MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Filtering by Category: urban

What does organizational culture have to do with lease negotiation?

But are there other factors, perhaps less apparently tangible or more speculative that, if overlooked, may mean that the occupier organization loses significant site benefit as well as longer-term revenue and performance benefit many times the value of what is saved through conventional site selection and lease negotiation terms?

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Is MTV Scratch the next binder on the wall at GM Headquarters?

GM's best strategic play may be not with MTV but with the oil companies and the government and a sustainability philosophy. Constraining one, stimulating the other, and comprehending the third might bring people back to cars – cars providing authentic experiences designed, built and sold by people who've had those experiences.

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Design's future

We design sustainably. We are thoughtful about the sources and uses of the materials we select. We design our systems critically to assure that we are not consuming energy unnecessarily and, in some cases, we even design to generate energy to put back into the grid.

We seek to convince our clients to reach for higher LEED certifications, and we are proud as we count the certifications and awards we've gained through our work.

When we reach further, we even tend to design in ways that we anticipate will consume less or generate more in the activities of the people who live, work, and play in our buildings.

In most of these cases we work inside of the project and inside of our own profession. Is the future now asking more of us, however?

It seems that a very good New Year resolution would be to engage our clients in a conversation around sustainability in a deeper way. While the catalyst for our initial conversation might be the finite limits of the project they bring to us, should we also talk about the system in which that project exists?

What is it that you, our client, are doing in the world? What can we do together to expand the conversation to more broadly consider your purpose and business and find ways to also design other points in the chain of value creation to be more efficient or more effective in human and environmental terms?  How can we, together, develop a long-range vision for how this project may affect the context in which it exists and perform in a way that benefits not only your organization but also the social and economic system it affects, and then revise the program for the project to reflect those long-view goals?

Our conventional performance metrics of "on time, on budget" seem terribly shallow these days. This interview of John Thackara by Rob Huisman of the Association of Dutch Designers provides some interesting context for our conversations going forward.

Are you an architect or designer who has been able to move into a relationship with your client in a more substantial way about society and its future? Is your client engaging you for your creative skills to enrich a larger world-changing agenda? We all would be inspired by the stories and the methods of your success in that experience and approach.

things we saw this week that you might like, also

Among some of the things that caught our attention last week and that may influence our thinking this week are these –

This is a delightfully simple essay that illuminates the power of spatial experience in moving decisions and closing deals.
"The idea that cars run free...that idea's about to change." Sculptor Chris Burden has been working on this rather remarkable interpretation of "Metropolis" to evoke the energy of a city
This was a brief but interesting conversation about an apparent bias toward modernism in most design competitions in the UK. This question seems to have its own answer: "Should modernity be preferred precisely because it is innovative and forward thinking?"
This seemed an unlikely place to find a discussion about the "green workplace" but, once past the intro, is an interesting insight into the subject and, more significantly for me, how a bit of research required by an event led to a deep dive into a subject and then a globally recognized expertise.
Detroit is struggling to remake itself after decades of irrational and obsessive self-destruction by almost every leader, "civic" or private. We find it hard to accept this preferential apportioning of the limited resources the City has left, feeling it to be a better-dressed replay of prior practices.
Designer-driven innovation – This is a rather pretty concept to illustrate a debate about whether markets or vision are the optimum origins for innovation

How can criteria for ranking the world's 10 most livable cities inform other places?

Monocle magazine periodically publishes city rankings. Reflecting on the way to developing a list of the world's 10 most livable cities, Tyler Brule came up with an unexpected list of criteria (presented here). The introduction to his column in the Financial Times offers the context –

Sometime between writing last week’s column and settling down to tap out today’s I had a slight change of heart about the essential ingredients regarding quality of life. While cities get high marks if they have low crime rates, good public schools, smooth-running buses, trams and subways, and if they offer a healthy climate for starting up a small business, my daily holiday regime on the coast of Tuscany had me questioning whether there should be simpler measures to judge whether a city is delightfully liveable.

On Brule's "simple measures" list are things such as sufficient water pressure to get a good blast in the shower, great orange juice, public seating, and good windows.

It is very rare, it seems, that we reflect on the simple things that can improve our own environments and those we design for others. Most frequently, the dominant criteria are abstract metrics imposed by the providers of space rather than the experiential metrics of those who live and work in the spaces we design.

Consider Brule's point of view, your daily regime when in your favorite vacation spot – How can these experiences overcome your typical demands of the workplace and influence a different approach to its design?

Delicious to me

I've used Delicious for quite a while, to bookmark things of interest to me and to capture things of interest that I find in my network there. What I find typically shows up in my sidebar over there on the right. I've also begun to use Evernote a lot more, and these bookmarks do not necessarily get duplicated in Delicious. Among some of the things that caught our attention last week and that may influence our thinking this week are these –

The resonating influence of shipping containers – I recently came across a blog that I'm giving some slow attention to, Ribbonfarm. In a post I found recently was this very fascinating review and commentary on the epic story of container shipping. In one of those great concurrences, it appeared on the same day as this review of container architecture, the hamburger of architecture
Where ideas come from – There was a pretty fascinating article in the HBR site, the Power of Proposition Innovation, about the rejuvenation of a company in Italy. This company, in a small town surrounded by the mountains, with little exposure to the needs and desires of an outside world and a sophisticated market, reinvented itself through great workplace strategy "It has designed a workplace that encourages people to exchange ideas. Every function, including manufacturing, surrounds a large square, which resembles the Greek agora or the Roman forum, where people can gather, chat, and share"
Structures supporting great acts– Concert stages are powerful pieces of temporary architecture, yet they seem to get little notice beyond the acts and shows that use them. This was a nice video interview with the designers of stages who not only support the acts but also the environment between the acts.
Other containers –These guys always do such a great job in their roundup issues. This is one on libraries. (Tangentially related, this article by Frank Rich on the tragedy of Obama has a great scene at the New York Public Library with Mayor Bloomberg.)
Breakthrough ideas and healthy insecurityThis was a nice record of a conversation with the author of a book on the sources of breakthrough ideas, Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. A number of nice observations like this one – "When Gehry begins a new project, he’s extremely afraid that he's not going to know what to do, and he'll procrastinate, make phone calls, run errands that are useless – and he calls it healthy insecurity."
Making systems thinking sexy – John Thackera is now writing over at Design Observer, and doing a great job of reflecting on some of the great challenges of our time. this was a very good reminder of the power and potential in systems thinking. "We will not transition successfully to a restorative economy until systems thinking becomes as natural, for millions of people, as riding a bike. That's a big ask. How do we get from here, to there? "

Walking cities and work swarms

The concept of "work swarms" and other forms of time-based or project-based collaboration evoked a recall recently of the concepts of the 1960's architectural collaborative known as Archigram.

More appropriately said, the concept for the Walking City devised by Ron Herron, offered a view of the potentials for technology that are only now, 50 years later, being realized.

Herron's concept imagined large ships of collectives of people and technology walking the landscape and applying knowledge, experience, expertise wherever it was needed and then moving off to other problems in other places. Peter Blake, writing in Architectural Forum in 1968, said,

Walking City imagines a future in which borders and boundaries are abandoned in favour of a nomadic lifestyle among groups of people worldwide. ...Walking City anticipated the fast-paced urban lifestyle of a technologically advanced society in which one need not be tied down to a permanent location. The structures are conceived to plug into utilities and information networks at different locations to support the needs and desires of people who work and play, travel and stay put, simultaneously. By means of this nomadic existence, different cultures and information is shared, creating a global information market ... (From the Archigram Archive)

Others have commented on certain similarities of the commercial structures of our more recent times, and the instant cities that enable the globalization of war. In seeking formal or operational similarities to the sketches and descriptions of Archigram, however, many are missing what seems to be the key, yet unrealized vision of the group. The concept of spaces that engage a full spectrum of experience for people who, freed from the bonds of place, are then able to contribute and share knowledge across the world is a concept that is still restrained by the behaviors and practices of management, by the "best practices" of the real estate industry, by the zoning of most cities, by the rise of the culture of security, and by a failure of imagination in the design profession.

I think the vision is not "architectural" in conventional terms, but that it is very much about the experiences that architecture supports and can provide. Archigram's Walking Cities are not battleships for the countryside, but are representations of a full and free set of sustaining experiences that enable people, dedicated to doing good things, to move to a place together that is not their home and and do work together untethered and unfettered by traditional or conventional policies and practices in the provision of place, space and technology. We know how to do this now without the heavy weight of Herron's land cruisers, but even they are much lighter than the physical infrastructure we now have to work with and in.

I am, in other words, still looking for a developer.

Return to "scenius" – 6 key factors supporting information spillover and communal genius

information spillover and "scenius" I am very amused by the life and propagation of the term "scenius." It's a word that was coined by the musician, Brian Eno, to describe what he called a "communal form of the concept of genius." It is, in effect, a serendipitous amplification of the benefits of collaboration generated by some very special characteristics of talent and environment.

We had first commented on our interest in scenius in an earlier post, "scenius and workplace genius," considering the application of its principles in the domain of workspace design and, especially, "creation spaces." We also discussed there the resonance of the idea in other contexts and precedents. Now, Steven Johnson, exploring the origins of good ideas, has a recent column in the Financial Times also presenting and discussing the concept.

Johnson reflects on his experience in New York both watching the birth of ideas as well as starting up his own commercial ventures. In his examination, there are at least these six factors that characterize an environment that might possibly lead to scenius –

  1. A healthy and supportive community of risk-takers
  2. Visionary programs and people in local educational institutions
  3. Physical density
  4. Shared spaces...and shared people
  5. Places that support casual conversation and information spillover
  6. Multi-dimensional diversity in networks

Johnson is the author of a recently published book on innovation, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

[Image: Breakers by Phil Kirkwood via]

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The Power of Empty Space (part 2)

Twenty years ago, we had a project to plan and design a new national standards lab for Abu Dhabi. This was after that first great wave of American architects' participation in building in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia began to invest in new urban infrastructure and development. Abu Dhabi was looking to a future with a great need for transforming ignored resources like the great salt ocean into powerful resources to generate a sustainable agriculture and support and grow their population. A new national standards lab would be a key institution to support this regional transformation.

More interesting, however, was the intention expressed to us by the leaders of the country to grow and sustain a national professional and scientific knowledge base. The suddenly emerging wealth of the country meant that its youth were enjoying the opportunity of getting educations in some of the best universities in the world.

However, with that education, the young people of the country then sought to contribute and benefit from the opportunities that the world provided, very few of which were available to them in Abu Dhabi. The development of a scientific infrastructure was a commitment to develop the institutions that would attract the country's educated children back home and provide them with opportunities for growth and recognized contributions there.

Our project involved the planning of a building with state-of-the-art laboratories that would be largely empty and unstaffed, in a sense. That is, we had developed a co-laboratory concept that would allow those Emirate graduates to continue their lives and research in the great knowledge centers of the world but develop and perform scientific exploration remotely in the new labs back in their home countries. Over time, the strategy assumed, the education of the staff at home, the growth of embedded technologies and legacy science in the new labs, and the application of discovery to national and regional development would gradually draw their newly and highly educated younger generations back home.

That strategy – building supply well before demand – looked initially so inappropriate from our resource-rich perspective. I thought of this while reading this PSFK interview with the authors of Al Manakh 2 Gulf Continued, the new volume of studies on the urbanization of the Middle East. Architects and planners from around the world initially rushed to participate in what is now perceived as the overbuilding of Dubai. Then as the global economic debacle took hold, we began to look with fascination at the empty buildings of Dubai, much as we do the "ruin porn" of Detroit.

Certainly, there was much hubris in the rapid development of the Emirates, but was there vision as well? I was interested in the "time to activate" concept in this portion of the interview.

If the question is addressing Dubai — the unlit windows one sees in new buildings in the Jumeriah Beach Residence, for instance — yes, it all seems rushed. The financial crisis has suddenly given developers an opportunity to claim the criticism of Dubai’s harshest critics: that cities don’t happen over time. So it follows, these places just need time to become activated. To damn Dubai now for building too much too quickly, would be too short-sighted. It’s a question we’ll have to answer in years to come.


There are voices within Dubai, primarily Emiratis, who are saying Dubai needs to amp up its image as a place of entrepreneurship. Make it a place where you can easily set up shop as a business owner. I find this fascinating because it has a ring of Dubai’s yesteryears, when traders and businesses set up shop along the Creek. That’s what created Dubai in the first place. Of course supporting entrepreneurship can’t be the only goal, but it suggests a general direction. More broadly, it suggests a focus on people.

(More on Al Manakh, here, and here)

The Power of Empty Space, part 1, on a different consideration of urban architecture, is here.

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Monday musings

These are some of the things we found interesting this week.

The game layer on top of the world This is a fascinating TED talk in which Seth Priebatsch outlines some of the potentials for predictably modifying behaviors in gaming overlays – "using only 7 game mechanics I can make anybody do anything."  

Most interesting is the declaration of the end of the "social decade" and the beginning of the "gaming decade." Regardless of the eventual truth of this, the implications for exploration in what we all do are very provocative.

5 anomalies of architecture The guys at Build LLC have a great blog, I think. Their outlook is diverse and touches all aspects of the design and build practice.  

Their attention to business models is also interesting, as in this survey of practice alternatives. They note that "these aren’t just different ways to design –they are revolutionary ways to rework the business of design, they are changing the nature of how we work."

Thirty conversations on design This is the 2010 edition of videos of conversations with designers started last year by Little & Company.  

They asked each designer two questions – “What single example of design inspires you most?” and “What problem should design solve next?”

Living with Mies There's a great urban housing prototype in Detroit designed by Mies van der Rohe. It has an unmistakable footprint of form and landscape, and it has always been a disappointment that it was not a model used more broadly across the city.  

The New York Times turned to it last week and included a fascinating portfolio of photos and statements of how different people have modified the units for themselves.

Future scenarios The Tofflers came into the news this week with some interesting updates on what the future might look like. 

"Business, government, and organizational structures need to be looked at and redone. We've built much of the world economy on an industrial model, and that model doesn't work in an information-centric society. That's probably the greatest challenge we still face--understanding the old rules don't apply for the future."

Global aging There seemed to be a rising attention to the aging of the world and the implications for the future and for demographics. This article in Foreign Policy raises some concerns about falling population by 2070.  

And this article in the Economist addresses the shift in entrepreneurship from America to Asia based on age demographics.

CHE | Tips on Reading a Landscape I had a nice conversation with a friend this weekend who commented on a typical condition of our lives – how we miss noticing things that are otherwise in our presence every day. He had stepped out on his front porch and, looking down the street, noticed a huge, "noble" tree in his neighbor's front yard that he had, he said, never noticed before in the eleven years he lived there.

He seemed truly distressed, so I offered that there are probably lots of these things that certainly influence or affect us in some way unconsciously and yet, in the right conditions, suddenly appear as if new.

It was interesting then, to find later in the day, a reference to a program of the Center for Culture, History and Environment. Prior to one of their "Place-Based Workshops" they held something of an orientation session and developed these "Tips on Reading an Urban Landscape. They are a great primer on developing a discipline to be a bit more attentive and aware of the seen and unseen in our environments in all five senses.

Linknotes April 16, 2010

After a couple of weeks of travel and focused work, I am now catching my breath a bit. Linknotes provides me a way of getting back into the flow when original content is not yet fully developed.

Innovation redefined and relocated A recent lament in the press on the unexpected consequences of globalization made the observation that as the US outsourced what it believed to be lower-content manufacturing tasks, it also was outsourcing the country's industries' basis for innovation.

Process improvements on the shop floor or in the call center naturally took place where the work was being done. Managers at companies who outsourced the work could no longer observe how work was being done and were outside of the stream of information that provided the data and insights that would support positive chain and improvement. Those outsourced jobs are now beginning to provide the base for innovation leadership by companies and industries in other places.

The Economist has a special report in its latest issue on the increasing momentum and character of innovation from sources in other countries. Observing that this is becoming a huge wave, they credit the phenomenon on bigger visions.

Why are countries that were until recently associated with cheap hands now becoming leaders in innovation? The most obvious reason is that the local companies are dreaming bigger dreams. Driven by a mixture of ambition and fear—ambition to bestride the world stage and fear of even cheaper competitors in, say, Vietnam or Cambodia—they are relentlessly climbing up the value chain.

In addition, the Economist notes that these are places where brainpower is plentiful and free from the burdens of legacy systems. As a result, strategic planning by multinationals now actively and intentionally locates major R&D efforts in these other developing countries – a practice called "polycentric innovation." While enjoying the energies of foreign innovators, this may be led more by the need to comprehend, understand and market to the huge emerging markets that these countries hold.

Among the impacts of these developments are the reversal of the traditional global supply chain, the redefinition of innovation as incremental improvements provide accessible goods to the huge base of the market pyramid, and the redesign of management systems themselves.

The Rest saving the West The week provides interesting correlations in items like the Dx1W competition – a competition for designers, artists, scientists, makers and thinkers in developing countries to provide solutions for First World problems.

We have been focus­ing our energy and resources on try­ing to solve our Developing World problems to become more like the First World. But per­haps it is time that we, the so called Third World minds, focused our energy and creativity on solving some of the First World problems. We will have a brighter future to look for­ward to, and per­haps this can help us rethink and approach our cur­rent problems from a different perspective.

Collapse of complexity At an entirely different scale, we've become very interested in the way in which a more mobile workstyle is beginning to affect the way that space and place is planned or provided for work, and more specifically how new innovation may be arising from the casual interaction of free agents working in places that attract them. Laura Forlano, writing in the Urban Omnibus, notes that "coworking is rapidly emerging as a meme for the reorganization of knowledge work."

This example of the increasing development of coworking spaces is one example. Our earlier comments on the concept of "scenius" are similar. And also this week, Hagel and Brown published their new book on the Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, which also further develops their ideas about "creation spaces."

The influences of space and place to creation were also explored in an Innovation Camp in Berlin reported on by Tim Leberecht of frog design.

Reflecting on the role of creative spaces for their innovations, they proposed three types of spaces: the mindset (brain space), the location and work environment (physical space), and the network (virtual space).

After reviewing both common practice and other studies on the types of space that support creation, Tom makes a case also for market space. He makes the observation that, "It often goes unrecognized that the innovator’s biggest creative accomplishment may not be to invent a new product or service but to imagine and create a new market."

Also resonating this week was Clay Shirky's considerations on the collapse of complex systems. While speaking more to the domain of media, Shirky's reference to Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies might also have relevance in this context.

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Whether innovation activity moves more fruitfully to a cafe in Kansas City or a company in Katmandu, there seems to be a trend of its moving from a context of complexity to one of self-organizing simplicity. The influences on organizations seeking creation and innovation may be emerging in these alternative places and spaces.

And then these appearing today –

Adam Greenfield on Rework and the City considering the places of work, or the necessity of people coming together in the same place for work.

Greenfield also on the potentials of serendipity, I think relevant also to the concept of self-selecting places for work and back to "scenius."

He makes reference to Robert Fripp's "mobile intelligence units," a nice concept articulated by his sister, here and further defined here as–

The future unit of organization is the small, mobile, and intelligent unit where intelligence is defined as the capacity to perceive rightness, mobile the capacity to act on that perception and small the necessary condition for that action in a contracting world.

Why Detroit has to build before it tears down

[gallery] Detroit is in the process of becoming a smaller city. As part of the process, much of the urban context is under evaluation. Detroit's mayor is preparing to demolish thousands of buildings, its schools chief is preparing to close and consolidate schools, and everybody seems ready to claim a plot of underutilized land for farming. Each of these moves, and many others like them, are part of a global conversation about right-sizing the city and reconciling population, resources and infrastructure.

For many of the shrink-the-city advocates, demolition is a first step. Erasing the landscape of the estimated seventy thousand homes, commercial structures, office buildings, manufacturing plants and schools that have been abandoned and left to rot, they argue, is an essential step past denial into acceptance of the population shift. With a clean landscape, the city can begin to imagine itself in a different way, and imagine a different form and future for itself.

I believe differently. I propose that it is essential for the city to build before it tears down.

Among of the most important components of the strength necessary to take Detroit into its future are its institutions. These institutions give identity to a community (or the communities of a community), express its values, and provide a place for people to gather and to discuss, affirm, evolve, and develop the ideas that bring them together and that give them the resources they need to go forward. Around these institutions are the rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and stories that nurture a shared culture and that sustain a community.

Most typically, these institutions raise up buildings that provide presence for the institution and express its values. These places are halls of government, churches and schools, stadiums, music halls and museums. In an extension of the language of a community, they may also be corporate structures, commercial structures, and stores. They may be train stations, airports, and waterfronts. Almost all of these, in Detroit, have had their meaning destroyed and have come to represent massive systemic institutional failure.

For more than a generation, Detroit's leadership has actively destroyed its institutions or neglectfully left them to rot. The city does not have a representative government, so there is nothing in neighborhoods to provide a rallying place for shared concerns. The city hall has been a place where mayors have plundered the city for personal gain. The schools have been places of similar greed and plunder rather than education, and their students are at the absolute bottom of achievement among cities across the country. Major music halls and theaters have been turned into parking garages (literally) and parking lots. Almost every major cultural institution, having been graced with major expansions through philanthropists seeking to name an edifice for personal legacy, are now threatened under the burden of the operating costs and mortgages they've assumed. The Renaissance Center, a cluster of towers frequently used as a logo for the city, was built and abandoned by Ford, then acquired by GM who first left its own historic headquarters and is now progressively leaving this one. Corporate chiefs who stood at the front of the cultural and charitable institutions they supported are now, after bankrupting their companies, abandoning them and the needs of the thousands they put out of work. At least one major sports hall, built as the chip in a deal to keep a team in the city but without appropriate resources or vision beyond its site lines, will be demolished because it has not connection to the life of the city, and the team in it wants another deal to build another palace nearby. An iconic train station lies in ruins as its owner sues for a right to be a troll under a new bridge. And a huge black iron fist, its meaning as monument divorced from the name that it celebrates, stands at the city's cornerstone intersection as a threatening greeting to all who would enter.

It is hard, in other words, to point to the traditional monuments and homes of the institutions that build and bind a city and find any that have relevance or meaning, or that are not tainted by a story that talks louder than the story the city now wants to tell.

Most of those institutional edifices were about a big city, big egos, big deals, and big names, none with prominence any more. If the city is to get smaller, and better, it needs to identify and support smaller institutions.

To give them the presence they need to affirm their existence, to symbolize a new way of doing things, to accept a representative scale, to provide a place to gather, to connect rather than separate, to nurture on a smaller and healthier diet, the city needs to generate a program to build before it demolishes.

The city must show that its new values are authentic, that its care is more than words, that its governance will be of the people, that its neighborhoods will not be reservations but the primary resource of restoration, and that it will care more about the future through investment in its schools before making deals in sports.

All of this will take imagination. New, appropriately scaled institutions will need to rise around new values and new ideas to replace the failed and tainted. These institutions will need to be shaped from small neighborhood clusters, and also need to understand, once again, the essential network they share with the region beyond Eight Mile. In order to be successful, these institutions will need to take physical form, and a in a new language of form than we have traditionally utilized.

When these new shapes are seen dotting the landscape across the city and at its frontiers, then Detroit's citizens, and its friends, and those who will become its citizens will understand that something has changed and that something new is happening here, and that they can see something they can believe in, and trust.

That's how I think the city's future can be built.

What do you think?

Go or grow – developing a "next economy" for the Midwest

Detroit, and the subject of its shrinkage, is in global discussion these days.  Here are two of those points of analysis and recommendation that showed up over the past day or two that I think are both representative of the conversation as well as illustrative of its "go-or-grow" nature.

Shrinking Detroit Back to Greatness | Economix | NYT

Ed Glaeser addresses the matter of the shrinking of Detroit in the Economix blog of the New York Times. I remain deeply skeptical of this strategy, believing that abandoning a city and relocating its residents is irresponsible. So many other cities in the Midwest and other places have, after significant decline, found ways of attracting people, building jobs, and providing opportunity, and so improving their physical, social and economic quality of life and growing.

Glaeser offers strategic clues in his analysis. These include proven concepts like –

  • Developing a city of small entrepreneurs, realizing that some may evolve into major global players
  • Support a city of abundant small companies for faster growth than big companies provide
  • Focus on educational opportunity and quality, since skilled cities grow faster
  • Support and grow industrial diversity, since it is more conducive to growth than industrial monocultures

I wish he and others would further develop and promote this "back to greatness" guidebook. This could shift the focus of the conversation from the concept of "urban farming" which is essentially an excuse for a void of civic imagination, dedication and energy.

The Next Economy | Metro Matters podcast | Next American City

As an example of a dialogue I like better, and showing greater imagination about Detroit, there is this podcast from the Next American City. Bruce Katz from the Brookings Institute addresses the issues of perception in the Midwest and the resistance to investment there as a result.

He suggests a reality of its being a "Brain Bet" rather than a "Rust Belt" and argues for investment around this idea. A key concept for him is building a different narrative about the economy in places like Detroit, and he suggests that "Brain Belt" is a phrase that communicates not only the economic reality of the place but also its potential.

Arguing that places like Detroit have to focus on their assets, he also points to the importance of place in achieving successful transformations. He notes that ours is a visual culture, and points to cities like Leipzig, Bilbao and Torino as examples where initiatives around the quality of the physical environment have been significant factors for successful growth after declaration of death.

Faulting both industrial and governmental leaders, Katz suggests that a great future can be found in the Midwest through the commercialization and industrialization of innovations in export-oriented, low-carbon, innovation-fueled products whose development can nurture an opportunity-rich regional growth.

Acknowledging the facts of shrinkage, Katz says there is a "smart way to shrink," and I did not hear farming or agriculture in his proposals.

Business and community, microlocal strategies, and the digital urban...Linknotes 100220

I've been a bit consumed with the essentials of production over the past few weeks. That work, however, is generating a lot of good ideas for exploration in this blog. I hope in other words, to get back on a regular, even more frequent, pace soon.

In the meantime, to warm things up, I offer some of the things that we bookmarked this week, and hope they are of interest to you, as well. Let us know in your comments.

An emerging transformation of the values of business?

In the continuing examination of the role that Wall Street played in destroying the economy, there is a growing number of recognized thought leaders who are evaluating the culture of business and arguing for change in values, metrics, and even language.

I've been greatly appreciating some very different but delightful voices on the emerging change in business – Roger Martin, Umair Haque and Gary Hamel. Each addresses the importance of language and communications to shape the relevance and authenticate of a business and orient an engage its employees.

What we all lost when business lost respect…Martin has begun a series of articles exploring the enormous impact of inauthentic business values on the concept of the American community. Martin notes that, "as social creatures, much of our happiness is derived from our relationship with community — however that community is defined. We long to be: a) a valued member of a community; b) that we value; and c) is valued by people outside the community in question."

He offers the example of Boeing, who offered its headquarters to the highest bidder and then abandoned Seattle for Chicago, as an example of the erosion in these community attributes that has been caused by the primacy of "shareholder value" in the expressed purposes of business. He looks at the "communities" of American business executives and concludes that "We simply have to acknowledge that the community created by a combination of shareholder value maximization dogma, executive compensation theories, Wall Street analysts and bankers, and the financial press creates an unhealthy and inauthentic community."

The Wisdom Manifesto…Haque has been writing for some time about what he calls the zombieconomy as the root of the recession. He notes that a key characteristic of the zombieconomy is its lack of consciousness, intelligence and wisdom.

He contrasts wisdom and strategy and offers the examples of JPMorgan and Toyota to develop a metric of the billions lost in the difference. His 9-step plan to bring wisdom beyond strategy starts with the concept of expression, the language used to communicate purpose. "To get wise, articulate your essence: the change you want to see in the world. That means literally crafting a statement of intent about 'the world'."

The hole in the soul of business…Hamel offers considerations on the "paucity of purpose" in the American corporation, and the importance of a key shift in the foundation for strategy – to wave goodbye to the “knowledge economy” and say hello to the “creative economy.

He references the recent Global Workforce Study conducted by Towers Perrin that found that only 20% of employees are truly engaged in the work that they do. Hamel challenges the frequently expressed reasons – quality of manager – for this disengagement, and then speculates on other causes. He suggests that many of these companies have what he calls a "love deficit," or an inability to express and espouse more "noble" values of purpose over "secular" metrics of performance.

Hamel concludes, "I know this—customers, investors, taxpayers and policymakers believe there’s a hole in the soul of business. The only way for managers to change this fact, and regain the moral high ground, is to embrace what Socrates called the good, the just and the beautiful."

It was interesting that as these these voices on the changing language of business referenced values of happiness, purpose and community so also came the Gallup index on urban well being and a cluster of other articles on the places and spaces of health and happiness.

Global and local

While I doubt that these considerations of community and authenticity are at the core of emerging strategic moves just yet, there are signs of alignment with these concept emerging among some go the biggest brands out there.

For example, it seems not so long ago that we were assured that even in its most remote and exotic markets, we could get a bag of fries made of the same potatoes and fallow and tasting the same as back home. McDonald's and other mega-brands now seem to be in the midst of a global shift. Undoubtedly driven by market considerations, there may also be benefits to local producer economies and even improved sustainability metrics. Any chance a McItaly might also have health benefits?

Starbucks' approach seems to be a bit more subversive. The brand is now experimenting with burying its pervasive brand under the name and look of a more "local" and friendly coffee house.

Digital urban

Even as other local places and spaces lose relevance in an increasingly globally accessible world, the digitalization of content may actually be making things micro-local.

In its Room for Debate blog, the New York Times opened a virtual discussion/debate asking the question, Do school libraries need books? A number of authors, librarians and educators take up the topic.

In a similar mode, BLDGBOG took up the subject of the atomized library. Rather than doing away with the library, the concept explores the concept of smaller information spaces scattered throughout a city in various contextually-modified forms. For me, this also provokes a question about the places and spaces of work, and the potential of an alternative provider and concept than the oft-cited Starbucks-as-office model.

There's a very nice exploration of the impacts of the new iPad in this context at City of Sound. Dan Hill celebrates the iPad as a "device for cities" in its use and role supporting work and life in the space in between buildings. I wonder if this device eases Hill's concerns, in an earlier post considering Francis Duffy's book, Work and the City, about the fragility of the relationship between work, the office and the city. In other words, will this be the device that tips the tide in how work is done, and therefore the places it is done? Will the iPad be the greatest tool in killing the office park and restoring vibrant urbanism?

Related, but a bit more challenging, is this exploration of the concept of a "post-text world."

See you soon.


4. Urban agriculture

I’m borrowing the 10 things concept to build an agenda of thinking for the next couple of months – my New Year’s resolutions, of sorts. Over the next few days, we’ll roll out one or two of these ideas in the hope that you’ll find something of common interest and choose to join the conversation…or even commission a study!

Okay, where were we? Oh, yeah...

Urban agriculture

I think I am irritating others by being irritated by this subject. It’s a matter I am addressing without, frankly, knowing much about it. I am trying to get into the conversation, nonetheless, because I fear it is moving too fast, without challenge, in places where a broader and deeper discussion ought to be taking place.

How is this a redesign problem? I think it enters our agenda because the prominence of the term in the press seems to potentially have the power of beginning to influence land use policies and therefore the design of our cities. From what I am seeing, urban agriculture is embraced to put a pretty label on a failure of leadership.

In my backyard, “urban agriculture” is

  • An obscuring cover for the urban impacts of a failure to provide a sustainable jobs and a decent environment for people – it clothes individual acts of survival (a hen house) with an impression of intentional innovation and institutional sanction (urban agriculture) and has a very limited definition of sustainability (what about supply chain integration and stability, for example)
  • It provides the opportunity for wealthy to acquire property lost by those who lost jobs in the collapse of American industry and the manipulations of financial instruments
  • It is a trendy label for the failure to accept responsibility for the infrastructure you steward as municipal governors, and failure to spend the creative energy to generate a vision and a plan to repopulate, and instead accept the concept of “shrinking city” as a “trend” itself