I’ve been to quite a few conferences and almost without exception, the best speakers and presenters are people who are actually doing things in the trenches…not the folks who write books about them. The engaging and whip smart Geoffrey Canada outlined the four factors he uses to achieve success with his organization in educating kids in Harlem.
1. We have to tackle everything at the same time. Small programs touching unconnected parts of kids lives aren’t that effective.
2. They start working with kids from birth and stay with them until they graduate from college. If they don’t let them get behind, later superhero-type interventions (which don’t often work) are not needed.
3. Scale is important. If you work with lots of kids, their collective action reinforces itself with little further effort.
4. Accountability and evaluation is needed. Canada said that if bad teachers aren’t teaching the kids, they should be fired.
Canada also cautioned about complacency in business. He said that businesses, left to their own devices, find comfortable resting places without periodically refreshing their values and goals.
Update: Canada was the subject of a recent segment on This American Life. (thx, andrew)
Update: The Harlem Children’s Zone has been hit hard by the financial crisis and had to lay off staff. (thx, elaine)
The big themes of the day so far are confidence and experts: should we and do we have confidence in the experts? Malcolm Gladwell kicked off the morning with a talk about overconfidence. He talked about the three types of failure possible in a situation like the financial crisis:
1. Institutional failure. The regulators and regulations were not sufficient.
2. Cognitive failure. The bankers weren’t smart enough and got in over their heads.
3. Psychological failure. The bankers were overconfident and failed to recognize the direness of their situation.
Gladwell argued that the financial crisis was caused largely by overconfidence, which has two key effects. One is that people become miscalibrated. They think that the predictions that they are making are actually a lot better than they are. Secondly, there’s an illusion of control problem in which people think they have control over things that are impossible to control. Fixing the situation will be hard because overconfidence is a useful trait to possess and experts are hard to purge from systems (they’re the experts!).
[Experts talking about how experts are wrong! My brain is seizing up.]
Next up were Nassim Taleb and Robert Shiller. Shiller believes that confidence drives the economy and that macroeconomics is flawed because there’s no humanity in it. Taleb was very quotable and the most full of doom of all the panelists so far. He doesn’t like economists. Like wants them gone from the world, or to at least marginalize their effects so that their opinions and decisions don’t affect the lives of normal people. In talking about why this crisis is different than similar situations in the past, he argued that globalization, the Internet, and the efficiency of global financial markets has created an environment where very large and very quick collective movements of money are possible in a way that wasn’t before. Taleb had the last word: “people who crashed the plane, you don’t give them a new plane”.
The panel moderated by Suroweicki was a little odd. Two out of the three panelists kept repeating in reference to the solution to the very complex financial crisis: “this isn’t that complicated”. There has also been a undercurrent to the discussion so far that the goal of any solution to the financial crisis is to get the economy back to where it was. I’m with Taleb on this one: where we were wasn’t very good, why do we want to go back.
I’ll be at The New Yorker Summit today attempting some sort of live-ish coverage.
With a new President in office, our country is in a period of immense challenges, from unprecedented economic tumult to a worldwide environmental crisis. With more at stake than at any time in recent memory, we are compelled to put forward new solutions and new thinking. In this spirit, The New Yorker Summit: The Next 100 Days will gather economic heavyweights and national-policy voices to look at the formative days of the new Administration, and to explore what lies ahead in the next hundred days.