>What China’s Bullet Trains Can Teach Us About Governance

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One of the foundations of this great country is that we believe in respecting the rights of the individual. This belief is founded on the Judeo-Christian doctrine that every life is valuable and the loss of even one life is like the loss of an entire world.

The rights of the individuals are enshrined in the Bill of Rights that establishes what we consider our fundamental human rights, such as freedom of speech, press, religion, due process, eminent domain, and many others.

The flip side of the protection of individual rights—which is sacred to us—is that it may occasionally come at some “expense” to the collective. This can occur when those individuals who may be adversely affected by a decision, hinder overall societal progress. For example, one could argue that society benefits from the building of highways, clean energy nuclear plants, even prison facilities. Yet, we frequently hear the refrain of “not in my backyard” when these projects are under consideration.

In my neighborhood, where a new train line is proposed, there are signs up and down the street, of people adversely affected, opposing it—whether in the end it is good, bad or indifferent for the community as a whole.

So on one hand we have the rights and valid concerns of the individual, yet on the other hand, we have the progress of the collective. Sure, there are ways to compensate those individuals who are adversely affected by group decisions, but the sheer process of debate—however valuable and justified, indeed—may slow the overall speed of progress down.

Why is this an especially critical issue now?

In a high speed networked world with vast global competition—nation versus nation, corporation versus corporation—speed to market can make a great deal of difference. For example, the speed of the U.S. in the arms and space race with Soviet Union left just one global superpower standing. Similarly, many companies and in fact whole industries have been shut down because they have been overtaken, leapfrogged by the competition. So speed and innovation does matter.

For example, in the field of information technology, where Moore’s Law dictates a new generation of technology every two years of so, the balance of speed to modernization with a foundation of sound IT governance is critical to how we must do business.

Fortune Magazine has an article called “China’s Amazing New Bullet Train (it leaves America in the Dust!)”

China’s new ultra-modern rail system will be almost 16,000 miles of new track running train at up to 220 miles per hours by 2020. China is investing their economic stimulus package of $585 billion strategically with $50 billion going this year alone to the rail system. This compares with the U.S. allocating only $8 billion for high-speed trains over the next three years. Note: that the high speed Amtrak Acela train between Boston and Washington, DC goes a whopping average speed of 79 mph.

One of the reasons that China’s free market is credited with amazing economic progress—for example, GDP growth this year projected at 8.3% (in the global recession)—is their ability to retain some elements of what the military calls a “command and control” structure. This enables decisions to get made and executed more quickly than what others may consider endless rounds of discourse. The down side of course is that without adequate and proper discussion and debate, poor decisions can get made and executed, and individuals’ human rights can get overlooked and in fact sidelined. (Remember the shoddy school construction that resulted in almost 7000 classrooms getting destroyed and many children dying in the Earthquake in China in May 2008?)

So the question is how do we protect the individual and at the same time keep pace—and where possible, maintain or advance our societal strategic competitive advantage?

It seems that there is a cost to moving too slowly in terms of our ability to compete in a timely fashion. Yet, there is also a cost to moving too quickly and making poorly vetted decisions that do not take into account all the facts or all the people affected. Either extreme can hurt us.

What is important is that we govern with true openness, provide justice for all affected, and maintain a process that helps—and does not hinder—timely decisions action.

We cannot afford to make poor decisions—these are expensive—nor do we have the luxury of getting caught up in “analysis paralysis.”

Of course, there are many ways to approach this. One way is to continue to refine our governance processes so that they are just to the individual and agile for our society by continuing to simplify and streamline the decision process, while ensuring that everyone is heard and accounted for. Recently we have seen the use of new information sharing and collaboration technologies, like those provided through social media—wikis, blogs, social networks and more—that can help us to do exchange ideas and work together faster than ever before. Embracing these new technologies can help us to pick up the pace of the vetting process while at the same time enabling more people than ever to participate.

Perhaps social media is one of the only things faster than China’s new bullet trains in helping us to progress how we do business in the 21st century.

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