Upside to the Downside: measuring the negative impact of positive acts

Measuring impacts is a core part of any task: if you don’t look for results, you don’t know if the task is done? Too often, we take the sunny view and ask ourselves “did we win?” but then fail to ask ourselves “what did we lose?” Every action we take will have impacts, some up-front and some down the road, but there is no bad action that doesn’t cause some good somewhere, and so, crucially, there is no good action that doesn’t cause some bad somewhere else. Halting an epidemic, building a school, training police to peacefully handle the public, these are all important missions where we expect to see strong positive impacts, but if we fail to purposefully seek out the negative impacts, we can be blindsided by unintended harm we’ve caused. Willingness to see negative impacts isn’t an exercise in beating ourselves up or downplaying our wins, it’s about having the confidence to admit small harms in the course of big gains. This is what we call, “the upside to the downside.”

Taking a hard look at negative impacts shouldn’t prevent us from moving forward, from tackling problems and effecting global change. Instead, being willing to look at the negative allows us to catch and address negative impacts before they reach their crisis, and to predict the negative effects we should guard against when starting the next project. Honest assessments save money and time by catching dangers at the early stage, and assure investors and donors that they won’t be ambushed by sudden failures or backlash. Open eyes provide us a warning, and “the opposite of warning is surprise”. Cataloging the good and glossing over the negative just sets us up for the worst kind of surprises.

This short essay was inspired by a meeting we attended with a number of colleagues, discussing a road development project in a room full of contractors, engineers, logisticians, cartographers, and evaluators; Liberians, Americans, Canadians, Lebanese, and South Africans. While we discussed gaining buy-in for road rehabilitation from local communities, one of our employees asked “okay, so we have a lot of stakeholders who are invested in this road… but who is going to be *against* this road?” The overwhelming reaction from the room was that, of course, nobody was going to be against a road, roads are great, everyone loves roads, there’s no point in even discussing it. No mention of what commercial interests may be monopolizing transit through the current routes, what social interests might be against increased travel and outside exposure, or simply whose lives would be disrupted by increased development and traffic. It was a reality check for us, to see a roomful of smart people unwilling to imagine that anybody might not appreciate their development efforts.

As a large-scale example, the Industrial Revolution brought sweeping changes to the United Kingdom; while to one side it eventually led to massive increases in efficiency and set the stage for a better life for the working class and improved conditions for women, in the short term many of its impacts were disastrous. An inefficient but stable and familiar rural society where basic needs were met and cultural institutions guaranteed some level of safety, leisure, and happiness was shattered. Urbanization broke communities, demanding work conditions stole away time for play and socializing, industrial pollution and crowding brought illness, cheap mass-produced gin led to alcoholism, and a breaking of traditional social pressures led to abandonment of wives and children.

Smithsonian Magazine, — The Luddites, shown here hammering away in a textile mill in 1812

The rise of industry gave birth to a movement known as the Luddites who smashed machinery and attacked factories trying to stall these changes. Today the term is used as a slur, for a person ignorant of or unwilling to learn new technology, but for the rebels of that day it wasn’t a matter of just fearing change, but a legitimate frantic defense at seeing their livelihoods and culture smashed by an oncoming machine. The many ill effects of the Industrial Revolution don’t mean that it should never have happened, ultimately it led to better conditions across societies, but it would be foolish to praise the successes of industrialization without a sober analysis of what was lost vice the gains.