The United States will elect a new president this fall, at a time when many of the country’s citizens face difficult economic realities and when the world struggles to respond to unprecedented, significant environmental challenges. We live in a technologically advanced time which ought to be translating into transformative solutions to our challenges, yet our president and Congress seem fairly ineffective at problem-solving. I wonder if our leaders have the right skill-set? Rather than elect a president with a law degree, I think it would be better to elect an architect or designer.
I believe the problems we face as a nation will be better addressed by innovative leaders with a vision for redesigning our built environments and how we live. Simply making a law for things to cost less or be better is a very ineffective approach to meeting our needs. (I remember voters in California once voted for a ballot measure to make car insurance less expensive. Of course, it didn’t work. I am not sure why the voters thought it would!)
Of our last eight presidents (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama), half had law degrees (Nixon, Ford, Clinton, Obama). Lawmaking is definitely a key role of government. But systems change is about much more than laws and policies. I don’t think a legal background prepares politicians very well to lead a major transformative agenda for the nation.
A powerful example of what a bold and innovative design rather than a law-led politician can accomplish is found in Curitiba, Brazil. Curitiba is a city with 1.7-million residents and is located 250 miles southwest of Sao Paulo. Three decades ago, the federal government of Brazil offered the city funding to improve its public transportation. Rather than invest in heavy rail (which is 10 times more expensive than light rail), or invest in light rail (which is 10 times more expensive than a bus system), the mayor at the time developed an all-new public transit system called “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT).
The resulting system has become a model to other leaders around the world. Many politicians come to Curitiba to study the city’s groundbreaking public transit system. What few pay much attention to is the fact that the innovative mayor behind this BRT model (and all its success) is a mayor who is also an architect. His name is Jaime Lerner.
Mr. Lerner’s system is called Speedybus. He developed a bus system that looks and feels like the more expensive light rail. The buses all run on their own designated roadways (so they move quickly through the city). The tube-shaped bus shelters are elevated “platforms,” allowing riders to walk onto the bus like at a train station. Riders handle payments on the platform before entering the bus, so the buses do not need to wait for the riders to pay (as we do on virtually all the buses in the U.S.).
Mr. Lerner approached Volvo at the time, and was able to get the company to make 270-person articulated buses for his system. He contracted the operation of Speedybus to private companies, something few transit agencies in the world have yet to do.
As mayor of Curitiba, Mr. Lerner created a transformative solution to transportation challenges. He has offered the residents of his city an attractive option to car use (and ownership). He has allowed his citizens to spend less money to live well and to enjoy living in a city with far less traffic congestion. He has implemented a system with much less of a carbon footprint than other cities in Brazil (and around
A growing number of major automobile companies are talking of now becoming mobility companies. I encourage all of them to take this quote from Jaime Lerner to heart: “A mobility system is not only a system of transport, it’s the whole understanding of a city.”
You might say, “Oh, but this is fine for transportation systems—but running a country? Problem-solving in the economy or policing or education?” I believe a designer’s or architect’s way of thinking and approaching problem solving is relevant to any kind of systems change and I invite us to imagine what a president (who is also an architect or designer) could do to improve the quality of life in the U.S. (You can learn more about Mr. Lerner at www.JaimeLerner.com)