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The pitfall of simple decisions

The temptation to make seemingly simple and powerful decisions will eventually turn against the decision maker. It is a myth that complex social issues can be readily resolved as long as there is someone who creates order.

This is the assertion of Lasse Gerrits in his dissertation The Gentle Art of Coevolution, in which he investigated the decision-making concerning the expansion of the Hamburg and Antwerp ports. Simplification tends to exacerbate rather reduce problems.

For his research, Gerrits reconstructed the decision-making process around the expansion of the ports of Hamburg and Antwerp. In that regard, he investigated the manner in which the decisions about deepening the waterways were reached. Port authorities are constantly seeking ways of expanding the capacity of their port in an effort to retain their position on the international scene. Expansion-related decisions need to be taken quickly, and all factors that are felt to be interfering are kept outside of decision-making process as much as possible. However, port developments also touch on complex environmental and social issues.

The reconstruction showed that this exclusion of interfering factors would, in fact, lead to greater physical and social problems, or the threat of these, such as water level changes and social protest. This puts even greater pressure on those taking the decision, and makes it even more tempting to further simplify the decision-making process. After all, if the problems are considerable, one does not want to be distracted by ‘noise' such as complaining citizens and environmental groups. Politicians and officials try to focus their efforts on the core of the problem. However, these kinds of complex problems can rarely be stripped down to a single core. If the decision makers concentrate on one aspect, they often forget about other, equally important, factors. This simplification of the decision-making process is counterproductive.

The study showed that this actually causes problems to escalate instead of being resolved. Physical problems with rivers and social unrest continue to exist or are even amplified, because they remain excluded from the decision-making process. These types of problems also occur where other spatial issues are concerned. Politicians and officials should therefore not allow themselves to be tempted by the pretence of simplicity, according to Gerrits. Complex issues demand complex decision-making and not forced simplification.

Yvette Nelen | alfa
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