We all have them at some point. Some are more obviously bad than others. Some are more subtle in their badness (that is a word). But they’re still bad. Not wrong, per se; just bad.
The thought that inspired this post first came to me when I was at an interview a couple of weeks ago, and I was asked a question pertaining to my thesis. I touched on my thesis a few posts back – the highway proposal that bisects the Serengeti. I wanted to address this topic because I felt it would be a great way to synthesize my love of the African wild, with everything I’d learned in the architecture program. The problem was that the highway had the potential to disrupt the migration pattern of over a million wildebeest (one of the great wonders of the world), as well as a myriad zebras and other wildlife. So I thought: perhaps there’s a way to design a highway that would be environmentally friendly, and would still enable the transportation of goods from one end of the park to the other. It was a bad idea. Again, not wrong, per se; just bad.
Back to the interview. I was going on about the problems that would arise from paving the existing dirt road that runs through the Serengeti and turning it into a highway, and began to touch on why the highway should be elevated. In truth, the main reason paving the highway was an option that was being considered was that the road would make it easier to transport goods from one end of the park to the other, which would be a boon for businesses in the area. The alternative would be to go around the park (which is hundreds of kilometers), or to go through the park (which some businesses still do) albeit slowly, and on rough and unpredictable terrain. The difficulty of this option makes this an unpopular choice, which is great for the animals. As I was talking, one of the interviewers asked, ‘Why couldn’t they build an airport?’
I was silent. Oh my God, an airport.
For all the months I’d spent on this highway problem – I spent four – the idea of an airport had not come up. Not once. Not in discussions with peers. Not in discussions with my thesis adviser. No. One. Thought. Of. An Airport.
Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.
Or in this case, the trees for the forest.
The idea of building an airport – really, more like an air strip – outside the park bounds was genius in it’s simplicity and obviousness. Yet I was convinced that the problem was the road and therefore the solution too had to be the road, although built to be environmentally friendly – whatever that means. The problem was that with every thought I had, I would see a myriad other problems arise. I thought: maybe if we raised the highway, it wouldn’t be disruptive to the animals. By the way, that’s one of the solutions proposed by Richard Leakey: a famed scientist and conservationist. As it stands, if the existing road were to be paved and remain on grade, the traffic would pose a danger to the animals, and vice versa. So I thought: yeah. Let’s raise it.
Bad idea. Not wrong, per se; just bad.
The fact is, the construction of the road itself would be disruptive. If we were to build an elevated highway, there would need to be heavy machinery/equipment brought to the park. There would need to be accommodation for those building the highway. There would need to be constant trucking of materials. Large parts of the highway and park would be closed off for long stretches of time during construction and even maintenance. And the migration would be disrupted. Animals would die. And that defeats the entire purpose of raising the highway. Never mind the exorbitant costs.
I also began to think about how often we can get so lost in the intricacies of a problem that we lose sight of the bigger picture, and the myriad other (potentially better) solutions. I remember watching a video by Jeff Bezos in which he discussed how he was once packing boxes for shipping (you know, back when Amazon was a small company, such that the CEO would pack boxes), but he and his workers would have knee problems from packing the boxes while on their hands and knees on a concrete floor. That’s when he had an enlightened idea: ‘We need knee pads’.
One of his colleagues looked at him like he was the stupidest person he’d ever met (Bezos’ words).
‘What we need’ his colleague replied, ‘are packing tables.’
Here’s the thing about difficult problems. Sometimes, we’re just a little too close; a little to consumed. We either take one idea and latch on to it, trying so desperately to make it work – like I did, or we just simply fail to consider other options beyond our scope (some would call this thinking outside the box). So our solutions end up, well, bad. I take comfort in the fact that it can literally happen to the best of us.
So my thesis was kind of a bust. I eventually proposed something akin to a highway with program underneath (I thought that would help justify the highway, offset the cost, promote tourism in the region etc.) It was inspired by this idea of a bridge with program integrated below the structure. Even as I was presenting it, I knew it was a bad idea; a problem wrapped in a solution of multiple other problems. Because the truth was, I knew that building the highway through the Serengeti – no matter how beautiful, programmed, raised, or buried it was – was, and still is, a bad idea. But you know what would be so much easier, cheaper, and less invasive?