Doing It On Our Own…

Background Reading


Newcastle University professor Sugata Mitra won the 2013 TED Prize for his experiments in self-organized learning.

Newcastle University professor Sugata Mitra won the 2013 TED Prize for his experiments in self-organized learning.

(CNN) — What if everything you thought you knew about education was wrong?

What if students learn more quickly on their own, working in teams, than in a classroom with a teacher?

What if tests and discipline get in the way of the learning process rather than accelerate it?

Those are the questions Sugata Mitra has been asking since the late 1990s, and for which he was awarded the $1 million TED Prize in February at the TED2013 conference.

Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, won the prize for his concept of “self organized learning environments,” an alternative to traditional schooling that relies on empowering students to work together on computers with broadband access to solve their own problems, with adults intervening to provide encouragement and admiration, rather than top-down instruction.

Thinking Outside The Box

Dr. Sugata Mitra won the $1 million TED Prize by “thinking outside the box“. I am wondering of the Urban Cycling Community needs to get rid of its “top down” structure and launch a bit of “self organized learning” of its own. For some really odd reason movements around the world are almost always made to coalesce around a “fear of the other“. The Urban Cycling Movement is no different.

At present we have a fairly select bunch of “teachers” or “gurus” who jet around the world (as opposed to using a more sustainable form of transportation) to tell us (for a hefty chunk of change) how to design our streets to accommodate bicycles, pedestrians and automobiles simultaneously and then they jet home with cash on one hand and no formal responsibility on the other.

Like soldiers stationed in a war zone, they eventually leave with a large body count and some unrecognized progeny who spend the rest of their lives shunned by their countrymen because of their mixed racial backgrounds. Meanwhile the GIs are returned to their families and have gotten on with their lives without any regard to the aftermath of their moments of pleasure between battles.

What if the Cycling Community at-large just said the heck with “gurus” and their anal bike boxes, protected bike lanes and all the rest and struck out on their own to design something that actually worked? Would that be so bad? We get lanes built on our behalf that often do not work well in actual practice. That is often because the knucklehead who designed them is back in his home country preparing to jet off somewhere else and has not a care in the world, so long as he does not have to stay and work through the long hard process of vetting his design.

Meanwhile politicians and their lapdogs (cycling advocacy groups) tell each other that they understand how to make things better and off they run (with manual for infrastructure design in hand) and try to shoe-horn something into place that eventually is a working disaster. Some of the problem is that far too much attention is paid to the visual aids of lane design (color, stripes and bollards) while very little is paid to how the darned thing is going to be maintained during the long winters or scalding weather in a particular part of the world.

And almost always these knuckleheads come in with ideas that no one has “run past” the other two legs of the transportation stool (the pedestrians and the motorists) and so everyone ends up surprised and sometimes angry at the result.

Did not anyone in the bicycle world ever think that it might be far better to get the pedestrians and motorists to sit down at the table to discuss the design. Is it possible that these folks have ideas worthy of our attention?

My sense is cyclists have managed to get politicians to procure the monies to build infrastructure and have made every effort to get the infrastructure built “come hell or high water” with the idea that any input from outside the cycling community would only hinder progress. Can that be true? Generally when a food company has a product that they want to introduce to the public they get “taste testers” in to see what they like about the food. They have older, younger, female, male, ethnically diverse groups all see what they think. And after a bit of study they then reformulate the product and try it out all over again until they get more positives than negatives.

The Urban Cycling Movement has somehow managed to take the word of the food company (i.e. “gurus“) that their formulation is what will work because when they created this stuff some 50 years ago the folks in their country thought it was swell. But tastebuds change and people are perhaps more health conscious now or perhaps then and so these new formulations based loosely upon what really cannot be duplicated in the newer product is rammed through on the premise that if we do not get it to market tomorrow, it will never see the light of day.

If this were the federal government trying to sell us on something like pumping water under very high pressure into the ground to retrieve heretofore unrecovered gas and oil deposits, we would balk at their trying to pressure us into moving without more testing. So why do we blindly take the words of some guys who tell us that they love us and are looking out for our best interests and we need to build these lanes right now otherwise they might never get built? Did it not take several iterations in both Copenhagen and Amsterdam before they got things just so? Is not Munich going through that same iterative process even now? Why should we be any different?

You Can No More Build Infrastructure That Everyone Loves Than You Can Broker A Peace Without The Factions At The Table

Trying to do what we are doing is a bit arrogant because someone in the “top down hierarchy” has claimed the Divine Right to pronounce what is best for all concerned. We are not and have never been anything other than a Democracy. We need to tell the would be High Priests and Noblemen that we may have to get back to them.

Just like the peace in the Middle East you cannot broker a resolution to the violence unilaterally. Likewise you cannot decide how the roads will look without having pedestrians and motorists join in on the planning. If there is no input from them then you run the risk of having the kind of wild frustration with changes that pedestrians and motorists neither understand or feel comfortable with and that is a non-starter.

Cyclists understand the need to have input of their perspective in building infrastructure. They need to offer than same courtesy to their fellow transportation cohorts so that everyone is on the same page.