Those Who Cannot Find the Past…

or, rather: Those Who Cannot Remember Find the Past…

by Keith Knapp, SF2012

Along with my fellow fellows Shaibya Dalal, Carla Hansen and Janice Levy, I’m currently working on a small team project seeking to push forward the vision of San Francisco as a living laboratory for testing of innovative clean energy solutions – aka SF as a “Green Test Bed.” This concept, which we have affectionately termed GTB to share in the City & County’s unspoken commitment to acronymization at every opportunity, is set forth in San Francisco Public Utilities Commisssion’s (SF PUC) 2011 Updated Energy Resource Plan. GTB has received attention in this blog previously from Whitney Ramos (SF 2011) and Shaibya will be covering the project in much greater detail in an upcoming blog post, so I’m not going to delve deeper into detail here – if you want to know more about the GTB project and our group’s involvement, stay tuned for Shaibya’s upcoming “Cutting through” debut.

What I DO want to discuss is an issue that has
come to my attention during our preliminary research stage – a particular issue
which creates major inefficiencies in efforts like ours. Like every great
municipal initiative, the GTB implementation effort starts with research. Step
1: a group of entry-level workers (us) understanding the concept and its
various components. From there, we sought the case studies which form
the foundation of our research. In the ideal situation, our identified case study materials provide us
with valuable contact information for individuals/organizations involved
in planning, implementing and analyzing said projects. From these contacts
we are able to extract individual lessons learned, which we aggregate into
best practices. You know the drill.

Our group just wrapped up this tried-and-true process. After we have moved on, other groups in other cities will do the same regarding the
same topic. Our efforts will exist in isolation, with every subsequent group
starting from 0 and relying on Google to pull in the same results that our
group found and distilled previously. In sum, by relying on a
variety of electronic resources which tend to treat cases
discretely, we’ve created a confusing patchwork quilt of recent history which
we then rely on to provide the foundation for further work on the
project. If we want to encourage our municipalities to take on large
projects with the expectation of succeeding, we must improve our methodology
for building this foundation. I propose an authoritative database for case
studies, key contacts and lessons learned.

I’ll acknowledge that case study databases do exist, but they are by no means holistic or reliable. Most of the time, they focus on an
issue – say GTBs or Safe Routes to Schools, for example – and will provide
success stories rather than the whole spectrum of outcomes. In many cases,
tales of failure or misunderstanding of an issue can be just as valuable to
early stage research. An online database where a City employee, or even an
engaged citizen, can find the GTB folder and see a consistently-updated
spreadsheet of projects sortable by location program, program initiation date,
etc. would be a major step in the direction of reducing barriers to getting
projects off the ground and helping build the strong foundation which leads to
rapid completion of successful projects.

The title of this post is inspired by a well-known quote of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the
past are condemned to repeat it.” The little-known antecedent to this quote is
“when experience is not retained…infancy is perpetual.” It’s time for cities to
fully recognize the instant interconnectivity that the last couple decades of
technological progress have produced as a platform for enhanced collaboration
and inter-reliance and produce a comprehensive case study directory to build
the strong foundation of ever-larger municipal projects.

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