Innovation: a response

Why our little town seems stuck

8 min read

Apres Surf sign 2017-05-04

Tofino council (of which i am a member) received a heartfelt email a while ago, one i thought deserved a thoughtful response. It turned into more of an essay than i expected. First, here’s the email (abridged):

Dear Council,

I am writing to you today in hopes of receiving some answers to a few questions that have been keeping me awake at night. I am … unsettled by some of the changes happening within our beautiful, albeit endangered town.

I was commuting on my bicycle … a few days ago when I noticed a sign [for a new business] that hadn’t been there before.…

Why, in a town that is becoming notoriously known for its lack of affordable housing, are plans being approved to develop more of something we don’t need? Why, instead of using the beautiful intelligence and energy individuals in power possess to search for more environmentally-responsible ways of running our town (and current developments), we’re displaying a nauseating showcase of greed and unconscious building?

Instead of contacting environmentally-conscious urban planners to help make Tofino an example of how amazing sustainable living could be, why are we so content to become the spawn of Whistler, where respect for our surroundings is so readily whored-out to the first person who hands … us a fistful of cash? …

What is happening to this incredible, rare paradise?

Yours kindly,
—Kate

 

Hi Kate,

Darn good questions and, from your perspective as a young, concerned Tofitian effectively being shut out of Tofino by ever more development with little apparent relief in sight, a pressing one.

I know Mayor Osborne replied to your email with a long description of how the municipal zoning system works, and how that particular lot was zoned for commercial activity long ago, well before our current housing and development concerns reached crisis proportions.

Without criticizing that particular land-owner, and from the weighty perspective of three years in municipal governance, i see your question from more of a systemic (and maybe cynical) angle. In a nutshell, in my view, Tofino’s (and Canada’s, and the world’s) chronic slow pace of social innovation is the result of three separate factors.

Governmental inertia

As an individual you can generally make a decision, even a radical, life-changing one, and begin acting on it immediately. That is not the reality behind municipal governance, as it has evolved over the centuries. Governments move very slowly, and, frustrating though it is, there’s good reason for this. Government has a big effect on people’s lives, homes, neighbourhoods and livelihoods—you don’t want it to beeasy to make drastic changes. Otherwise, every new government would invite chaos, and the (relative) stability we enjoy would be threatened.

The truth is that innovation is change, and change is uncomfortable for many people—mainly those who are doing okay right now, under the status quo. But even those who are not doing well tend to prefer a mediocre but predictable status quo to unknown change, at least until the status quo becomes unendurable. So our whole governance system is designed not to embrace innovation, but to protect the status quo frominnovation. This is not surprising when you consider that the system is mostly set up and controlledby those for whom it is working well. Why would they want to change it?

This means that conservatism—resistance to innovation—is baked deep into the system. We’ve got decades’ worth of layered checks and balances in the system now, lots of them. Which leads to …

Complexity and entanglement

Very few laws were created simply to create a law. No matter how ridiculous they might appear now, they were each created to address a specific problem or issue that cropped up. Somebody did (or wanted to do) something, people were inconvenienced or hurt or alarmed or pissed off, and a law was passed to hopefully keep that thing from happening again. Over time, more and more rules get developed to handle issues real or perceived—guidelines at every level from house rules to municipal bylaws to provincial and federal laws to international statutes. These pile up on each other, layering, interlocking, reinforcing, conflicting,and all in all tending to make it difficult to effect any significant change.

One present illustration of this is tiny houses. Such a seemingly minor change to the status quo would seem to be a no-brainer for towns like Tofino in dire need of affordable, decent accommodation. But the idea of tiny houses was not around when our municipal zoning bylaws were written, so they aren’t mentioned in our bylaws and there’s no way to approve placing them in the municipality. Even if there were, all buildings in BC must meet the BC Building Code—a provincial layer of law—which itself was not written with tiny houses in mind, so that needs to be addressed. There are provincial health regulations, and, if the tiny house is on wheels, national RV standards from a whole different regulatory agency.

If and when we finally manage to legalize tiny homes, we may need new ownership models for this new type of housing, so tweaks to the heavily regulated financial system must be wrought. Laws and practices galore have to be drafted or changed—a long, grinding process, and not very satisfying for someone living under a tarp in the Tofino rain.

Yet all the above are legitimate concerns. A lawless open season on tiny houses could very easily create ghettos fullof crowded, poorly-built, fire-trap rental slums. Or it could all go wrong in a dozen other ways, that lawmakers try (and often fail) to anticipate—the curse of “unintended consequences.” We don’t want that, either.

By and large, the laws that form our governance system arecrafted to perpetuate a “suburban home” model of living, predicated upon a social structure of stable employment, high wages, lasting relationships, two-parent families where one stays home, extensive automobile use, a stable climate, cheap food, and on and on. Nowadays, every single element of that chainis feeling the strain or outright breaking down, and we are faced with huge challengeson many fronts simultaneously. Which highlights a glaring…

Shortage of ideas

I’m being facetious, because Bog knows that thanks to the internet we’re all being cooked in a boiling sea of ideas. “Innovation” abounds, but it’s either a meaningless buzzword or the harbinger of yet more disruption and upheaval.

For every expert opinion or idea, there are a dozen otherexperts with conflictingopinions. Politicians and pundits may speak with certainty, but you’ve got to drink a lot of their Kool-Aidto believe it. The whole world seems to have gone tribal, with nocommon, shared values or ideas telling us where to go from here. There’s history, to be sure, and a whole host of more-or-less verifiable scientific facts to help guide us. But we are charging forward blind and at great speed into new territory, and we feel the peril.

It has always been thus, though perhaps not at this volume or pace. Thing is, on so many fronts we are moving into paradigms that have yet to be invented, and there is no certainty or common ground to stand on. The next steps are profoundly notobvious. Inertiaand entanglement make it hard to effect change, and complexity makes it hard to know what or how to change.Those innovative actions that do spring up run immediately into our tar-pit of agovernance system, and grind to a halt.

So, Kate … as individual people, what to do? I see hope in two things.

 

Individual action

We can’t move collectively forward, not at the pace we need, while working strictly within the groaning capitalist/ consumer/ patriarchal system we are embedded in.

But within the system, we can change our own individual lives. The hard part is making the personal decision to depart from business-as-usual; the actual doing may follow quite easily. And to some extent we can play the system to our advantage, working quietly and creatively around it.

Now, as a member of a council charged with creating the best bylaws it can to govern the conduct of all our lives, i can’t really suggest breaking the law. But as a frustrated human being caught up in the chaos, i understand the urge to just get on with what you know to be right.

Here too, tiny houses are a nice example for individual action in the face of regulatory inertia. They’re illegal pretty much everywhere, yet all over North America (including here in Tofino), people are building them anyway, and living in them, or trying to, rules be damned. In a case like this, the rules have little choice but to catch up. Rather than being led by government, individuals are leading by example, by living the way they want to or feel they ought to, and government is playing catch-up. Meaningful change percolates out from this.

Kate, you and your peers are the first generation since World War II 1950s looking at a worse future than your parents—maybe even no future at all, if the most dire climate predictions come true. Yet the system is run by those for whom it is working (i.e. the successful), so there’s little incentive for them to change it. For those whom it is not serving well—the marginalized, the poor, the young, you, me … the increasingly populous crowd of 99%ers—democracy does hold a glimmer of hope. But only a glimmer, and a fading one, and it all depends on …

Collective action (a.k.a. revolution)

Because for all its inertia, the system does move, if slowly, when there’s pressure on it. Sometimes it sticks, and needs an almighty kick. Sometimes nothing seems to happen forever, and then it all changes overnight in a mighty shift.

So IMHO the other part of the progress plan is this: Get politically active. Get together with friends and get angry. Get together with your online cohort and get vocal. Emails, letters, petitions, yes … but the in-person, in-their-face stuff carries much more weight. Show up at meetings, voice your needs, ask the questions that need asking, don’t take fluff or bullshit for an answer. And then follow up at the voting booth.

Collective action worked to a remarkable extent in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It worked on the environmental front here in Clayoquot Sound in the 1990s. And it can work again, if we get our noses out of our phones to run and elect brave new candidates in elections local, provincial and federal. And then, en masse, hold their feet to the fire until we get the drastic changes we all need to live and thrive in this world of possibilities.

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