Innovation and the Snow Shoveling Game

by Scott Bowden

Now that the winter of 2015 is officially over, I feel it is safe to write something positive about shoveling snow without incurring the wrath of my fellow Americans who dealt with record snowfalls in 2015 in parts of the country.  This positive aspect of snow shoveling lies not in its reputed cardiovascular and muscular benefits.  Rather, when I think of snow shoveling, I think of a counter-intuitive path to innovation that struck me decades ago when I lived in Arlington, Virginia and faced the challenge of digging out my car after a snowstorm.  Seeing reports from New England this winter, as well as the article below from the Chicago Tribune about “dibs” on parking spots in Chicago, reminded me of an idea I stumbled across in Arlington in the mid-90s which led me to think about the “snow shoveling game.”

By way of background, the snow shoveling game refers to the issue of losing one’s parking space after shoveling out one’s car after a snowstorm.  After expending a great deal of effort to extract one’s car, when one returns a little while later the spot is usually occupied by another car, forcing the original shoveler to go find a new spot which may even require digging out an empty spot from scratch.  The Chicago “dibs” system consists of informally reserving a parking spot with chairs or other items.  This happens frequently in neighborhoods where residents do not have driveways and are forced to park on city streets.  One might spend hours digging one’s car out in a prime spot in front of one’s house, only to return later to find that space occupied by another car, perhaps someone who lives nowhere near that spot but who needed to park and was happy to take a newly-dug out parking space.

To solve this problem, residents resorted to placing a veritable yard sale of items in “their” parking spaces to reserve the spot, though the Chicago Sanitation Department soon after snow removal declares that they will discard these items on city streets, thus ending the “dibs” system.  Interestingly, “dibs” does sometimes spontaneously generate order from disorder.  As University of Chicago professor Richard Epstein notes, “[d]ibs is spontaneous, with little clout associated with it. … Dibs gets the snow dug quickly and efficiently. It works because people respect it. They don’t abuse the system. Once the snow turns to slush, dibs ends, by common understanding.”

I encountered this issue when I lived in a large apartment complex in Arlington with an open parking lot (no reserved spaces).  After shoveling out my car and departing for a while, I would return to the parking lot and inevitably my spot would be taken along with all other available spots, which meant that I had to carry my shovel with me to clean out a new spot or else I wouldn’t be able to park my car.  Although no one in our apartment complex resorted to placing furniture items in parking spaces in an attempt to implement the “dibs” system, the problem was nevertheless perplexing and frustrating.

At the time I was a graduate student searching constantly for new ideas for articles in my field of international relations theory, and the innovation that struck me at the time was not related to how to design a better snow shovel that would free a car more quickly from a bank of snow.  Rather, I applied the concept of the snow shoveling game to international relations theory to demonstrate a model in which all parties could be better off by cooperating (i.e.,  not taking an empty spot because the next time you might be the one stuck digging out a new spot farther away in the parking lot) but the incentives of the system, and the lack of a centralized enforcement authority, direct individuals to maximize their interests and results in suboptimal outcomes.  This concept is at the core of Game Theory which is one of the dominant paradigms in use in political science and, more specifically, in international relations (e.g., the Prisoners’ Dilemma in which self interests override cooperation even though the result is a worse outcome than cooperation would have yielded).

As a graduate student I sought out a more seasoned Professor to co-author the paper and spent several brainstorming sessions expanding on the idea to try to work it into a paper worth publishing.  Alas, other priorities soon consumed our time and the idea was shelved and never resulted in a paper, but anytime I hear about shoveling out a car I think back to the snow shoveling game.

For the innovation practitioner there are two lessons in this story.  First, we are often told to find inspiration for innovation in the challenges we face in everyday life.  Something that frustrates us on a daily basis, such as a pothole on a roadway that we hit again and again, can push us to think of a new way to report that pothole to the highway department (a faster way for a highway department to repair a pothole).  While this is a viable source for innovation, we should also think beyond the immediate problem to look at the challenge from a systemic perspective.  Are there larger questions surrounding the individual issue that speaks to an even greater innovation challenge (thousands of citizens with smartphone applications using GPS and vibration sensors to automatically report potholes)?  A second lesson is to trust oneself in pushing forward with an idea.  While it is important to seek out advice and counsel from more experienced colleagues in working on an innovative idea, sometimes relying too much on others can slow down or even derail an initiative.  One’s instincts are often right, and my guess is that in the last 20 years no one has written an article linking the snow shoveling game to international relations theory, so perhaps there is no time like the present to launch a new train of thought.

http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/PrisonersDilemma.html

John Kass, “Dibs on parking spaces after snow is the Chicago Way,” Chicago Tribune (February 5, 2015).

“No more ‘dibs’ on Chicago streets,” WLS-TV Chicago (February 13, 2015).

image credit: DVIDSHUB

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden is a Project Executive, Innovation Program Leader at IBM Global Services.

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