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Corvus Blog Post

Getting to ‘No, but …’

The key to innovation is how we say ‘no’

“The development and industrial players are just looking for certainty.”

Anyone who has worked to make a case for protection of natural systems has heard this at some point. I always wonder what would happen if a municipal council, environmental review board, government regulator, etc. ever replied, “Oh! Well in that case … no.”

I have never had more certainty in my life than the times my mother said “no” to me. I wasn’t happy, but boy, was I ever certain about how things were going to transpire.

I actually think the cry for certainty is about 50% disingenuous and 50% genuine.

The disingenuous part is that ‘yes’ is the only truly acceptable answer, regardless of certainty. The genuine part is that making development, siting, investment, and long-term planning decisions in the face of uncertainty is expensive and can mean projects are derailed because of waffling rather than the substantive nature of the project.

But that’s the key – the problem is generally more related to the waffling. The worst answer – for all involved (except maybe the consultants and lawyers) – is ‘maybe’.

My research in the field of conservation policy has led me to believe the best answer – again, for everyone involved – is “No, but …”. I’m also increasingly coming to see that as the only answer that leads to innovation.

Let me explain with a couple of examples.

The Mythical New York City Example

Most people who have worked at the intersection of nature conservation and infrastructure development are familiar with the example of New York City’s water treatment approach.

The simple version of this story is that NYC did the math on their water treatment costs and found out that they could save billions (literally) by conserving land upstream and paying landowners there to ensure pollutant levels were decreased at the source. By the time the water arrived downstream in the city, treatment was a snap, delivered at a bargain.

The full story, of course, is more complex, but that basic thread is more or less true. One critical – often missing – piece is that NYC’s water treatment was abysmal at the time, consisting in places of little more than a grate to catch dead fish. That’s important to know for those hoping to transplant this model to cities with high-end tertiary water treatment technology – in other words, the math might be different.

The piece of that story I think is most important – and often missing in the shorter story – is the role of the U.S. federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It turns out it was less of a philanthropic epiphany in the NYC offices, and more a crushing new EPA regulation on the level of treatment required for surface water withdrawals. The $9 billion price tag was not theoretical; it was the City’s calculation of what it would take to meet the new regulation.

‘Innovation’ was no longer a nice-to-have, but the only viable route to lowering that bill. Although it was not fast, the glacial-bureaucratic timelines usually associated with ‘theoretical’ programs were not the norm here. It actually took NYC a couple of pitches to get the EPA on side, and for much of the time, they were under a temporary approval permit.

Imagine how much innovation would have happened if the EPA had given NYC a pass when they originally complained. Or if they had said, “well, maybe …”

(btw, for the clearest recounting of this story I have ever seen, go to “New York: How to Put a Watershed to Work” in The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable by Gretchen Daily and Katherine Ellison)

Transfer of Development Credits (TDC) Programs

A few years back, my colleague, Kim Good, and I travelled to Colorado and Maryland to visit some of their successful Transfer of Development Rights programs (called Transfer of Development Credits – or TDC – programs in Canada).

A TDC program is a municipal planning tool that helps the local government reconcile their conservation and their development goals. The municipality starts by identifying lands which they don’t want converted to another use (natural areas, agricultural lands, scenic vistas) as well as lands which are appropriate for ‘bonus’ development (beyond the current zoning limits).

‘Credits’ are given to landowners in the ‘Conservation Zones’, which builders in the ‘Development Zone’ can then purchase to qualify for bonus development after placing a conservation easement on the conservation parcel. The result is financial gain for developing, and financial gain for conserving.

Pretty cool tool.

These programs have been around in the U.S. for decades, so we wanted to go chat to the people involved in the most successful ones. We talked to planners, developers, conservation groups, agriculture groups, lawyers, real estate agents, brokers, and landowners.

All the programs were different – different goals, activities, structures, prices, etc.. – but one characteristic of success kept popping up over and over.

When asked what made programs successful, replies started with suggestions that the core was ‘stability’ and ‘constancy’ and various other analogues for ‘certainty.’ That was usually followed by a long list of program changes participants wanted. Generally proposed by the developers. Often in the same meetings that had started with a prayer to the god of certainty.

No, the success factor that arose repeatedly was not certainty. It was the willingness of the local council to say, ‘no’ to developments. To be clear, these same councils regularly said, ‘yes’, so it wasn’t that they always said ‘no’ – it was that they were willing to say, ‘no.’

When we followed this up, all participants agreed that if the council was wishy-washy, or was likely to change their mind at the next meeting, there was no incentive to try something different (lobbying and waiting were the key strategies). Buying credits and placing easements to get increased development opportunities is a lot of work, but if it was the only way you could get that additional development, it got used.

The ‘Nice Guy’ Layer

A municipal planner I worked with years ago explained this dynamic to me.

He said that the mapping layer he most wanted was the ‘Nice Guy Layer.’ I was confused.

He said his department would draft plans, do public engagement, hire consultants, run various drafts through the system, and ultimately have them approved by council as their marching orders.

Inevitably, when the plan was put to the test, and a proposal for development would come forward for an area that was not supposed to accept that land use, the same thing would happen. One councillor would say, “Well, [Joe Proponent] is a nice guy. His kids play hockey with mine, and he’s a volunteer firefighter …[etc.]” Heads around the table would nod, and the proposal would be approved.

My planner friend told me, “If we could just have a mapping layer of where all the ‘nice guys’ are, then we would know the places where the plan is going to be thrown in the garbage.”

Getting to “No, but …”

“No” gets people frustrated. There is a perception that ‘no’ creates a stop, halts progress. It creates an adversarial context. And in today’s world, that leads to picking sides and all sorts of position-based posturing. The argument quickly circles around ideologies rather than the proposal on the table.

More importantly, it can misrepresent the situation. A “no” is usually circumstantial, specific to certain elements. An adaptive approach can usually get around those.

What gets missed is how a “no” is usually what catalyzes innovation. Neither a “yes” (status quo) nor a “maybe” (wait/hope for the status quo) does that. Ironically, these can be the most wasteful answers as there is no incentive to move forward quickly or more efficiently.

A consistently-applied “No, but …” sends the message that while this is not a wholesale refusal, there is still a set of principles and guidelines that must be respected, so your route to a “yes” will require some novel thinking.


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