Special Innovation Zone: Imagination Without Regulation

Image: The design for “XeroPlace” was one of three winning entries in the Re:Vision Dallas design competition. Image credit: David Baker and Partners Architects and Fletcher Studio, with rendering assistance from Mike Brown and Megan Morris of Medized.

Existence is the ultimate proof of the possible. Every time a bold new project is tried, and works, we advance our sense of the achievable. Given how much transformation we need in order to meet the challenges we face, we need many more attempts at innovation, and we’re not getting them. The achievable is not advancing quickly enough.

Why does it matter? Because our perception of what’s possible dictates our standards of what’s acceptable, and the biggest barriers to social innovation and bright green experimentation are almost always institutional, legal and regulatory. We may have tons of new technology, promising designs, ambitious plans, but in most of the Global North, it’s exceedingly costly and difficult to try new things at any scale. A few examples:

  • Cutting edge green builders often encounter all sorts of local building code barriers that prevent bold designs (sometimes even when those designs are well-proven elsewhere);
  • District energy plans are often stymied by national, provincial or local laws governing utilities, which often make it difficult-to-impossible to implement new ideas for improving the grid or building local energy at scale;
  • Existing utilities and agencies may resist new ideas because they stand to lose revenue if, for instance, a new water-recycling system with living machines and biodigesters takes a building off the sewer system (and would thus exempt it from paying sewer fees);
  • People attempting to make woonerf-style pedestrian streets may find that municipal insurance in the U.S. may demand that streets for which the city is responsible be built at a certain width to accommodate emergency vehicles moving quickly, and companies may oppose street grid innovations which inconvenience cars on the theory that their workers or customers may have difficulties getting to their businesses;
  • Banks may refuse to fund new business ideas that depend on governmental permissions or exemptions from rules, and investors may be similarly shy of getting behind projects which are both innovative and face potential regulatory or legal challenges;
  • Neighborhood opposition may slow down to the point of infeasibility any project which local NIMBYs think may bring “undesirable” people or activities, even if those activities are perfectly legal and may even be welcomed by other neighbors.

Each of these examples is based on a story I’ve heard of an innovative project that died not because it was a bad idea, but because of societal inertia. Given how tough it is to start new projects (and find financing and support) under normal circumstances, innovators facing this kind of opposition often end up contenting themselves with incremental — sometimes downright meaningless — gains.

This is not just a problem for the innovators, it’s a problem for everyone. Breakthroughs in the way we make our biggest things — buildings, vehicles, infrastructure systems — need to go through a process of trial and error to reach the cutting edge. We may never know how many great ideas were lost forever, simply because the thinkers behind them couldn’t find a place to experiment boldly and in public.

What might that place look like?

In his Long Now talk, economist Paul Romer tells a story. In the early 1970s, China was stuck in a societal inertia after the death of Mao. However, right next door, Hong Kong (administered by the British) was a thriving city-state based on trade and innovative manufacturing. Chinese leaders decided to see if they could copy Hong Kong’s success on a limited scale, and set up four “Special Economic Zones” where foreign investment was encouraged and capitalism was unconstrained. The experiments were so successful economically that their rules soon more or less became the guiding principles of the Chinese miracle. As Romer says, “Hong Kong was the most successful economic development program in history.”

In many ways, the Global North is as hamstrung in the face of bright green challenges as China was in the face of capitalism. What if the answer is a sustainability and social innovation equivalent of China’s answers: a sort of “Special Innovation Zone”?

Imagine a place — perhaps a shrinking city, or a badly savaged brownfield neighborhood — where laws were set up to strip rules and regulations down to a do-no-harm minimum (maintaining criminal laws and protecting health, safety, workers’ rights and civil liberties, but perhaps limiting liability and certainly slashing red tape and delays) allowing for wild deviations from existing patterns for buildings, systems and operations. Imagine a free-fire zone for sustainable innovations, where new approaches could be iterated and tested rapidly, and, when they work, sent to proliferate outside the Zone. Conversely, some of the freedom might paradoxically come from imposing boundary limitations that can’t yet be made practical or survive politically outside the Zone, such as bans on broad classes of chemicals or strict greenhouse gas emissions limits.

To be sure, there are places out there where people are already starting to experiment successfully with this blank-canvas mentality. Vancouver, B.C. has seen wonderful results in urban design from its discretionary zoning policy, which favors case-by-case evaluation of projects in pursuit of regional goals, rather than setting blanket standards. And in Greensburg, Kansas, the devastated landscape left behind after a tornado ripped through the town in May 2007 became a laboratory for innovation, as people from within the community and around the world resolved to rebuild Greensburg as a resilient, efficient and sustainable example of bright green living. Our allies at Re:Vision Dallas have offered up a full block in Texas’s third largest city as the site for a new “sustainable model for the world.” Although the final product will need approval at all levels, the design charrettes for Re:Vision Dallas put city officials and design visionaries in the same room, where they could tackle institutional stumbling blocks with more immediacy. If the winning designers have their say, the Re:Vision renovation will indeed push the envelope and the imagination. But these are small, limited exceptions that prove the rule.

I imagine that anything actually set up to work this way would have a half-life that shortened the better the Zone got at producing innovation, either because it would fly apart (like so many brilliant artistic scenes) or because it would get so profitable that funding would pour in and crush the creativity (as happens to many unfettered intellectual booms). But while it lasted, a Zone like this might well spit out more proven innovation in a handful of years than gets built on the ground in decades during the normal course of things. It might well be a flare that could illuminate a whole series of interesting paths out of the darkness.

Originally published on June 24, 2009 on Worldchanging.

Alex Steffen is a planetary futurist and creator of the books Worldchanging and Carbon Zero. His new project The Heroic Future launches in September. Follow Alex on Twitter or to sign up to get his free weekly newsletter.

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