The Case for Extreme Positions

If there is a single underlying theme underpinning media engagement today, it's the presence of extremes. We see this play out in hyperbolic headlines, cable news grounded in argument, algorithms programmed to elicit outrage, and so much more. As deep divides become more prevalent around the world, these extreme positions are often painted as universally bad and damaging to the norms we’re accustomed to.
But differing opinions and strong-willed arguments are also foundational elements of new ideas. When directed appropriately, taking extreme positions beyond the norm is not only good, but vital for success in times of change.
Steven Johnson recently talked about “optimal extremism” on an A16z podcast while promoting his book Farsighted: How We Make Decisions That Matter Most. In it, he cites lots of examples that illustrate how impactful different perspectives can be in addressing problems, often through previously unimagined alternatives.
A case in point is the High Line in New York City. The park is built on what was once an elevated train line that sits along Manhattan’s West Side. After closing in 1980, the platform and surrounding area became an eyesore and public safety concern. For 10 years, a legal process and debate ensued over who would pay for the demolition.
Then something surprising happened. A painter and a writer joined forces and they envisioned a completely new solution. They envisioned revitalizing the tracks not as a transportation platform, but as a park. While the idea was initially dismissed as nonsensical, the first stretch of the High Line Park eventually opened to the public as one of the most inventive and widely admired urban parks anywhere in the world. (You can learn more about the radical-idea-turned-groundbreaking-success in this week’s Deep Take.)
For a decade, the argument was framed entirely in terms of an inevitable demolition. But as Johnson suggests, making complex decisions is not just about debating a binary choice. It’s also a matter of discovering alternative options by looking at things from an extremely different vantage point.

Chris Perry
Chief Digital Officer, Weber Shandwick
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The old rail line was doomed to be torn down by the city, but one man decided he wanted to join the team pushing to preserve it. Until he realized there wasn't one. Robert Hammond found the one other person interested in saving the line at a community meeting, and they started the organization "Friends of the High Line." The elevated wildscape that ran through Manhattan eventually inspired NYC planning director Amanda Burden to model the High Line after la Promenade Plantée, a similarly elevated park in Paris. Today, the tale of local cultural activism inspires diverse new architecture across the West Side of Manhattan, including Stephen Ross's new Vessel. This all happened because of one person's extreme viewpoint. 
Copyright © 2018 Weber Shandwick

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