The Streetlight Effect
STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul C. Villarete (The Freeman) - September 3, 2019 - 12:00am

“A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, ‘this is where the light is’.”

This anecdote, more often taken as humor, was first attributed to Nasreddin Hodja, who lived in the 13th century in present-day Turkey. Others call it a metaphor for knowledge and ignorance. But funny as it seems, many people, and institutions are actually acting in a similar manner, even historians and scientists. And governments. Others have argued that we tend to gravitate towards it simply because there is no other choice. If we are faced with a question where there is no data available, but there are lots of data in another field, we tend to justify using the other field’s data.

In real life, governments have the tendency to be just like that – a drunk who looks for his lost key, not where he lost them in the dark, but under an available light. And this is particularly common in the case of public infrastructure. The best example I can think of are school buildings, the primary requirement of which is – the availability of land. So, while the sensible plan is to place school buildings, especially public and elementary and secondary ones, nearest where the dense residential areas are, we have situations where these are placed far away, necessitating children to commute and face risks.

There are legitimate reasons, of course – dark areas where we can’t do anything or we have no other choice. The terrain of the area might be inaccessible or even dangerous. Thus, we locate school buildings elsewhere safe and sound. But more often than not, the main reason why we locate them in far places is because there is no available government land near where we live. Or there are but the land prices are astronomical. This argument is almost always associated with absence or lack of budget.

There are other examples but the other prominent one is locating transport infrastructure and or their alignments. More often than not, we refrain from widening streets because land is expensive in already built-up places, and build new streets where land is available and cheap. But we forget that transportation is a function of where the people live and where they work, and what is the fastest (more often the shortest distance) route between them. We tend to build where it seems the easiest for us to build and not what benefits most, the people we build them for. A corollary to this phenomenon is the “user experience” principle where designers build path yet the users create and use another more convenient for them. But in the case of big infrastructure, users can’t create, and ultimately suffers under the streetlight. (To be continued)

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