International Association for Impact Assessment

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

  • Guest post by Board member Eddie Smyth

    Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

    Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

    A one-year sabbatical from work to travel with my family meant missing IAIA19 in Brisbane but afforded me time to reflect more on our impact assessment practice. One interesting book I read on my break was Range–How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein[1]. Epstein challenges the 10,000-Hour Rule approach, championed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers[2], and advocates of tiger parenting, that success in life is all about specialization. Epstein believes that our greatest strength is the opposite of narrow specialization—the ability to integrate broadly.

    My speciality is the resettlement of communities impacted by large extractives and infrastructure projects. Resettlement is one of the most problematic areas for impact assessment professionals where every aspect of people’s well-being is impacted simultaneously, including their social supports, economic livelihoods, and environment. The overwhelming evidence is that resettlement continues to impoverish impacted communities on a grand scale around the world and can be considered to be a “wicked” problem[3], i.e., because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

    Epstein divides experts into two broad categories:  foxes and hedgehogs. He explains that beneath complexity, hedgehogs tend to see simple, deterministic rules of cause and effect framed by their area of expertise. Foxes see complexity in what others mistake for simple cause and effect and understand that most cause-and-effect relationships are probabilistic, not deterministic.

    On projects, I see the problems caused by experts viewing the world through the blinkers of their narrow specialization and developing plans that will not work out in practice. Resettlement is one of the specializations, with huge human rights impacts, that demands a holistic approach; however, this seldom happens in practice. Environmental and social specialists tend to work on sector-specific plans and there are rarely opportunities for everyone to be on site at the same time. How do we promote fox-like in tandem with the hedgehog-like specialization? Individually, some practitioners can become pracademics (someone who is both an academic and an active practitioner in their subject area) to develop academic writing and/or general guidance promoting improved impact assessment practice.  This is most useful when it is free to access. I am currently finalizing a PhD focused on improving “outcomes for people affected by resettlement” and I have developed a Social Framework for Projects[4] which seeks to put the well-being of people and the planet at the centre of all projects and encourages sector experts to work together to plan and implement complex projects.

    IAIA’s mission is “to provide the international forum for advancing innovation and communication of best practice in all forms of impact assessment.” We bring together sector specialists (hedgehogs) and impact assessment generalists (foxes) in order to promote a more holistic and integrated approach to addressing problems. The annual conference provides an opportunity for specialists to share experiences and ideas, make new friends and business partners. At IAIA20 in Seville, Spain, there will be a number of training courses (to be announced on the IAIA20 website[5] soon) on a wide range of impact assessment and management topics which will support more fox-like behaviours, as does IAIA’s journal, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal. We all start out a bit as hedgehogs and become more fox-like as our careers develop if we engage in what Epstein refers to as “science curiosity.”

    Good luck on your journey and I look forward to meeting some of you in Spain in 2020!

    Do you have thoughts after reading this post?  IAIA members, log in to join the discussion at IAIAConnect in the Members group.







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