Redefining Value and Productivity

At one of our regular Thursday seminars earlier this year, the speaker repeated what we have often heard more casually: the productivity of an academic worker goes down when assigned administrative tasks; administration is not productive work.

Remarks to that effect pass for platitudes, seldom Flickr / E.Weaverquestioned. Yet, if one dispenses with prejudiced frames for a moment and gives it a second deliberate thought, it should seem a paradox. Administration is not productive work? Why ever not? The answer lies in the definition of what is being produced. The seminar speaker implied an assumption. That particular piece of research was concerned with producing new knowledge – publishing. Naturally, administration of taught programmes adds little to research output and the assumption is quite valid.

If we look at academia more broadly, however, the product can be variously defined. Here at our institute, we offer graduate programmes. That is the other product, aside from research. The fiddly business of concatenating appropriate metrics for the combined product stream is a different matter. But if we were to acknowledge that the taught part of our product catalogue is a ‘well-administered graduate programme’, suddenly the very definition of the product deems administration a core productive activity.

That is not to make a point exclusively about what we value in academia, although the above is hardly a trivial point. There is a larger discussion. Assessing productivity has much to do with how products are defined. And defining products has to do with value propositions.

Take cars. (What else? Indeed, nothing is more Flickr / R.Zymurgysymbolic of the old economic paradigm. But this is to connect to words of a promising young scientist I have closely followed for a while. He uses the example of cars. And it ties in nicely with the last two posts on this blog.) You leave home every day at 0830, arrive at office 0850 and park your car. Your neighbour leaves at 0910, arrives 0925, and parks. Your colleague has a lunch appointment at a hotel near your house, leaves 1225, arrives 1245, parks. All the cars parked for hours do not provide anyone with any value. Usually, they are just taking up precious space, arguably a drain on the economy if anything.

In a more wired world, where sensors at home and office and in phones and vehicles could coordinate and synchronize it all for us beautifully, we could share cars. Fewer cars would need to be produced to give equivalent or greater value. Why then be in the business of selling cars? Why not be in the business of selling person-kilometres? At my old institute (IIIEE at Lund University), we were accustomed to asking questions of that sort. At my current institute (UNU at Maastricht), would we not want to accordingly recalibrate the study of productivity?

We are nearly there – a world where less is more, a world with a more sustainable economic engine. We ought to redefine value propositions, products, productivity, and yes, our bread-winning term for the creation of new value – innovation.

by Sachin Kumar BADKAS, PhD fellow, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. Images: Flickr / E.Weaver / R.Zymurgy


The Mythical City of Curitiba: Still a Model of Sustainability?

Curitiba, the capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná, remains in the minds of many as the great Latin American triumph in urban sustainability. Although these types of city brands are hard to attain, they can easily be lost.

There are many reasons why Curitiba Flickr / Mathieu Struckbecame recognized as the world’s most sustainable regional capital. Firstly, the urban revolution in the city started around the mid 1960s with a plan that sought to encourage urban growth corridors along mass transit routes. The plan emerged under the military dictatorship, and was effectively rolled out – and respected – until the late 1990s.

The continuity in public policy implementation owes much to the fact that the same political group remained in power for so long; a group that shared the ideas of the legendary planner/politician Jaime Lerner. Thus, Curitiba achieved the still remarkable 54m² of green space per capita, collected 100% of door-to-door recyclable waste, and introduced the famous bendy buses that years later inspired the Bogotá Transmilenio.

Nowadays though, any foreign visitor to the city must wonder Flickr / M.Struckwhether the famous sustainability postcard remains the reality for Curitiba. The first impression when walking its streets is the outrageous number of cars, which have gone clearly exceeded the capacity of the roads. Today, Curitiba has the highest number of cars per capita in Brazil: one for every 1.4 inhabitants! The few bicycles roaming the streets have no choice but to use the restricted network of bike paths, originally designed to only connect the parks.

The famous tube stations and bendy buses are now overwhelmed by the sheer number of people moving en masse from the 13 surrounding municipalities to the city Flickr / Mathieu Struckcentre. Obviously, thefts are as frequent as in the subways of Paris or New York, and the lack of comfort – which has become the norm in URBS-administered public transport – succeeds in alienating car drivers.

Although the density and good maintenance of green areas are truly unparalleled in Latin America, challenges are increasing. Experts at the Catholic University of Paraná tell me that about 60,000 people in inner Curitiba lack access to the sewerage system (partly due to political infighting between various layers of government). Meanwhile experts from the city’s famous urban planning agency (the IPPUC) anonymously tell me that a decade ago local politicians dropped long-term urban planning, in favour of profit making from short-term elections. Meanwhile, rapid population growth in the metropolitan area of Curitiba only guarantees more chaos in the future.

Despite these problems, the city remains beautiful. It exhibits the characteristic incoherent order of many Latin American cities, featuring eclectic façades filled with long blocks of workshops, training agencies for models, and traditional bakeries, alongside banks with modern marble floors. Often, pavements are overrun by the roots of the araucária tree (fully protected against any logging), while the streets are covered with yellow and pink flowers that fall from the ubiquitous ipê trees. Unfortunately, this pedestrian space is also infested by parked cars, and drivers that leave their buildings as if they never imagined that a pedestrian would cross their path; a characteristic lack of civic culture that is commonplace in this continent.

While feasting on a feijoada – a local dish of stewed beans, beef and pork – I could not help but notice that a large number of candidates for the local October elections have taken the bicycle as banner campaigns. So the trusty bike rejoins the political scene amid talk of the rising price of gasoline and copious congestion. Could this be a way to revive the prestige of this wonderful city?

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 13 August 2012. Images: Flickr / Mathieu Struck / Carlos Cadena Gaitán. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.