City Government Against the Wisdom of Crowds
In college, our civil engineering professor opened his first class with an anecdote. According to the story, a bunch of engineers were planning trail paths at a newly built campus in city X. There was a large set of lawns on campus. Instead of building sophisticated simulation models to find optimal trails, the engineers did not pave trails for the first couple months. During these months people walked on certain paths on the lawns enough to cut natural trails through the grass. Eventually, the engineers simply paved those trails. The story concludes that the paths turned out to actually be the optimal trails.
In the modern Web 2.0 world we would inevitably call this story a blazing example of the “wisdom of crowds”. Back then, however, James Surowiecki had not yet written his famous essay, so the story was told to us as simply a great example of a common-sense approach.
Fast forward many years. Washington, DC has a park with a round-shaped lawn across the street from my office. Since my garage is on the other side, I have to pass it every day. There was a well-defined, natural trail across the lawn. Two days ago I saw a bunch of uniform, city-employees hovering over the lawn. My unconcerned thought was that they were doing some kind of cleaning or maintenance. How wrong was I! Only when they were done did we, the innocent users of the path, find out that these clowns were actually removing the path and “healing” the lawn.
Now, seriously, maybe the idea was a novelty in the 1970s, but who goes against the wisdom of crowds in the 21st century?