Don’t let the latest crisis stop you from following the trail that leads to what you really value
Yesterday’s walk was a two-pooper.
Of all the skills I thought I might develop in mid-life, anticipating the drop zone for my dog’s afternoon bowel movements was not on the list.
Yet, there I was, standing next to the tall grass at the entrance to my daughter’s former elementary school, compostable poop bag at the ready, watching Wesley hit his mark.
When he was done, I stooped, scooped, and we headed off across the parking lot toward the unmarked entrance of our favourite local wooded trail.
He likes it because of its cacophony of smells. I like it because there’s a garbage can at the halfway point and another near the soccer fields should he pop a second squat, which he often does.
One trail; multiple needs met.
That’s a successful piece of infrastructure at work.
I’ve been thinking a lot about trails and what they tell us about how we approach infrastructure challenges found within complex systems.
You’d think developing trails would be a relatively straightforward process. Who doesn’t like trails? It gets us outside, enjoying nature and most of the time it doesn’t cost us anything to get on one.
Trails are an example of infrastructure that can help address a myriad of underlying issues found in wicked problems.
The term, coined in the mid-1960s by design theorist Horst Rittel, refers to complex multidimensional problems found within systems. Wicked problems have several traits, but there’s one sure-fire way to know you’re dealing with one: it’s not self-contained. It always connects to other wicked problems.
For instance, reforming education isn’t just about figuring out how to pay trained professionals to teach kids stuff. To reform a school system, you need to account for economic and technological inequities, transportation challenges, immigrant integration, accessibility, and the anticipated needs of the workforce in 10-15 years during a period of rapid transition – and that’s all before any student enters the classroom.
Well-designed infrastructure helps address those interconnected problems because well-designed infrastructure is all about flow.
Specifically, infrastructure should enable the free flow of people and resources through and within systems.
Trails do that by getting people and pets moving, which can connect us with nature (environmental systems), reduce stress (workforce and family systems), keep us active (health and recreation systems) and get us where we need to go (transportation systems).
Considering all those benefits, you’d think building a network of trails would be easier than addressing something really complex, such as Canada’s decades-in-the-making housing crisis.
That’s precisely what I thought a year ago – and I was wrong.
In November 2022, I helped plan and co-host the first-ever Fundy Connects Summit as part of my work with the Rural Upper Fundy Partnership. It’s an initiative spearheaded by residents, non-profits and business owners who work and live in rural communities that hug the Bay of Fundy coastline in New Brunswick.
The Partnership’s goal is to facilitate community-led solutions to complex systemic challenges (wicked problems), and last year’s Summit was our first opportunity to bring people together to begin to address two of those long-standing issues.
One was housing, which operators had identified as the number one challenge to hiring and retaining staff, and the other was trails. Specifically, we wanted to figure out how to connect the existing bike and hiking trails, walking paths, and ATV routes in and between these little communities into a connected regional trail system.
The first problem is a national crisis, the second is a community desire – and therein lies the problem.
Almost a year to the day of that first conversation, we reconvened for our second Summit to report on the progress we’d made. On housing, we were able to present specific examples of local housing projects getting some attention, courtesy of a plethora of municipal, provincial and federal programs and initiatives.
Trails? While everyone agreed they appreciated the conversations and had enjoyed understanding different perspectives, there had been no improvement in speeding up permitting approvals or funding applications, so the dream of a regional trail system remained stuck.
As I learned over the past year, where we direct our attention matters, and when we hone in on crises, we risk failing to progress on the other stuff we value.