Episode Seventy Four: Cities; Disruptive; Still Brittle

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m back down at Menlo Park today, with a 4am wakeup call, a 6am flight and a long day ahead of me. So it’s a good job this couch is comfy.

1.0 Cities

For starters, if I’m going to write about cities and urban planning, then it looks like I really need to read the seminal work on the subject, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities[1], and at the very least trawl through Dan Hill’s published work because there are a bunch of people who actually have spent time thinking about these sorts of things, rather than my decidedly armchair/dining-table opinions.

One point that bubbled up was that if you take Zipf’s law[2] as a benchmark, then the UK is “missing” a city in that London’s effect genuinely is disproportionate and distorting. Another way of looking at London’s influence, especially if you’re not from the UK, is by looking at the various hubs that London serves. For example, a London-equivalent in America would be some sort of freakish combination of New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Boston and bits of San Francisco. Because in London, you have an entire country’s media, legal, financial, art, software and academic scenes[3]. And the UK being the size it is, the two historic academic centres of the country in Oxford and Cambridge (sorry, should’ve checked my privilege there) are only about 45 minutes away.

To paraphrase Adams again, the thing about London and the UK is that you just won’t understand how *big* the former is, and how *small* the latter is. It’s not entirely for humour that Californian residents joke that the UK fits *inside* their state.

And of course, all of this is reckoning, but: when or where is the tipping point in terms of commuter towns being subsumed inside what would otherwise be called Greater London? Commuter trains from places like Cambridge and Brighton to London are already packed and if you work in the right location: ie – near one of the rail termini, then your commute is potentially less time than if you lived inside one of London’s transport zones itself.

It’s interesting to think of what sort of carrying capacity you need to support a genuine commuter city. It’s not like there are many Western cities building high capacity mass transport (if there are, please let me know, because I’m super interested), and again it feels like London is the outlier here. There isn’t the housing stock inside the central nugget of London in part because (and I really am reckoning here) of the lack of limitations on non-resident property ownership and London’s real estate occupying rather unique status in the world financial market as a place to park your capital. So individuals and families move further and further out, and then… what? They keep working in London, more or less, because we’ve already established that that’s where the jobs are, once you hit a certain level. But when it’s untenable to live there, to spend a significant amount of time there, then what? The point about London is that as well as being a business strange attractor it’s also a cultural one: and that once you price people out of an entire city, and the only reason they’re going back is for the business – what’s replacing out the hollowed out cultural centre? Do you just end up with pseudo lowest-common-denominators like the Tates, the Natural History and Science Museums, the National Galleries? Where’s all the stuff at the fringe that serves as provocation?

I feel like at some point there’s a magic travel time and, arbitrarily, I’m going to say it’s around 45 minutes to an hour. If I lived outside London, I’d be happy with a door-to-door travel time of up to an hour. Which doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable until you factor in having to build high-speed mass transit in an environment where you can’t just compulsory-purchase-order all the land you need for your no-curvy-bits-in-it point-to-point rail network, because you’ve got things like pesky voters who have nothing better to do than stay at home and complain about things because they didn’t really want to go to London in the first place.

Of course, if we actually get matter transportation, then all this goes out the window. I wonder what the long hedge against that sort of transportation is.

[1] Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

Amazon: http://amzn.to/1iZ4e0x

Powell’s: http://www.powells.com/biblio/9780679741954

[2] Zipf’s law: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zipf’s_law, http://www.bbc.com/news/business-26472423 and http://spatial-economics.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/are-britains-second-tier-cities-too.html

[3] Paul Mison, on Twitter

2.0 Disruptive

So there’s this New York Times article[1] that’s been doing the rounds, the gist of which is that America’s poor can be awash in literal material abundance but simultaneously living paycheck to paycheck and unable to claw themselves out of poverty. Most striking of all is a graph implying that costs have soared or risen for items like college education, child care, vehicle maintenance and repair and food and beverages and plummeted for “televisions, toys and phones”. While housing, personal care and new/used vehicle services have shown declines of up to 40% in cost over the last ten years, the starkest change, unsurprisingly for those in the tech sector, is in “toys, phones and accessories, personal computers and equipment and television” which range from a 60 to 100% price drop over the last ten years, as well as reflecting an increase in quality.

This is part of what I mean in terms of my critique of the Californian Ideology. Moore’s law has been great at disrupting the pointy, top-end of Maslow’s pyramid, but we know that those are all at the self-actualizing end. You can come to me and you can say that tech has been *truly* disruptive when it’s delivered – not just promised – a 100% reduction in costs for college-equivalent education (some might say that it’s started nibbling at this already), or child care, or healthcare, or the other buckets of vehicle and maintenance/repair and food and beverages.

And don’t give me that crap about services like Uber or Airbnb, because at this point they feel essentially like on-demand dehumanising services *if* one of the benefits as cited is that they are a side-method of earning income for the poor, or an alternative to employment.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve someone like Bobby Bingham picking up a side-Uber job and another loan for a towncar that he can use to ply his fourth part-time job:

“Bobby Bingham, 38, of Kansas City, Mo., works three part-time jobs seven days a week to make ends meet, but struggles to cover basic living expenses: his apartment, his car, his car insurance, gas and utilities. He is also heavily in debt, owing $30,000 in student loans and about $12,000 in credit-card debt with an annual interest rate of 17 percent.”[1]

You want to find a way to use capitalism to drive up the standard of living of everyone, not just the middle class? Find a way to reduce the cost of childcare. If having women working in developing countries is a goal to help them advance out of poverty, then it should be here, too. But no: broadly, America wants women to not have access to contraception, it has unaffordable childcare, and it also wants women to work. Or not work.

It’s a mess. Disrupt that.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/01/business/economy/changed-life-of-the-poor-squeak-by-and-buy-a-lot.html?_r=0

3.0 Still Brittle

Okay, so I’m still thinking about the point yesterday on product recalls and what you need to be able to have a resilient, healthy infrastructure. Dan Hill wrote another typically smart essay in dezeen about physically connected, but functionally disconnected infrastruture[1] in the context of the morass of services that keep a city going, a tangled circulatory system that we don’t even have a full picture of. Sure, a city’s a few orders of magnitude more complicated than a human body (wait: is it, really? Or is it just that much harder to find a dead – or living – city to dissect. I’d buy that theory). In fact, now my head’s spinning a bit and if you’ll forgive me I kind of want to pursue this tangent. (If I had a Snow Crash Librarian, I’d totally be asking her to remember this fork for us to come back to).

So. We have fantastically complex and detailed tools to image the human body, which contains inside it some of the most intricate and finely designed systems that we’ve ever seen. What are the equivalent imaging tools for cities? They are, on another level, some of the most intricate and finely designed systems that we’ve ever seen, too. And, just like the way bodies have accreted various solutions for doing things thanks to evolution, our cities have accreted infrastructure that we don’t quite know about, might not even know how they work, whilst at the same time, clamping on exo-suits to them, Google-Glass style in the form of smart nodes like Nests and CCTV systems here and there. So what’s the MRI/fMRI for a city? What’s an ultrasound for a city? What are diagnostic tests that can be performed? When you take a 24 hour ECG, what’s the equivalent of that for a city? All of this instrumentation and visibility, and I’m genuinely interested in what the invasive and non-invasive diagnostic measures are that we have for looking at the “health” of a city.

There’s something in an agglomeration of Nests being like a sort of proprioceptive sense for a city. That it’s able to start self-regulate or at least measure itself. That’s the interesting thing: when an organism or a construct has knowledge of its placement in both space and time. Basically: Gray’s Anatomy[2] for cities, please.

Anyway. I actually meant to talk about the internet and all the stuff that’s connected to it. That for the moment we have things like a World Health Organisation that’s concerned with doing things like wiping out polio. I’m not sure what the equivalent is for, er, telecoms infrastructure. The ITU? Is there, or should there be, a public safety campaign for “What To Do When Your Home Network Is Suborned?”

Because, of course, the thing about Polio is that while we may be on the verge of being able to deal with it, we’re simultaneously dealing with pushback from groups who believe vaccines are a western plot to sterilize their children and increased interconnectivity due to international travel[3].

I guess the other way to think about it is this: bacteria and viruses exist in our world, we develop defenses against them. That doesn’t mean we’re never susceptible. And the environment changes, too. There’s something, though, in knowing that there are (millions? tens of millions?) of devices out there that have weaknesses and that they’re so stupendously dumb.

[1] http://www.dezeen.com/2014/05/01/dan-hill-opinion-nest-thermostat-innovation-city-services/

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gray’s_Anatomy

[3] John Dodds

Okay! Notes please!