How the traffic in Saigon is a lesson universities should learn

Trusting others’ motivations and respecting their intentions can compensate for the need for rules and defining when people may or may not move forward.

group of people on scooters travelling on road
I was probably travelling only 50kph but, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of light, colour and noise, it felt much faster.

On a hot, claustrophobically humid night in Ho Chi Minh City, I watched my wife motor ahead, waving over her shoulder elated as she weaved through the traffic. Both of us, and indeed almost all the commuters, were riding motorbikes. There were multiple generations, household appliances, pigs, cows, chickens and other menagerie astride the bikes around us.

It was clear from the moment we arrived in the city that—beyond a general agreement as to which side of the road to drive on—there were few traffic lights or rules whatsoever.

For this reason, I had been very reluctant to rent the bikes in the first place. However, for all the superficial chaos, the bodies and machines flowed smoothly to their destinations without any evidence of the anxiety or agitation that I would have anticipated in most Western cities.

People constantly moved forward but slowed as required to accommodate others moving on different paths. This accommodation was universally provided in good faith, with the lack of signals ostensibly replaced by common trust as well as respect for where each and every person was going.

Though I could not be certain, my guess was that people got to where they wanted to go just as quickly and safely as in any structured western city.

What this experience highlighted for me was that trusting others’ motivations and respecting their intentions can compensate for, or indeed sometimes fully replace, the need for rules and defining when people may or may not move forward.

These types of rules often get tangled up with their uncomfortable bedfellows: bureaucracy and obfuscation. The traffic lights were clearly missing that night in Ho Chi Minh but, metaphorically, they’re often abundantly present in complex organisations such as universities.

Of course, there is a host of reasons for introducing traffic lights and clear signposting in universities.

One of them is to ensure the kind of consistency required to realise economies of scale—in short, to help us do things more efficiently. This has been, and arguably will still be, necessary as cost pressures across the education sector increase.

However, another reason we make rules is to reduce risk—be it the risk of things going pear-shaped, of wasting money, or of ending up worse off.

Rules and regulations also quickly become crucial in contexts where trust is low.

Sometimes trust is low because of individual differences in the way we see the world. However, in universities trust is more often assumed to be low because their sheer size and complexity produce silos and challenges with communication.

Though this is understandable, there are hidden—but very real—costs of powering and policing all the organisational traffic lights that universities put in place. This is particularly so when, to extend the metaphor, new traffic light systems are installed more quickly than old systems are removed.

Not only is the administrative grunt to run these systems expensive but sometimes the process of navigating them is so challenging, people don’t bother to try to step on to the path.

And in a university, where trying things is what people do, the unseen cost has the potential to be enormous.

Post-Covid-19, I suggest universities need to review their existing administrative burden – that means weighing up our direct running costs and the often hidden operational friction that produces opportunity cost, against the cost of the risks we’re trying to avoid with our fondness for rules.

Where to find the right point to get an exact balance is often difficult. I’m not saying it’s an easy task. However, the inexactness of this balance doesn’t justify a vain pursuit of near-zero risk and continuing to rely on expensive administration as the default option.

It was my perception of risk that meant I nearly didn’t take that trip through the Vietnamese night. However, the risk turned out to be mitigated by a culture of trust and understanding. I would have incurred a huge opportunity cost by not getting on the bike, as it turned out to be the best experience of my whole trip.

Read the original story on Newsroom.

Professor Nic Smith is Vice-Chancellor, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.