We should learn more like CSI

If a massive traffic accident involving dozens of cars kills, maims, injures hundreds of people, there would be a serious inquiry into why it happened, what can be done about it, and maybe even prosecutions laid if someone fell asleep at the wheel or failed to take due diligence.

Why is it that we have no similar response the world’s biggest economic meltdown?

Reading this you are likely a middle class professional much like me. I’ll admit as much as the next reader, life is pretty darn good in Canada. I didn’t buy into the sub prime mortgage, my portfolio is back up, retail spending is back up, so what is there to worry about? What is to worry about is that the systemic issues that caused the original crash hasn’t been fixed and the people and companies responsible for it have not been held to account.

When an airplane crashes, the airline industry doesn’t just say this component failed or scapegoat the pilot. They look at what made the error possible to begin with. Was it the positioning of the landing gear switch next to the flap controls? Was it the language barrier between the control tower and international flight? They take a deep look at it because otherwise there’d be more plane crashes over time.

When it comes to the economy we want to look for the simple proximate answer. Somebody bought a loan they couldn’t repay. Ha! Dumb person for trusting the banks. The fact that many of these investment banks knowingly exploited, lied, repackaged those assets, bet against it, sold it around the world and made billions doing it is ignored. In this situation, you arrest the con man, not the victim.

Jeffery Sachs, a renown economist, in the following video describes the systemic problem with the global economy today. What’s ironic is that

in the following video says, “It’s not a free market; it’s a game” and a rigged one at that.


Even if you only follow the cursory headline news, you’d know that banks like Goldman Sachs were bailed out with billions or dollars of tax money all while paying themselves handsome bonuses and lobbying against any form of regulation that would restrict their profligate spending.

But a few things get in the way of understanding. First, it’s hard to hear the reality when our portfolio, our retirement savings, our investments depend on the success of the current system. That trillions of dollars evaporated during the financial crisis because most of the wealth “created” was phantom wealth is of no concern to us… as long as we get our returns.

Second, those that make billions have a vested interested in fighting any sort of regulation or control. Any responsible regulatory measure is fought because it’s against the “free-market” or it’s all about “government interference.” There is nothing “free” or fair in letting the elite players set the rules of the games. And a nation without a government is… well likely to be taken over my private, corporate interests. Hardly the American Dream. Unfortunately, while no one has an interest in letting traffic accidents happen, lots of keen individuals have an interest in keeping the money flowing to the top.

Perhaps the most insidious barrier to understanding would be our tendency to react to the words and not their meaning or implication. The knee-jerk reaction in the States to taxation or regulatory control is often accusations of being communist or anti-free-market. Invoke those words, and you stir the passions of an ideology without any investigation into what they mean and if they are in fact served by those who profess it.

The antidote? I think we should be more like CSI but in life. It’s not that I think we can solve cases in a single day (or look so good doing it). However, I do think the ability to investigate the case, put together the pieces, test stories and theories against evidence despite people actively trying to confuse or delude you… it’s a useful skill.

And we can’t afford not to be curious, not to question our assumptions, or challenge those with formal authority and power. Otherwise, they will be happy to structure our assumptions for us.

Are we financially illiterate?

In this video interview, Jeff O’Rourke points to a statistic from the Payroll Association indicating that “60% of Canadians would have financial difficulties if their paycheque was delayed by one week.” Although the conversation was about financial literacy for low income earners, this stat seems to indicate that Canadians of all income levels could benefit from learning how to manage money.

I’ll let Jeff explain his perspective here:

One point he made that didn’t make this cut was one about how we don’t equip university students to learn how to use credit cards. Furthermore it doesn’t help that credit card companies promote credit cards as if they were giving you money.

I was lucky in that I just followed my parent’s cardinal rule of always paying off the credit card every month. However, I didn’t really understand how loans and interest worked until much later in life.

But isn’t this financial literacy problem a symptom of a much larger problem? Which is that our economic structure is based on spending and debt-financing. Isn’t there an inherent motivation to get people to take out loans and spend with the assumption being that people can pay off the loans with interest?

In a way, it’s kind of like our schooling system. In school, we learn how to conform and obey authority. In economics, we learn how to consume and salivate at the latest product.

Maybe we’re not financially illiterate. Maybe we’re doing exactly what we’ve been trained to do. Now that’s a scary thought.

Influencing Nenshi

Wow, I influenced Nenshi’s thinking in a big way. Well, okay it was me and many other voices and cultural assets, but I was a part of it.

While videotaping Nenshi talking at the EPCOR centre about livable cities, I confirmed a rarely acknowledged fact: leadership is not one person; it is an ecology of influences. To hear my mayor talk intelligently about transit oriented land development and community development is a big step up for Calgary and a long time coming.

Ten years ago I was part a non-partisan policy group called Canada25 looking into what made cities great. Naheed was the lead editor and I was part of an urban design research team. You can find the paper (and my name among others) here. Much of the policies you hear from Nenshi today can be traced directly back to some of the research we did.

But of course, it’d be facetious not to recognize where our urban design group drew their thinking from. And that person is none other than Jane Jacobs, the person with no formal training that revolutionized the urban design discipline. It was her keen sense of observation and sensitivity to human relationships that allowed her to figure out how urban spaces affected the health of a community.

It is through her work decades ago that we are now able to find some expression of it through Nenshi as Calgary’s mayor. However, our small urban design group played a critical part in refreshing Jane Jacob’s leading edge work for our context. Ideas do create change; they just take a long time to find good soil to grow in.

There is a significant hazard in all this though. The lessons that gets passed on may be the wrong ones. What made Jane Jacobs’ ideas powerful is not so much the ideas (having pedestrian walking areas or having lots of transit) but the way in which she understood how urban design works. Slavishly copying the specifics of her ideas misses the point of what it takes to build a sustainable community.

Sidebar: This is part of a more general problem of our tendency to see a solution that works in one context, import it without alteration into our context, find that it doesn’t work and then dismissing the person who created the solution.

Nevertheless, I find it tremendously hopeful that good ideals can work. It just takes a long time and takes a lot of people working on it.

Youth Interviewing the Real World

We are six weeks into our Reel World Youth project where we are teaching kids how to create mini video documentaries as a way to learn about the world around them. And what a learning it has been to try to coordinate twenty teams of grade eight girls to research their story, come up with a story line, book interviews, and edit it all together. Once completed (or not), these films will be showcased at a film festival on December 1st for friends and family to share in the students’ learning.

It’s important to note that this course is not a separate after school program. Rather Reel World Youth is meant to be integrated (and encourage integration) with curriculum across subject areas. Too often school subjects are separated into silos of meaning that aren’t connected with each other or the real world.

My aspiration is not to run a movie-making course, but to use movie-making as a conduit for learning. Researching a topic and coming up with a hypothesis for the story, learning about story structures, approaching adults and asking questions, making meaning of the answers are all relevant life skills… if they can be connected to life. And I do hope that the students feel they can look at real issues of the world and do something about them.

You can track our progress via my other blog on Hidden Story Productions. Here are a few recent posts:

I want to give a special thanks to to Awesome Calgary and the Calgary Foundation for providing some seed funding for the equipment. And many, many thanks and accolades to my partner in the classroom, Kate MacKenzie from the Alice Jamieson Girls’ Academy, who has been absolutely astounding at taking care of the nightmarish logistical details of institutional proportions, managing classrooms full of young teenagers, and constantly finding teachable moments in everything we do.

Meet the Human Race

This is quite possibly the most important video I have cut together to date. Not because I shot it. In fact, I’ve taken liberally from HOME, Journey of Man, and Short History of Progress.

It’s important not because the ideas are original. They are drawn from Leadership Calgary and from the work of the Action Studies Institute.

It’s important because it’s a vivid reminder to me every day that I am part of the human race whose history is my history, and whose journey is also my adventure.

I use to think my history was tied to who my grandparents were or where I was born. As it turns out, that is only a tiny part of my ancestry.

I used to just assume I was a global citizen perhaps because I’m part of that “new generation”. In reality, scientifically, historically, pragmatically we must learn to become global citizens.

And so this video is in a way an introduction to the human race and the situation we find ourselves in and the need to move forward.

I’d much enjoy hearing your response to it.