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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Hidden complexity

Over the years, I have slowly started to realize that rarely anything is as simple as it initially seems.  Once you start digging into a specific topic, you realize how complex it actually becomes and how many moving parts there are.

Today, I read a study about the "Million Trees LA" (MTLA) project. The paper is titled "Implementing Municipal Tree Planting: Los Angeles Million-Tree Initiative" and it's authored by Dr. Stephanie Pincetl of UCLA.  Before I started reading the paper, I thought to myself "How hard can it be to plant trees?  It must be a straightforward process."  Well, I was quite wrong and reading the paper was an excellent reminder (and a lesson) on why you shouldn't automatically assume an issue is simple and easy to understand.  You shouldn't allow your pre-existing assumptions and notions about an issue to skew your understanding of a topic.

For those not familiar with the MTLA project, it basically involved the Mayor of LA promising to plant a million trees in Los Angeles by the end of his first term.  Essentially, the goal was to plant 1 million trees in 4 years.  Easy enough right? Wrong.  The program has run into numerous problems:

  • The deadline for planting so many trees was unrealistic from the very beginning.  It will actually take 8-10 years to successfully plant so many trees.
  • The initiative requires the coordination and cooperation of multiple groups and several government agencies with their own decision-making mechanisms and priorities.  Even private property owners have to be brought along since they hold control of the space needed to plant the trees.
  • Funding is difficult due to revenue-raising restrictions from tax revenue and other sources.  For instance, a very similar project in New York had over $400 million in funding.  The LA project didn't even break the $10 million mark.
  • The trees simply couldn't be planted and forgotten. There are additional financial and labor costs related to weekly maintenance.
  • The permit process required to plant a tree involves 8 different steps and the approval of several city agencies.
  • An unintended consequence of more trees is providing cover for criminals to escape under.  The LAPD is concerned about the increased crime potential if there are more trees to hide under to escape the sight of helicopters.
There are obviously more issues with MTLA implementation but I believe the takeaway lesson should be clear at this point.  Even something as straightforward as planting trees can be a very complicated process with numerous moving parts and key players.  When all of these problems are combined, significant implementation barriers can be created.  These barriers are much less likely to be spotted and dealt with if the observer assumes simplicity.

When trying to understand a problem, don't be arrogant (or lazy) and assume you know more than you actually do.  Reality is often a lot more complicated and you should have the humility to acknowledge the gaps in your knowledge.  A proper understanding of most topics often involves thorough research and investigation.  Unfortunately, most individuals are too proud to admit their ignorance. Don't be one of these people.

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