Friday, June 20, 2008

Fewer rules better behaviour

From David Bollier:

"Imagine what would happen if you took down road signs and traffic signals. More accidents would surely result, or at least significant confusion and slower traffic. Or would it? The surprising thing is that a number of cities around the world have actually done this, and experienced dramatic declines in traffic accidents...

The Dutch town of Drachten adopted this “unsafe is safe” approach in 2007 and found that casualties at one junction dropped from thirty-six over the previous four years to only two in the two years following the removal of traffic lights. Traffic jams no longer occur in the town’s main junction, which handles 22,000 cars a day. The town is “Verkeersbordvrij,” meaning “free of traffic signs.” (I am grateful to Jonathan Zittrain’s reference to Drachten’s experiment in his new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, and to Wikipedia for its account of “shared space.” )...

The idea is to return public spaces to people in order to encourage them to take greater personal responsibility. Monderman explained, “We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior….The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”"

He's right. Too many decision makers subscribe to the notion that human variability can be eliminated if only you create enough rules. The result is that intelligent people spend inordinate amounts of time circumventing the rules to get things done. When such circumvention is noticed the "solution" is more and tighter rules, including the outlawing of the circumvention. Eventually circumvention becomes too onerous or risky and even the intelligent and dedicated find it hard to take personal responsibility for the emergent chaos wreaked by the rules. As Bollier notes:

"Who could have thought that the wisdom of Lao-tsu, in the Tao Te Ching, could be applied to traffic safety engineering?

Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself.

The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be.

….If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.

Jonathan Zittrain mentions the shared-space design philosophy as a way to explain the success of Wikipedia. I would extend the principle to many other commons – water management, lobster harvesting, free software projects, scientific database commons, and much else. We naturally have greater respect for rules that we have had some role in formulating – and a willingness to punish those who misbehave — than we have for rules that have been imposed upon us by some higher authority."

Those who seek to control should be made to repeat Lao-tsu's mantra every day:

If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.

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