Category Archives: cities

A Right to Protect Nature?

That idea runs contrary to recent law, where government assumes that job. Environmental protectoin, in the current way of thinking, is a subject for potential regulation. But local communities are finding that government regulation does not go far enough for them. They want something more.

The people in Pittsburgh are the latest group to do something about it. Pittsburghians have worked hard for decades to clean up the air and water in the city. And they have transformed the once dirty steel town into something far more livable. Now they are threatened  — or at least they perceive that they are threatened — by fracking.

The city has reacted by creating a “right to nature”. This enables citizens to take stesp to protect nature in court. It is part of an interesting strend.

Stay tuned!

Are We Connected Yet?

The word “connected” has added new meaning over the last few decades. It used to mean that you were what was called an “insider”. You knew the “right” people. Bill Clinton, with his enormous rolodex, was certainly connected in that way. That meaning still has traction. But being connected now also means just having internet access.

Let’s shift our focus from the word “connected” to “connectivity”. The word was not in common usage before the internet. We are now all connected through this technology. But has this improved our connections? Are we better connected in the personal, rather than technical sense? Has our personal connectivity gone up?

Before addressing that question, I would point out that pre-internet connectivity — the ability to make personal connections — was limited for many people. Whatever the quality of our connections now, we have not moved to it from a paradise of community. But some would argue that we have moved from not good to worse.

I first began thinking about that issue when I bumped into Robert Putman’s famous book, “Bowling Alone“.  It came out in 2000, and was based on an article that Putnam wrote back in 1995. Putnam’s point in the book is that going back to 1950, America’s stock of “social capital” has been declining.  His thesis is that this decline leads to a decline in public involvement, including participation in political life.

Putnam was first lionized and then criticized.  And there is no doubt that “social capital” is difficult to measure. Social capital in the US may have been low before 1950, and the social organizations that Putnam refers to may not have been very adept at building social capital. At the same time, I would argue that the rise of the Republican Party’s angry hard right wing has its roots in the decline of social capital. Where else does all of the anger and conspiracy theory come from? And I would argue that it is a serious threat to the republic.

We might expect that the social capital in our great cities would be higher, simply because of density and demographics. Perhaps. But CityLab points out that social isolation in cities is a serious concern. In part, it may be connected with how urban living is designed. And in part it is due to the high cost of living.

And btw, when it comes down to it, we do not have good models for building social capital where it is needed most. I am reminded of the experiment of “PieLab”.  PieLab was a well-intentioned attempt to promote social change in a small community by creating a shared public space – a cafe that served pie. That sounds simple enough. But the results of the experiment were far more complex. It was at best a partial success.

The problem with PieLab was that the locals — who were supposed to benefit from the project — begam to feel that the project was an intrusion. BTW, ditto for gentrification in cities. When new residents come into a neighborhood, they do not necessarily increase social capital there.

I find this to be fascinating for a simple reason. We know that we find new and great ideas through social interaction. Steve Johnson brought that out in his 2010 TED talk . So there is a good reason to think carefully how we can better design our social interactoins to achieve this. Corporations are not necessarily the best design, as they optimize capital allocation, not social interaction.

So how do we do this? That, my friend, is still an open question. We know that “teams” seem to exhibit a high level of social capital. In sports, for example, high levels of teamwork is called a key to success. So how do we take that concept, which seems so familiar in the sporting setting, and apply it more broadly? There is a lot of talk about team building in firms. And there is a lot of talk about networking to create teams. But once again, there is not a lot of clear solutions to handling this challenge.

Indeed, there is evidence from Sutton and Rao (see their book “Scaling for Excellence”) that the task of getting people in a large organization focused on a common message is very tricky indeed. It may be, therefore, that the need for more social capital in teams will lead to smaller, more tightly integrated firms. More modular types of organizations.

That type of thing is still in the future.

And we begin to see that our ability to join in and get the benefit of teams highly correlates with our individual social skills. I would include cognitive and communication and organization skills there. But so far, our schools are less focused on educating our young to be more adept in social skills and remain fosuced instead on individual knowledge acquisition and obsessed with testing for it.

We have a way to go it seems before we see significant gains from more widespread and enhanced team building. But at least we have a vision of what is needed. That is a starting point that even Sutton and Rao would applaud.

Frank Lloyd Wright Hated Cities?


… the flip side of Wright’s deep love of the natural world—the inspiration for many of his designs—was a loathing of the urban. “To look at the plan of a great City is to look at something like the cross-section of a fibrous tumor,” he once wrote.

But not all of his work is to be found in the boonies. CityLab offers a nice list of Wright buildings that are either in or near urban areas.

After all, we are celebrating the great man’s 150 birthday!

Here is a peek inside the LA Hollyhock House

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Another image

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Why Startup Hubs are Not the Answer

It is the current fad – and indeed, no city with any ambition at all is without its “startup hub” development policy. The idea appears to make sense. After all, Silicon Valley, Boulder, Boston, New York, etc. all have vibrant startup cultures that add value. Why not us?

The answer is two-fold.

First, start ups are inherently high risk operations. Most fail. That failure rate may go up to 90% or so, depending on how you measure failure  Not only that, serial entrepreneurs often fail numerous times. In other words, the reality of nurturing a startup hub is nurturing a huge amount of failure. Most people do not have the inner fortitude to live with those kinds of risks, praying each night that a few of these ventures will hit it big and lift the city.

Keep repeating this mantra

Very few creative sparks result in an invention and very few inventions become innovations.

Not only that, it often takes a long period (upwards of 20 years) for inventions to beomce innovations that are widely adopted. And startup hubs are investments in creativity to produce invention that leads to innovation.

Just as concerning, the startups that do not fail do not necessarily contribute back to the community where they started up. Some grow fast and then fizzle.  Some move out altogether. Some stay but benefit only a few employees and owners, exaccerbating income inequality.

The data on this is murky, but looking at it from the  most opimisticperspective, you have to scratch your head. We need more and better thinking about how to promote locality.

Here are a few thoughts on what should work better

  • better strategic positioning of firms to identify where innovation will pay off.
  • better promotion of “rising local standards”. Local residents are more likely to invest locally when they believe in the future prospects of their home town.
  • better networking between folks who see opportunities, folks with ideas about how to exploit opportunities, and folks who do the actual exploiting.

You might notice that the above focuses on informatoin flow. You might think of it as a process of creative collaboration.

Re-Thinking the Olympics

Like a lot of things in our modern world that are media driven, the Olympics are out of control. They were not always that way. But most important, the cost of building the infrastructure that is needed to host the event means that local citizens get smacked with a huge tab.

That is why Boston just said “no” to hosting the 2024summer games. 

This quote says it all

it is important to remember we should never be planning our cities around three-week events, or planning our cities around visitors. We should be planning our cities in a way that will work for decades, and will benefit the residents of the city.

What to do? I propose that we pick a single site and keep the olumpicsthere. Greece would be pretty cool.

What do you think?

The Hubs are Coming!

We start this intellectual adventure with some old news. That old news is that certain locations (like Silicon Valley) have managed to attract lots of brainy people, capital and entrepreneurs. As a result, these places are magnets for start ups. They are so called “start up hubs”.

Another bit of old hubs. Localities thta cannot be called “start up hubs” are envious. They want to be innovative and wealthy too. And so they have tried to copy the start up hubs. This has worked — but only to a limited degree.

Now for the new idea. folks are just starting to real.ize that the secret sauce here is inter-connection. Locality — getting people together in a single place — is only part of the game. Equally important is modularity — fitting your great ideas into larger discussions about the topic. If so, a network of hubs can outperform a single big hub.

At least that is the theory. And in Germany, this theory is being put to the test.

Will this work? Of course it will — if the network brings in regional hubs to a broader exchange of thinking, deciding, investing and implementing. In other words, the decision trail gets more complicated in a network. But that can be sorted out by great leadership.

Stay tuned!