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The Fence Paradox

The Fence Paradox

| On 24, May 2018

Darrell Mann

The Fence Paradox: the safer the (human-built) world tries to make itself, the more dangerous it becomes. It’s a tough problem that seems to be getting tougher. It’s a problem that, when mapped into Systematic Innovation terms, looks something like this:

Figure 1: The Fence Paradox 

We need fences and we don’t need fences.

A classic physical contradiction. And also an intriguing set of conflict pairs and underlying assumptions. The picture might, for example, cause us to question the assumption that fences ever make us safe.

Here’s what comes out when we map the Figure 1 story into the Matrix+ software:

 Figure 2: How Others Have Resolved The Fence Paradox  

In many ways, the main job of the Matrix is to provide some re-assurance that someone, somewhere already solved our problem. According to the picture, the most frequently used strategy is to provide people with feedback: tell me when the fence is safe and when it isn’t. Tell me when I’ve become too complacent about the risks that surround me.

Better still, looking at the second recommendation on the Figure 2 list, put in place fences that encourage me to take responsibility for my own safety. We can see an elegant example of this kind of strategy in action in an oft-told Edward deBono story about legislation to reduce river pollution. When the legislation was proving ineffective, Edward de Bono was approached. He suggested a new piece of legislation: that a factory’s outlet pipe must be upstream from its inlet pipe. Monitoring factory output became less important, because the factories themselves now had a vested interest in reducing pollution.

And if that doesn’t work, looking at the third recommendation on the list, why not scare people into being aware of the risks they face by deliberately exposing them to at least the perception of that risk upfront. We’ve seen examples of this one being solved in problems like railway level-crossings, where – it seems – the only way to stop drivers and pedestrians from trying to use the crossing even though the gates are closed and the lights are telling them there’s a train coming is to basically tricking them into thinking they’re in danger, even though in reality they’re not.

So much for the fence problem.

Maybe in reality the fence problem isn’t the real problem at all?

Maybe the bigger problem is the legislators that design the fences. Or rather the systems they have to operate within, which increasingly make it ‘impossible’ to allow falure. Their contradiction story, I think, looks more like this:

Figure 3: Legislators Perspective On The Fence Paradox

This gives us a contradiction story much more dominated by ‘intangible’ factors relating to human emotion. Right at its heart, Figure 3 tells us we have a plausible-deniability-versus-learned-helplessness conflict. A tricky one to solve if only because it’s a difficult pair of parameters to map onto any of the Contradiction Matrix tools. Fortunately (J), the imminent new version of the Business Matrix has accumulated a large enough mass of intangible-contradiction-solving case success stories that we can do a much better job of mapping the problem. In terms of the 14 added parameters in the new Matrix, the problem is an ‘Inhibitors’ versus ‘Competence’ conflict. And what the new Matrix tells us about how others have solved this type of problem, is that they’ve used the following Inventive Principles:

2, 34, 24, 31, 7, 13, 12

These solution clues I think, help point us towards a universal human failing and how to turn it into a resource rather than a problem. The failing is that we are creative animals. Which means that no sooner does someone put up a fence, the person who the fence is designed to protect, finds ways to work around the new problems it inevitably creates. People learn to game the system. The only uncertainty is how quickly will they work out how to game it. Let’s call it the Fence Paradox Half-Life – the time taken for a critical mass of the people the fence is designed to protect work out how to work around the inconveniences that come with it.

The Cobra Effect offers up an intriguing illustration of what this ‘half-life’ might look like. The Cobra Effect stems from an anecdote set at the time of British rule of colonial India. The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. The government therefore offered a bounty for every dead cobra (‘the fence’). Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse.

In effect the half-life in this Cobra story could be thought of as the gestation period of pregnant cobras. Which turns out to be about 60 days.

Which in turn suggests that a far better legislator strategy might well have been to announce a bounty on dead cobras for the next two-months only….

After which, the half-life now being expired, there would be a need for the design and implementation of the next fence. And then the next one.

In other words, the legislator fallacy here is the erroneous belief that there will ever be such a thing as ‘the’ answer.

Even Edward deBono’s beautiful ‘put the inlet downstream of the outlet’ self-correcting solution will eventually be gamed.

What Inventive Principles 34 (‘Discard & Recover’) and 24 (24B – ‘introduce an intermediary that may be temporary’) are trying to tell us is that the there is no such thing as ‘the’ fence. Merely the next fence… that will be valid only so long as a critical mass of creative humans work out how to break it.