Insights from “The reinvented city”

May 17, 2010 at 11:22 pm | In cities, innovation, land_use, politics, real_estate, social_critique, sprawl, urbanism | Comments Off on Insights from “The reinvented city”

A blog post from the Lincoln Institute, The reinvented city about its recent conference, includes several terrific links.

First off: Andres Duany is on a tear against NIMBYs, and suggests making decisions via “juries.” There’s lots to like in that proposal.

From the links provided by the Lincoln Institute’s article, a couple of choice extracts for your immediate enjoyment:

One, from Planetizen:

“It’s so out of control,” said Duany, referring to the current state of public participation in planning decisions in the United States. “It’s an absolute orgy of public process… basically, we can’t get anything done.”

Charrettes – intensive design meetings where planners and architects work alongside the public to educate them on the city’s proposals and coax out their own ideas on how their cities should be formed – have been a mainstay of Duany’s practice for years, so he’s no stranger to public engagement. But now he is saying what many involved in land use have come to believe but can’t really say – that the process of soliciting the public’s opinion has gotten out of hand and needs to be reformed.

The central problem, according to Duany, is that the immediate neighbors to a proposed development are brought in to speak on behalf of the whole community. These neighbors obviously have a vested interest in what happens in their backyard, and an emotional connection to their space. They also often have a financial stake in what happens, with their life’s savings tied up in their home. “We’ve tainted the process by not understanding that the neighbors are a special interest,” says Duany. “They are not the community.” [amen.]

Duany’s proposed solution? A randomly-chosen group of citizens, brought in to represent the community similar to the jury system. Evidently such a system is alive and well in Perth, Australia, where a group of community members is chosen randomly, brought up to speed on the issues, and asked to give input on how development should occur. Without such a process, Duany says, the process is taken over by “a bunch of little mobs, invited in by idiot public planners.”

Alternative energy projects are particularly at risk, according to Duany. The public at large sees the growing need for turbines and solar panels, but locals are fighting to keep them out of their neighborhoods. Is this the goal of city planners, who for the last couple of decades have worked passionately to create systems of bottom-up urbanism? Or is Duany right- is it time to create new models of public participation? (source)

Note that last bit, re. alternative energy – I blogged about this (Windspill), inspired by an article (From Oil Spills to Wind Farms, From NIMBY to BANANA) that made the same point: NIMBYs in Massachusetts miring an off-shore windfarm proposal, while at the same time we get this oil clusterfuck-disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Two, from Building Blocks (St. Louis Today):

Duany insisted that the future of development is mixed use: jobs, homes and leisure opportunities clustered in sufficiently dense ways to allow people to walk more, take public transit more and drive less. Driving equals unhappiness, Duany indicated, adding, “New Urbanism is all about making people happy.”

After no one stood up to denounce happiness, Duany went on to be a bit provacative. Forget the NIMBYs who try to kill almost any endeavor, he said. NIMBYs comprise nothing more than a special interest group that should be ignored when, say, a new power line is needed to link a windfarm to customers. Such infrastructure should be built because its clear advantage to a region outweighs the opposition of the few who would live near the wires, Duany said.

“You can’t have tiny tiny special interests block the big infrastructural needs,” he said.

A good way to get approval of what gets built where could be to turn over the job to juries whose members are randomly selected from across a region. That way, projects pushed by professionals would get done quickly, Duany said. (source)

From the same article, further down, a discussion of complaints from mayors about mingy state funding. Sound familiar? How many more times do we have to listen to our mayors complain about the lousy 8-cents to every 1-dollar municipalities in Canada collect?

Two former mayors–Manny Diaz of Miami and Greg Nickels of Seattle–also were on the bill. After touting their efforts to make their cities greener and more sustainable, they voiced some frustrations in tones familiar to those that emanate from St. Louis City Hall. Nickels and Diaz said their state legislatures simply don’t get it. Too often they deprive cities of money and fail to understand that metropolitan areas are the main drivers of the nation’s economy. Diaz said too many states would rather add unneeded lanes to rural highways than help build urban transit lines. (source)

And, from the same post, urban growth will be in suburbs. That’s another reason why Victoria, the city I currently live in, better get its ass in gear, before its downtown deteriorates beyond the point of no return:

Experts agree that over the coming decades, most urban growth will be in suburbs, which need to adapt by replacing featureless sprawl with inviting, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. June Williamson, associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York, gave a shout out to Crestwood Plaza on Watson Road, holding it up as a suburban mall re-inventing itself–at least for now–as an arts center.

Duany, in his characteristally blunt way, said a day earlier that while small shops at outdated malls are “junk,” the malls are ideal “holding tanks” for 21st century mixed-use town centers. Malls are typically located on main streets or even transit lines. The big-box anchors can be converted to offices or call centers, he said. Williamson said the United States is seriously over stored. The U.S. has 20 square feet of retail space for each citizen while Europeans get by with 3 square feet each, she said.

Over and over, speakers pointed out that while cities are efficient, many of their urban centers are losing population. One city discussed has lost half its population since 1950, is a declining center of corporate headquarters, has thousands of acres of largely vacant land despite the presence of a renowned children’s hospital, a famed symphony and a lively downtown restaurant scene. St Louis? No, Cleveland. (source)

Three, from California Planning and Development Report blog:

Last year shopping mall giant Westfield floated a proposal for a 49-story tower in Century City, part of a master plan to reinvent one of the great prototypical edge cities. The problem, though, is that Century City is no longer on the edge of anything. It’s smack in the middle of some of the most congested streets and expensive residential real estate east of the Ginza District.

The city Planning Department liked the project. But, naturally, the neighbors got involved, and some, you know, hemming and hawing ensued. When the metaphorical dust settled and the City Council approved the $800 million project, the building had lost ten floors and four local homeowners associations called off their lawyers. Of course, the “project” existed only on paper in the first place; critics say that the developer drew the extra ten stories only so they could be lopped off as an expendable peace offering.

A triumph for the little guy? Not so much. Borderline extortion and bribery? Perhaps. Several of the four homeowners associations paid for their petitions with war chests won from agreements with other developers; no word on whether Westfield paid them off in this case. (source)

Good grief, does that ever sound familiar…

Back to matter of juries, here’s another description of that system:

Duany proposes that cities adopt a hybrid of a grand jury and an electorate: 200 (or however many) ordinary citizens randomly sampled and empanelled to learn about, deliberate on, and render a decision on proposed projects. He notes that the wisdom of democracy does not lie in participation — which depends simply on who shows up — but rather on sampling.

The recommendation of that random sample would stand for the interests of the entire community and be balanced against those of the other two parties. Though public officials would typically have the final say, the panel would give them cover to make decisions that might enrage the neighbors. (source)

Note: “200 (or however many) ordinary citizens” is not a tiny hand-picked crew, which is what we’re seeing in Victoria, where the political leadership has taken to hand-selecting without any sort of process a tiny group of people to act as “citizen advisors.” It’s a highly flawed process – and the advisory panels or committees (the designation keeps changing) meet behind closed doors, no agenda is posted in advance, and minutes consist of skimpy notes available months later. #fail

I prefer this (VOTERS are on top):

Org chart for Brookline MA municipal government

David Eaves on Open Government

May 5, 2010 at 3:40 pm | In canada, innovation, leadership, politics, silo_think, web | 1 Comment

David Eaves is one of Canada’s strongest proponents for a cultural sea-change in government, from closed bureaucracy to open government. In this video he’s interviewed by Steve Paikin of TVO. (See the accompanying blog post, too, and click through to Steve’s channel “The Agenda” for other shows.

Eaves hit on many terrific arguments in favor of open government – here are my two favorites. The first comes toward the end of the segment, where he’s talking about the public-facing side of government. Below, a rough transcript of what he said:

So, let’s look at the public-facing side. So, open data – I don’t want to claim by any stretch that it’s the be-all and end-all of open government but I do think it’s an incredibly important piece.

I mean, if you look at what the privacy commissioner wrote yesterday – the access to information, how it’s broken …I think there were ten ministries that had failing grades! People today live in an era where the average Google search is something like point three [0.3] seconds – thats how quickly they expect to get information. And now suddenly you have a government where if you want to know about something it takes six, seven, eight, nine months?

There’s this wonderful phrase on the internet that the internet treats censorship like a failure and it routes around it. And I have a real concern that people, especially young people, look at government and at the pace that it moves, and they see it either as censorship or just simply as broken …and they’re gonna route around it.

Exactly. This is what government needs to wrap its collective head around (and change) if it wants public engagement. In Victoria, my city is spending tens upon tens of thousands of dollars to craft “public engagement” strategies, but for the most part, voter turnout continues to suck, especially with younger or web-savvy people. Why? Because we see municipal government here as broken, and we either have the enthusiasm (idealism?) to “route around it,” or we say, “to hell with you” and go windsurfing instead.

Fair or not, we feel this way about the people who work in government at the staffing level, and we feel this way about the politicians. If citizens aren’t engaged, it’s not because they don’t care at a fundamental level about the things that government is supposed to address. It’s just that they can’t get no satisfaction – and certainly no transparent action.  (I’m referring in particular to the City of Victoria, which has an atrocious, opaque, hard-to-navigate website and which continues to post documents in non-machine-readable format [PDF] – if it puts them out at all [meeting agendas or minutes are a total hit-and-miss affair, it seems].)

The other piece of the conversation that really struck me was nearer the beginning, when Eaves spoke to the culture within bureaucracies, and how it needs to change at least as much as bureaucracy’s public-facing side. A significant potential of such a sea-change would be cost-savings and greater efficiency.

Eaves began by using the Facebook example – how, if you list your interests or favorite movies, each item becomes a hyper-link that shows who else has the same interests, etc. With an internal Facebook-like system, bureaucracies can do the same thing and thereby tap the expertise within their own organization (Federal government, Provincial government, Municipal government, etc.). This would allow government workers to find other expert government workers, and leverage their collective expertise. Right now, instead, our governments spend money to hire consultants:

The government is huge, an enormous organization, and people hire consultants all of the time because that consultant has some sort of expertise that you need. If you could suddenly find that expertise within government, you could do more with less.

Well, I suppose that illustrates another roadblock to open government: it’s against the vested interests of the consultants industry. I live in a government town, which means the city is filled with people who have some connection to consulting “for the government.” It’s a big chunk of the local economy.

Perhaps that economic gravy train (or revolving door, since many consultants are ex-government workers) explains why it’s so difficult to shift the culture here in Victoria: it works well enough for a well-connected, entrenched minority who don’t want it to change. Similar drivers are likely at work in other government towns across the world.

I had a wicked idea for an illustration: picture an archipelago of government silos, with knowledgeable government workers trapped inside, peering out but unable to communicate with one another. The silos are, however, connected at the top by a looping, circular, endless rail line on which rides a train pulling a wagon filled with consultants. Hm, what do we call that train….? 😉

It’s another reason to bridge the silos in every way possible, to create open government internally, within the organizations.

If you’re a Canadian government worker, check out Eaves’s side project,, and see about contributing your data sets.

Creating Value Through Sustainability

April 20, 2010 at 10:06 pm | In business, green, innovation | 1 Comment

“You measure what matters, and what gets measured, gets done.”

That’s how Eric Hespenheide put it at this afternoon’s MIT Enterprise Forum event, live-streamed at UVic. …And I have to admit I felt a deep admiration for – perhaps jealousy of? – numbers crunchers who can make this real. Me? I’d probably get too absorbed by the numbers font on the measuring tape, and whether it was cloth or plastic… 😉


Here’s what it was: an MIT Enterprise Forum broadcast, Creating Value Through Sustainability, hosted by the Atlanta chapter and streamed to various campuses, including the University of Victoria, courtesy of UVic’s Innovation and Development Corporation in partnership with iGEM Victoria, advertised on LinkedIn, …but very sparsely attended by our local innovators.

On hand in Atlanta: Matt Kistler (Senior VP, Sustainability, at Walmart Stores, Inc.); Paul Murray (Director, Environmental Safety and Sustainability, Herman Miller, Inc.); Ajeet Rohatgi (Founder/ CTO, Sunavi: Ajeet stood in for James Modak, who was stuck in Europe due to travel cancellations); and Eric Hespenheide (Global Leader, Climate Change and Sustainability, Audit and Enterprise Risk Services, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu).

Each man described how his company has adopted the triple bottom line (“people, planet, profit”) to – you guessed it – create value through sustainability. While everyone had lots to contribute, Mark Kistler of Walmart stood out just for the sheer scale of what his company can do.

For example, each executive stressed the importance of engaging employees in finding value through sustainability – which means, actively seeking employee input for ideas on how to save the planet. It’s not a new idea: everyone is smartening up, getting on that clue train, to realize that your staff and employees are your company’s biggest resource.

But when it’s Walmart, it’s just a little …different.

So, for example, when one bright Walmart manager called Pepsi to ask if it would be ok to shut off a particular light on the vending machine in the staff room, that move turned into an almost $1-million saving for Walmart. Turns out it was ok to turn that light off, the idea got passed along, and then every Walmart staff room vending machine’s light was turned off, leading to the windfall in savings.

Ok, you don’t have to be Walmart to save money, energy, and the planet by turning off the lights, but the enormity of the sums involved gives you an idea of what’s at stake when a company of Walmart’s size says, “we want to do it better.” It’s not trivial. (Yeah, you can be a sour puss and say, “Well, the reason they can save so much is because they waste so much in the first place,” but seriously: is that constructive criticism? No? Didn’t think so. After all, if they don’t set an example, who will?)

There was plenty more in Kistler’s presentation, as well as the others. Presumably, the broadcast will be archived and available for viewing later. (Click on links, above.)

In the discussion that followed at UVic, one university-affiliated person (and I didn’t get her name, sorry!) came up with a bright idea. What if, she suggested, organizations put it out there that employee-generated savings would go into a fund, and that employees then had control with regard to how it was used/ disbursed? Wouldn’t that be a great incentive! If the organization (say, the university – or a government department) saves X-number of dollars on account of a sustainability initiative propagated by the employees, the money isn’t simply “disappeared,” er, absorbed, by the organization, but is instead “paid forward” to help another cause. Whoa, triple bottom line win…

As Eric-the numbers-cruncher guy-Hespenheide said, “You measure what matters, and what gets measured, gets done.”


Wishing local government had an opposable mind

April 19, 2010 at 8:51 pm | In ideas, innovation, johnson street bridge, leadership, social_critique, urbanism, victoria | Comments Off on Wishing local government had an opposable mind

I’m reading Roger Martin‘s book, The Opposable Mind, and came across the following paragraph this morning. It stopped me in my tracks because it made clear what’s wrong with the way thinking typically goes in government (and I’m referring both to the politicians and the bureaucrats / managers).

The paragraph describes the differences between conventional thinking and what Martin calls integrative thinking:

The two types of thinking [integrative versus conventional thinking] are diametrically opposed, and so are the outcomes they generate. Integrative thinking produces possibilities, solutions, and new ideas. It creates a sense of limitless possibility. Conventional thinking hides potential solutions in places they can’t be found and fosters the illusion that no creative solution is possible. With integrative thinking, aspirations rise over time. Conventional thinking is a self-reinforcing lesson that life is about accepting unattractive and unpleasant trade-offs. It erodes aspiration. Fundamentally, the conventional thinker prefers to accept the world as it is. The integrative thinker welcomes the challenge of shaping the world for the better. (p.48, emphases added)

That description of conventional thinking absolutely nails what you can see happening in municipal government.

In Victoria BC, conventional thinking shows itself in the city’s approach to development as well as the Johnson Street Bridge.

I’ve said from the very beginning that the city’s plans to demolish the historic Johnson Street Bridge and replace it with a new structure showed a colossal failure of imagination. It’s also a blatant manifestation of conventional thinking.

There are far too many examples of conventional approaches in government. Because of market pressures, businesses have to reform themselves – or go under. By the same token, it’s crazy to allow conventional thinking to continue unchallenged in government. Cities (and municipal governments) need to show imagination, and integrative thinking. If they don’t, they will stagnate. Surely the lessons of integrative thinking can be deployed in public service, if nurtured by civic leaders. They can, that is, if there is civic leadership that steps up to the job.

Let’s say you own an airline…

April 6, 2010 at 10:57 pm | In futurismo, green, innovation | 2 Comments

Here’s an interesting question: where are today’s business leaders when it comes to solving pressing social and economic issues that affect our common wealth (and health)?

The other day, Fred Wilson’s post, No conflict, no interest, broached this question by describing a major historical precedent, the creation of the New York City subway system around 1891. Back then, “conflict of interest” didn’t fundamentally hobble participation by business, although that changed during the course of the 20th century:

In this day and age, having a financial interest in something means you’ve got a conflict and your opinion is somehow “tainted.”

But that wasn’t always the case. (source)

The New York City subway system was shepherded into existence by the Steinway Commission, which consisted of a team of differently-minded (and differently-interested) men.

Does that happen any more today, or does “conflict of interest” prevent it?

As it happens, I recently learned about the Carbon War Room, co-founded by Richard Branson of the Virgin group of companies (which includes Virgin Atlantic Airlines).

The Carbon War Room‘s front page states:

Our global industrial and energy systems are built on carbon-based technologies and unsustainable resource demands that threaten to destroy our society and our planet. Massive loss of wealth, expanding poverty and suffering, disastrous climate change, water scarcity, and deforestation are the end results of this broken system.

This business-as-usual system represents the greatest threat to the security and prosperity of humanity – a threat that transcends race, ethnicity, national borders, and ideology.

Maybe there’s some productive and welcome “conflict of interest” at work here. With carbon-based fossil-fuel-burning travel as one of the key pieces in the Virgin group, it seems a risky proposition to declare a “war” on carbon, but that’s the plan at the Carbon War Room.

In the section Strategy & Tactics we read:

The Carbon War Room has identified 25 battles across 7 theaters that are material to winning the war against climate change. Each battle accounts for over 1 billion tons (or more than 2%) of global anthropogenic CO2e emissions annually.

The battles encompass the full spectrum of challenges that must be met to implement a post-carbon economy, from energy to agriculture to carbon storage. Once the determinants of a battle’s outcome are understood, the Carbon War Room plans targeted operations to achieve victory.

Our agents of change are entrepreneurs of all kinds – including business entrepreneurs, corporate intrapreneurs, and non-profit/ social entrepreneurs. Critical to our success, entrepreneurs will be directed to engage all means and tools necessary to disable and replace business-as-usual systems. They will drive the innovation establish new sustainable practices, while unlocking wealth, security, and wellbeing for the world’s inhabitants.

The other co-founders are Craig Cogut (of Pegasus Capital Advisors) and Boudewijn Poelmann (of Holland’s National Postcode Lottery). For more on who’s involved, check out the Executive Team and Executive Board pages.


A featured event listed on the front page is an upcoming summit, Creating Climate Wealth at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Looking through the agenda, it’s clear everyone involves means business.

And maybe that’s just what we need.

(Hat-tip to Guy Dauncey for the initial pointer to the Carbon War Room.)

Bamberton, Public Participation, Design Thinking

February 20, 2010 at 11:59 pm | In ideas, innovation, land_use, leadership, local_not_global, politics, real_estate, vancouver_island | Comments Off on Bamberton, Public Participation, Design Thinking

This afternoon I attended a forum on land use and public participation, Competing Values: Land Use and Public Consultation. The forum was sparked by an installation, Bamberton: Contested Landscape by Cedric and Nathan Bomford, at Open Space. That installation is itself informed by the redevelopment of Bamberton.

Situated to the north of Victoria, Bamberton lies on the shores of Saanich Inlet, across from Butchart Gardens. It used to be a cement manufacturing plant, founded in 1912. Operations ceased in 1980, and in 1982 the property was sold. Various redevelopment plans have come (and gone); the most recent is described here. Oh, and here.

This afternoon’s forum dealt with development and land use issues outside Victoria, many of which I’m not familiar with, especially as they relate to forest lands (including Crown lands – I confess that I have a lot of difficulty wrapping my head around the idea of “Crown” land) and greenfield development / sprawl. (Bamberton is a brownfield development)

I came away with the sense that development outside the city of Victoria tilts heavily toward benefiting developers, who don’t appear to be legally obligated to consult with the community before crafting proposals that are generally not publicly presented until it’s time for a public hearing (which only happens if the project requires rezoning or variances).

The question, then, is how do you get public participation that’s timely, and how do you structure a collaborative process – versus a stand-off (which is what seems to happen too often presently).

Guy Dauncey was one of the participants this afternoon and as usual his comments struck me as the most incisive and progressive. While most of the other participants and audience members seemed willing not only to embrace but also to propagate an adversarial narrative (that it’s impossible to work with the current BC government, that developers are all just greedy SOBs out to make a killing, that all developers are liars who can’t be trusted, that the human footprint is in all instances bad, that development must stop, that we already have “too many people” on Vancouver Island, and so on and so forth), Dauncey chose to think about how development can actually be beneficial and – by extension – how the process for public participation might actually be made to work.

Which brings me to design thinking. In The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is The Next Competitive Advantage, Roger Martin distinguishes two approaches or mind-sets to solving problems: one favors validity, the other reliability. Today’s forum allowed me to think about how Martin’s concepts apply to real life situations, such as NIMBYism and public participation, which too often seem downright intractable.

Martin posits “design thinking” (based on abductive reasoning) as the basis for moving forward productively when caught between the contradictions of validity and reliability. At the risk of bowdlerizing Martin’s concepts, here’s some what I took away from his book and how it might apply to public participation around community planning and land use issues.

People who operate from the principle of reliability use the past to predict what the future will bring. This means that they will reject “vision”-based and “unproven” value-based ideas (unproven because they can’t “prove” their validity through past successes). Obviously, a truly new vision (for the future) isn’t based on a past success (otherwise it wouldn’t be a vision, it would be hindsight). Reliability-oriented thinkers want quantifiable values, they want good odds, they want to meet budgets and face bean-counters with confidence.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who want valid outcomes. Reliability doesn’t figure too strongly because what’s most important is that a project or an outcome is valid. That means it has to feel right, it has to ring true, and it has to meet needs that might not even be fully identified yet. While reliability predicts the future based on the past and has a strong quantitative bias, validity can’t base itself on the past and has a strong qualitative bias.

In a corporate business that’s traditionally reliability-based, it’s very difficult to let validity get anything resembling an equal footing. In land use decisions and development, there’s clearly a very strong bias toward reliability, which makes all attempts at introducing validity seem airy-fairy and touchy-feely.

This is where the community-based activists and others who are striving to create a climate of positive public participation face an uphill battle. The people who live in a given community want validity – they want validation of their way of life, of the place where they live, of the dreams they have for the future. Their vision can seem creepily backward to reliability-driven business people, while the business people’s focus on reliability appears short-sighted and at best unimaginative, at worst greedy (hence the notion that developers have horns, a tail, and cloven hooves) to “the community,” however it’s defined.

The “reliable” model of development for the most part has assumed that the past is the best guarantor of future successes, and if in the past we developed land in a certain way, then in the present we must do the same. After all, there are bottom lines to be met and accountants and shareholders to face.

What communities in the path of reliability-driven development are instead saying is “our concerns are valid, we have needs and visions of our own, and we want to be heard.” This is not to say that the community is always right. As Guy Dauncey pointed out, every single railroad in Great Britain was opposed by community members who wanted no part of a railroad, and preferred the horse and buggy instead. Today, we (rightly) laugh at the backwardness of opposing rail, given that cars not only swept the railway aside, but contributed to bad land use and sprawl. (We should be so lucky as to have a great rail system…) So, while the community wants validation, it cannot expect to be validated in all aspects …because, frankly, it might be wrong on some points. (This is important to point out, because “community” has become a sacred cow in many ways, and it’s almost sacrilegious to suggest that community might actually be wrong. But indeed it can be.)

When reliability and validity go head to head, we too often seem to get either a stalemate (a protracted fight that gets progressively nastier), or nothing happens (the developer gives up, which can leave the community with a Pyrrhic victory if the result is loss of economic growth), or “reliability” wins (cookie-cutter / sprawl development, lost farmland/ greenfield, etc.).

In turn, public participation itself becomes more self-selective: seeing validity thinking trumped or sharpened into an anti-development sword, people who actually want good development or who prefer to avoid confrontation opt out of public participation entirely. Why bother, they reason, if it’s only for extremists?

That’s where design thinking can help – to bridge the gap between reliability and validity, and to design a process for public participation. It seemed to me that this was the point Dauncey was making in one of his comments. While many of the other speakers suggested that it’s already too late to parlay with developers, Dauncey’s idea of involving the reliability-driven developer much earlier in a conversation with the validity-driven community made a lot more sense (unfortunately, he was in a distinct minority at the forum, and his idea was not pursued by any of the other speakers). But as Roger Martin noted in his book, design thinkers need to understand and speak the language of reliability and validity if there’s to be any hope of having a positive conversation to resolve the problems we face.

Judging by today’s discussion, it’s a challenge that clearly applies to land use, development, and public participation. I’d prefer any day to work with Dauncey and those like him who can meet the challenge of design thinking than to limit myself to a validity that remains only a vision …or devolves into a stalemate.

Eat the rich: on sustainability

December 18, 2009 at 8:17 am | In green, ideas, innovation | 1 Comment

Another very interesting entry in Seth Godin‘s (free) PDF e-book compilation, What Matters Now, is Unsustainability by Alan M. Webber (co-founding editor of Fast Company).

Now, this one had me thinking about negative externalities, the book Natural Capitalism (and its authors, Paul Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins), and a provocative article by Frank Furedi (heh, “one of these things is not like the others…”). Furedi’s article, published in Spiked Online, is called, Anything ‘sustainable’ is not worth having,

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

(Disclaimer: I have a guilty conscience right now because so far I’ve quoted from pages written by men. There are women authors in What Matters Now, and I hope to get to some of them, too. I’m not sure why the male-authored articles have grabbed more of my attention.)
Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken

From what I understood of my reading around in Natural Capitalism and other books, we have an economic system that fails to account for negative externalities: that is, there are rewards built into the system to encourage you to generate the most profits, but there aren’t really meaningful fines or penalties or constraints built in if you, for example, wreck the environment for everyone else. There are fines for wrecking it after the fact, but by then the damage has been done. Granted, we don’t live in the dark ages of 19th century industrialization any more, but there’s still plenty of room for things to go wrong – and therefore also for improvement.

Amory Lovins

Amory Lovins

For example: the air is free to breathe for everyone, but if a feed-lot sets up next door and pollutes the air with its stench or poisons the groundwater with excess nitrogen, that negative externality (the pollution from the lot) in the past typically was not charged to the feed-lot operator. Instead, the rest of us are expected to suck it up (literally, in this case), and absorb that negative externality ourselves as the price of having a thriving business (the feed-lot) in our midst. Ditto for excess packaging of consumer goods: the manufacturer reaps a reward (increased sales) if s/he manages particularly eye-catching or obtrusive packaging, but pays no penalty for contributing mountains of garbage to landfills. It’s a negative externality that’s palmed off on the rest of us instead, who struggle in our communities to find ways of dealing with trash.

Hunter Lovins

Hunter Lovins

In many ways, this is arse-backwards. If, in the process of making a living (with profit, which isn’t in any way a bad thing in itself), you mess up The Commons for the rest of us, The Commons has typically and to date “eaten” that cost as the price of progress. But shouldn’t the cost to The Commons be built into your profit model a priori, to force you (the entrepreneur, the business person, the natural capitalist) to factor into your business model the true cost of doing business?

Of course it should.

That would be a reckoning that includes “sustainability” (an admittedly much-overused word these days).

So let’s look at Alan M. Webber’s entry on Unsustainability (p.24):


Everyone is pursuing sustainability. But if change happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change, we really need to focus on raising the costs of the unsustainable systems that represent the unsustainable status quo.

Unsustainable failed educational systems, obesity-producing systems, energy systems, transportation systems, health care systems. Each and every one is unsustainable. It’s more “innovative” to talk about bright, shiny, new sustainable systems, but before we can even work on the right side of the change equation, we need to drive up the costs of the unsustainable systems that represent the dead weight of the past.

The road to sustainability goes through a cleareyed look at unsustainability.

Alan M. Webber is co-founding editor of Fast Company magazine and author, most recently of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.
Alan Webber

Alan Webber

Among other things, I’m reading this as a call to take negative externalities into account. What’s delusional (and therefore unsustainable) is the pretense that negative externality can just be “eaten” by others. It has to be factored into the business model.

What I like about Alan Webber’s comment is his plea for a “cleareyed look at unsustainability” – yes, please! Because that will help us a lot more than a religiously-tinged view of sustainability.

This brings me back to Furedi, who attacks the religious attitude of the sustainability crowd.

(I’m an atheist, I can’t help liking the “cleareyed” approach a lot better than …the other stuff.)

Furedi argues that in much of the usual discussion around sustainability, all the emphasis is on consumption – and not nearly enough on production.

An emphasis on consumption puts the onus on individuals, and on that whole quasi-religious aspect: if only you could become pure and good enough, you wouldn’t consume so much.

Furedi criticizes the shifted focus on consumption, which de-emphasizes production (and recall how an integrated approach that factors in negative externalities could shape our production practices). We are ignoring a lot of quantifiable factors around production.

We’re focusing instead on indexes, for example the “happiness” index, and we feel guilty about linking happiness to prosperity. Production underwrites prosperity. In Furedi’s analysis, severing the linkage between happiness and prosperity is a logical error, and it inflects our thinking about sustainability.

As he puts it in his conclusion:

We live in a world in which the one idea that everyone can sign up to as a way of dealing with the recession is ‘sustainability’. Now, I’m old-fashioned about this – maybe it’s my classical economist, Marxist background – but basically I would say that sustainability is not a good thing. Anything that is sustainable is not worth having, and that has always been the main principle of human development. That is, it’s precisely because we recognise the transient, fluid character of our existence that we don’t simply want things to be sustainable – we want things to move forward, to progress, to develop. It seems to me that what is really lacking today is some kind of progress-related, progressive ideology, which we might use to deal with today’s many troublesome ideas and issues. (source)

In other words, let’s try also taking a “cleareyed look at unsustainability”…so we can move forward on progress.

Jumping Malthus’s shadow

July 15, 2009 at 12:46 pm | In ideas, innovation, writing | 2 Comments

Although I had planned some longer blog posts about the interaction of the natural and the social worlds, how they collide and also drain away from one another specifically here in Victoria BC, I need to blog first about an intriguing book I’m currently reading: A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark.
Book cover of A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark
I was initially annoyed by Clark’s focus on what he calls the Malthusian regime, the entire pre-Industrial Revolution period in which people all over the world had more or less existed at subsistence levels – a condition not to be confused with starvation, but more with stasis …I think. That is, under the Malthusian regime, a society can’t jump over its own shadow, and it somehow always lands again in the same place.

Admittedly, I skimmed a lot of the book’s first third because I’m not an economist and the detailed data on death rates, birth rates, interest rates, medieval wills, and whatnot went over my head. Right over my head went most of Clark’s to-me-incomprehensible formulae that combine the driest of economic theory with the Greek-est of mathematical symbols. Parts of the book are literally in a language I don’t know how to understand.

But…! But now I’m on Part II, The Industrial Revolution (pp.193 ff.), and now Clark explains how the shadow was jumped.

Last night, on p.197, I read the passage that explains, for Clark, the factor that drives post-Industrial Revolution growth:

Growth is generated overwhelmingly by investments in expanding the stock of production knowledge in societies.

The statement looks simple, but it is somewhat complex, and brilliant. Let’s examine it. (Note: apologies to Clark if I’m getting this completely wrong, but here’s my take.)

  • Production knowledge refers to knowledge about how goods and services are produced, whether it’s manufacturing or medicine or food production or ideas. In the pre-Industrial Revolution period, the ecosystem of knowledge around production didn’t expand all that much – people didn’t do things in new ways, they did most things the way their parents and grandparents or tribal elders taught them to.
  • The stock of production knowledge refers to the whole ecosystem built on, around, and through the various production knowledges (plural – for you can break them down).
  • Investment in the stock of production knowledge means putting the spur to innovation, so that production knowledge actually gets better, deeper, more efficient. Innovation also implies (to my mind) being in it for the long haul, versus getting quick satisfaction and buzzing off to go lie on the beach.
  • Innovators plan and are capable of delayed gratification, for innovation doesn’t just happen, magically. Pre-Industrial Revolution societies, while often having a more “brutish” existence, nonetheless score low on the “capable of delaying gratification” scale. The ability to plan for the future and to delay gratification also goes hand in hand with literacy (knowledge transmission, creating wills to pass on wealth) and numeracy (being able to count beyond one-two-many, and therefore being able to estimate accurately and, again, plan).

So, to repeat: Overall growth – to benefit societies, to extricate them from the Malthusian regime of subsistence – is generated by investments in expanding the stock of production knowledge in societies.

Right after that sentence, Clark writes: “To understand the Industrial Revolution is to understand why such activity was not present or was unsuccessful before 1800, and why it became omnipresent after 1800.”

I’m definitely looking forward to reading (and trying to understand) the rest of this book. My interest is already piqued by his references to the benefits of density and urban agglomerations, and I see his ideas in the context of Richard Florida’s work on the creative class, too.

Here’s a link to a NYTimes review of the Clark’s book, by Nicholas Wade: In Dusty Archives, a Theory of Affluence.

A side note…

Clark has been criticized for emphasizing a genetic component to economic growth – he argues that values such as the ability to delay gratification as well as skills like literacy are almost genetically passed down through a society, often literally passed down, since in the period that led to the Industrial Revolution, the offspring of the very wealthy were most likely to step down in society. The rich had more surviving children, while the poor had fewer. But the rich under the Malthusian regime couldn’t ensure that their surviving offspring would have the wealth they enjoyed, and thus, the sons of large landholders became small landholders, sons of important merchants became small-time traders, and so forth. While that looks like a downward spiral, Clark argues that it actually helped spread the values of the rich into society overall. The offspring of the poor were less likely to survive, therefore there were fewer of them to propagate their values.

Sounds brutal and not very politically correct (or perhaps confirms the worst fears of revolutionaries), but it sure reminded me of some of the research featured recently in Seed Magazine on the Hive Mind and the eusociality of some insects, which indicates that behaviors, not just genes, are passed along by evolution.

Here’s a rather long extract from Seed Magazine’s article on the Hive Mind:

Amy Toth, a post-doc in genomic biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that many of the morphological differences among eusocial insects don’t arise from genes coding for body plan, but from differential nutrition. “For a long time,” she says, “people have known that nutritional differences are important in social insect societies. Queens are better nourished than other workers, and that’s very well established for many different species.” What Toth’s and others’ research is showing now is that there are nutritional differences among workers as well: “Skinny ones are foragers, and fat ones tend to do tasks in the nest, such as brood care,” she says. What’s more, they are able to trace the mechanisms behind those differences down to interactions on the genetic level.

Her work, along with that of Gene Robinson, also at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, and Jim Hunt, shows that it’s not merely differential nutrition that leads to caste differences, but the fact that differential nutrition affects gene expression. A poorly fed larva’s gene that codes for, say, vision will be expressed at a different intensity and at different times from one who is well fed. So the individual with more acute vision will, as an adult, undertake tasks for which vision is important. The two insects share a genotype, but because their genes are switched on or off at different times, their life cycles and even appearance would seem to be those of unrelated individuals. In ants, which are more sophisticated, differential gene expression leads to radical morphological differences, such as wide divergence in head and mandible size, and even the presence or absence of wings, all macroscopic differences that one would usually ascribe to genotype.


The life cycle of a paper wasp colony begins with a foundress, a female wasp who, at the end of the previous autumn, mated with a single male and managed to survive the winter in hibernation. In spring, with the male’s sperm still living inside her, she begins to construct her nest, into which she deposits fertilized eggs that will become the first generation of female workers. As the larvae develop, the foundress feeds and cares for them, though not very well.

Hunt says the ones that are fed only by the foundress are poorly fed, and though they are destined not to reproduce, they are, surprisingly, not born sterile. “When they emerge,” he says, “they are reproductively ready to go. They have the physiology of a noneusocial, solitary wasp. They have their reproductive physiology switched on.”

But because they were poorly fed, they are not fully developed. Their bodies are soft, and they cannot fly for the first day or so, so they stay in the nest. This is something, Hunt says, that a solitary, noneusocial wasp would never do, and it has nothing to do with a mutation. Because their reproductive system is ginned up, this first generation is primed for maternal behavior; what they find while hanging around the nest is that there is a second generation of larvae already present and in need of nourishment. So because they cannot fly away and seek the food they need to develop their ovaries, they instead rear their mother’s young, their brothers and sisters. The energetic cost of mothering eventually causes their reproductive systems to shut down entirely, and they will remain sterile the rest of their lives.

On the other hand, the females of this second generation, which are called gynes, emerge from the larval state fat and healthy, but with their reproductive systems not yet active. They stay in the nest and continue to accept the attention and food provided by the workers. Toward the end of the summer, when the food sources start to dry up and the workers return to the colony with less and less to share with their siblings, the gynes will leave the nest and, if they are lucky, be inseminated. They will then hibernate, and, if they survive the winter, attempt to found their own colonies. Meanwhile, the worker will have died at home. Their life cycles could not be more different, though their genotypes are the same.

While humans aren’t insects, the emphasis on nutrition and how it affects genetic expression, which in turn determines social behavior, seems resonant with the kind of situations that economists study: how well are people doing? How nurtured or well-fed are they? What can they afford?

Clark has been a busy worker bee, gathering a ton of data. Even if non-economists don’t understand it all, his book is well worth reading.

Fred Wilson is:

June 15, 2009 at 10:20 pm | In authenticity, ideas, innovation, media, web | 3 Comments

Holy cow, yet another great learning-and-thinking experience, courtesy of  Fred Wilson‘s recent post, What Drives Consumer Adoption of New Technologies?, and the many amazing people who comment there! Reading regularly is like participating in an interdisciplinary college seminar – and even though  you never know in advance what’s coming up on the syllabus, the conversation is bound to get really interesting several times a week.

Last week (on June 9) Fred asked What drives consumer adoption of new technologies? He had been invited by a major media company to participate in a panel discussion set to start at 10 a.m. that day. Without further ado he gave his readers a couple of hours to talk about the topic. And, boy, did he get a lot of great feedback. The online conversation continued well past the real life meeting, too.

In his post he observed that:

…consumers are driven to new experiences that are simple and useful and/or entertaining. It is not enough to be the first to market with a new technology. You have to be the first to market with a version of the technology that is simple and easy to use.

I was struck by some of the themes that commenters developed in response to this observation, especially when I thought about them in relation to one another. It seems late in the day to add to the original post’s comments thread, so I’ll spin this out here, instead.

One commenter, Jennifer Johnson of  Hashtag Media alluded to Kathy Sierra when she mentioned that great consumer products create passionate users (a reference that was picked up by another commenter, John Lewis).

Cue Twitter.

Kathy Sierra became a Twitter user with some initial reluctance, for she recognized that Twitter is “a near-perfect example of the psychological principle of intermittent variable reward, the key addictive element of slot machines.” Intermittent variable reward works to keep users coming back again and again:

…behavior reinforced intermittently (as opposed to consistently) is the most difficult to extinguish. In other words, intermittent rewards beat predictable rewards. It’s the basis of most animal training, but applies to humans as well… which is why slot machines are so appealing, and one needn’t be addicted to feel it. (more…)

With applications like Twitter, your brain also gets extremely rapid hits – and they are variable: not every visit or scan of the tweets is rewarding every time. But you know the tweets keep coming, and you know that often enough they’re studded with “hits” that provide pleasure. Addictiveness – including relatively easy access to getting those hits and rewards – is probably an ingredient in making successful consumer technology, particularly if it’s social media. (Fred Wilson himself refers to his Twitter habit as snacking… like those potato chips no one can eat just one of? Busted!)

So what about widgets and gadgets and things, and how they’re designed? Consider addictive qualities or “brain-state qualities” in relation to a comment made by Jules Pieri, the founder and CEO of Daily Grommet. She commented from the perspective of an industrial designer:

Here is the core truth about simplicity. When a product is pleasing to approach (which is created by a lot of qualities, foremost of which is simplicity) people get a psychological response to “engage”. It’s simple but unconscious stuff. “Hmm. I think I can do this. This is friendly.” The interesting part is that if you can elicit that response through UI, form factor and sheer disciplined editing of functionality down to its core essence, people will actually dig deeper, spend more time, and uncover MORE functionality from a simple product than from a more fully featured one. So they get more feature usage from a product with, objectively, less functionality. Designers understand this. Engineers usually struggle with it. (But not the best ones.) (link)

Now think about those insights in relation to Kathy Sierra’s observation on addictiveness (the quality that keeps you coming back). If you can design a product or UI with Jules Pieri’s insights in mind, and simultaneously channel Kathy Sierra in order to bake in the qualities of addiction/ gratification/ rapid pleasure, your product has a head start for sure.

The design has to be friction-free and unobtrusive to the point of disappearing. But if the item delivers (provides pleasure) once the user starts working with it – as the iPhone’s interface and shape does, for example – then the user-experience that speaks directly to brain-state can take over. It’s all about the brain – we’re in the age of neuroscience after all.

But where is all this taking us, and do we really care? To the Lotus Eaters all leaves gleam like brand new Apples, and when we ingest them they release their magic right into the brain. We seem to get “more” – but “more what”? More self-expression? Self-revelation? More information, and still more information?

Here’s where it could get heavy, dear reader. It’s hardly possible to let 20th century theory constrain something as disruptive as the web-based and neuroscience-based revolution we’re living through now …but that’s not to say older theory doesn’t have some intriguing insights worth thinking about!

Sure enough, another commenter, Shana (no profile info available yet), responded to a comment by John Dodds (also no profile available – yet) by referencing Michel Foucault. Dodds had written that “simplicity and purpose” drive consumers to adopt new technologies. Later he added that he had written purpose rather than utility

because that Benthamite concept [utility] seems to have been corrupted into relating to commercial productivity. Originally it was much more to do with being worthwhile by whatever criteria one chose to expend one’s credit – be that cash or time. Something entirely frivolous and trivial can have utility if you value those traits.” (link)

It was the introduction of Jeremy Bentham (the reference to Benthamite concept) that prompted Shana to bring up Foucault, whose book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison was inspired by Bentham’s Panopticon. Wikipedia’s definition of the Panopticon is nicely succinct: “The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the ‘sentiment of an invisible omniscience.'” (source)

So Shana asked the following questions:

All of these products [consumer technologies] so far bring together community. A good number of them actually track behavior- should we be concerned? One thought that I have been having is that the power of searching leaves us vulnerable to the fact that we are currently in a system where we

a) are trying to attract the guard of the Panopticon’s attention
b) which leaves us vulnerable to the guy who isn’t. he can look on behalf on the guard, underneath, at our vulnerabilities.

Is the loudness of all the information of the internet getting in the way that someone with enough power can use it for harm?

Should we develop products that also encourage segmentation to amplify as well take away certain powers of the “Guard in the tower?”

Or in other words- should we develop products and systems on the internet that afford privacy as well as community at the same time? (link)

Great questions. As for answers – that’s a trickier proposition.

In an April 2004 post called C’mon, Confess about Foucault, art historians, and sex (not necessarily in that order), I wrote:

Understand this: whatever is translated into discourse is instrumentalized as social control. It is not the case that chatter about your sexuality or your neuroses or your deepest darkest secrets makes society a freer place. It instead makes it a more fully explored, more discursive place, which in turn contributes to mechanisms of control. People and their exposures are turning into social maps, we’re less multi-dimensional and increasingly flattened into a one-dimensional discursive space. At the same time, however, I would add an idealistic qualifier that probably wouldn’t sit too well with Foucault: while your confessions strengthen societal mapping (and hence control), there is the one-off/ one-in-a-million possibility that they just might liberate you, individually. It probably happens very rarely, but therein lies the dialectical rub. People might yet be capable of surprising others. (link)

That’s the Panopticon argument: everyone is watching everyone, which internalizes control even as individuals are free to reveal more about themselves than ever before.

I gave warning that this gets heavy, didn’t I? And I did wonder whether Foucault’s 20th century theory can be brought to bear (uncritically) on disruptive technologies such as the ones we’re seeing in the 21st century. And I’m much more critical these days of 20th century totalizing theories than I am of 21st century technology. Those theories still work insofar as we still worry about authenticity and about who we “really” are. So, if that’s a question you didn’t give up on when you turned 30 (or whatever), you’re in luck: there’s a massive body of theory to slake – but also feed – your anxieties. Measure your doses…

On the edge of “iffyness” we now have reality mining – which means there’s hardly anything that can’t become discursive, and if it’s discursive, it can become subject to Foucault’s critique. Reality mining is actually an interesting way to put it. In Pomo goes to market (December 2006) I wrote (again, apropos of Foucault):

The individual becomes the artist of his (her) own life, but the price is that we’re in charge of just a (relatively special) niche. Extinguishing the tutelage of authority in favor of a mastery of domain (the niche), we seem to have flattened the mountains and valleys of the past, exchanging them for a rupture-free landscape that somehow seems curiously the same, wherever we go. (link)

So is reality mining the strip mining of those mountains and valleys?

But all this “heaviness” aside, am I pessimistic? Not really. Either we are truly fucked or we’re living through an incredibly interesting revolution – and I’m hedging my bets that it’s the latter.

We’re learning so much about brain states and neurobiology – we might actually get a handle on addiction. If social media and new consumer technologies help us understand how that works, who’s to say that what they offer isn’t of great value? And is it any different than when people started using earlier (new) technologies to learn? People used to think books could be “harmful” because book-learnin’ was “unnatural” and a conduit for strange and dangerous ideas.

…Meanwhile, back once more to Fred Wilson’s post, to his blog and its amazing comments board. I’m going to suggest, cheekily, another analogy – one I hope Fred Wilson doesn’t mind, and which I make because of his ability to attract such an amazing community of users (that is, people who comment).

I’d suggest that his comments board itself becomes addictive, and that it actually shows the benefits of “addiction.” Users feel the need to check in frequently, to see who is adding to the conversation. The Disqus commenting system that uses has built-in features that enable tracking, as well as finding out more information about users, and that allows dissemination into other media like Twitter, Facebook, and so on. If you make a comment that someone else replies to, Disqus sends you a notification, so you feel compelled to go back, check again, read, think, perhaps respond. In this situation, you’re addicted to a conversation that enables the acquisition of more information, and also of learning.

And as to the title of this post, Fred Wilson Is:?  Listen again to Jules Pieri’s description of great industrial design:

When a product is pleasing to approach (which is created by a lot of qualities, foremost of which is simplicity) people get a psychological response to “engage”. It’s simple but unconscious stuff. “Hmm. I think I can do this. This is friendly.” The interesting part is that if you can elicit that response through UI, form factor and sheer disciplined editing of functionality down to its core essence, people will actually dig deeper…

What manages to achieve could be described as Fred Wilson Is: the friendly interface: deceptively “simple” (I mean that in the best sense) and usually laconic (which means cool, not hot). The coolness (vs a hotter, flame-ish environment) ensures that users/ readers aren’t intimidated, that they can participate freely. So Fred Wilson Is: cool, maybe even a cool brand, and, as Kathy Sierra might say, helps the user kick ass.

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