanos took to containing travel costs is instructive.

Curitiba is the capital of Panará, a mainly agricultural state in the south of Brazil, which, for most of its history, had looked more like an agrarian outpost linking markets and immigration to small farms, cattle ranches, and mills in the countryside. Demographic growth had been slow, but that slowness began changing in the 1930s and ’40s as new economic activities opened throughout the region. Mechanization of coffee, mate, and soybean production drew Paraná’s farmworkers off their land and into the city. Increasing exports enhanced Curitiba’s role as a regional hub of roads, rail, and urban services. And the city’s population more than doubled between 1940 and 1960 — from 140,000 residents to 360,000. Traffic congestion and air pollution began to dominate.

So, city leaders created the Curitiba Research and Urban Planning Institute (IPPUC). IPPUC was tasked with integrating all aspects of the urban system — with the overriding mission of meeting the public’s needs for access, instead of meeting the private car’s needs for mobility. This operating principle channeled linear growth along five structural axes that radiate from the town center, served by bus-rapid transit; dense mixed-use development with floor-area ratios intensifying closer to bus terminals; and a hierarchy of roads where each road is assigned a function specifically in relation to its location and adjacent activities. Streets are sized for micromobility and pedestrian use. Inclusive zoning for lower-income residents invites all workers into walkable proximity to jobs, amenities, and bus service.

Today, Curitiba is a city of 1.9 million residents, with the lowest regional air pollution and lowest congestion among Brazil’s large cities. The per capita income loss due to congestion is seven times lower than Rio de Janeiro’s, and 11 times lower than Sao Paulo’s. Curitiba emits a quarter less carbon than the country’s average metropolitan area. These outcomes are due primarily to Curitiba’s transit system which serves more than two million people a day. But the city’s success is not necessarily a case for syncing grand public works with master planning. In fact, Curitiba’s mayor Jaime Lerner emphasized “urban acupuncture” as a solution to city problems, focusing on narrow pressure points to spur positive ripple effects through quick, small interventions.

What sets Curitiba apart, as Mayor Lerner’s prescription alludes, is a view of the city as an organism and an interest in microscopic interactions. Just as the body’s circulatory system forms new capillaries to support new muscle growth in reciprocal increments, so too must the city’s transportation network grow and change only in intimate relation with changes happening in the destinations it serves. It sees integrality at a systems level and opportunity at a micro level. The analogy had come to Curitiba through Barcelonan architect Manuel de Solá Morales, whose education hadn’t been framed by the Americas’ fidelity for highways. And it was realized through an unusually risk-receptive administration that, at the time IPPUC was instituted, embraced controversy to quell obstructionism with overnight proofs-of-concept. They emphasized interventions that could be made quickly and hyper-locally, and exhibit almost immediate benefits. And it worked.

All I knew about Curitiba before meeting the Humphrey Fellows was its moniker as “the Portland of the Southern Hemisphere.” I could have read the IPPUC master plan, or reams of zoning policies or transit plans. I could have tried disentangling the countless variations that distinguish one city’s built environment from another’s. But the thing that truly makes Curitiba special would have been blurred by what statisticians might call an opaque multicollinearity of urban design— countless variables without a coefficient. And if I’d tried on my own to grasp that “coefficient” if you will, that philosophy underlying “the Portland of the Southern Hemisphere,” I confess I’d probably have started by comparing it to, well, Portland. I’d have missed the central leitmotif which truly made Curitiba special. Instead, it took an open-ended conversation with a Humphrey Fellow to reveal it.

This is what I’ve learned as a lecturer for the Humphrey Fellows — subject matter, to be sure, relating to environmental solutions — but most importantly, the nature and value of reciprocal cross-cultural discovery. Its nature requires intensive dialogue, so that, once understood, unique cultural values can bring order to inputs and put them into proportion with one another, to help explain complex outcomes. And the value of such explanation occurs at the foundational level of problem-solving, where our countries’ respective challenges speak each other’s solutions. The United States has as much to learn from these developing countries as they do from us, and dialogue might be the most powerful tool of progress.

Josh Rosa teaches “Environmental Policymaking in Political Contexts” at the University of California, Davis, Continuing and Professional Education. His professional experience includes municipal, state, and federal policy related to environmental quality and climate change.

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