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Jul 27

Complex Adaptive NYC

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If you're unfamiliar with the experience, a busy or even not so busy day in Manhattan sees something around 3 million people occupy 23 square miles, with most of them packed into the middle. These people walk at a very quick pace, and they very rarely collide. It's a live action dance improvisation on a truly massive scale.

When I was a child my father would take me with him to New York where he worked. I quickly learned the basics of walking in the city: walk fast and don't get in anybody's way. I was really impressed with how fast New Yorkers did things - how fast they walked, how fast they talked and how fast they accomplished the moment-to-moment transactions of urban life. But most important, I learned that failure to execute an appropriate and timely action brought shame and scorn upon the transgressors. They had branded themselves as "out-of-towners".

Even though we had taken the train from Connecticut, we were considered New Yorkers because we acted like New Yorkers. 

The Three Standards

As I spent more time in New York, I would watch the traffic patterns from the windows of buildings, sometimes for hours. And, of course, I walked the city from Harlem to the ferry. Clearly, I've spent more time researching the subject than may be good for my sanity. But I finally got down to what I think is the core of the New Yorker's code of transit conduct - The Three Standards. 

  1. Keep Moving
  2. Don't Prevent Other Movement
  3. When 1 and 2 conflict, follow The Rules.

These standards enable the mad but successful weaving of people, cars and bicycles in the street and sidewalks of New York because, unlike rules, they are flexible enough to apply to almost every shade of nuance one might encounter "in the field". That said, having The Rules as a backup supports large amount of successful, extra-legal action that does no harm and adds great efficiency to the system. 

Rules are too rigid for these situations. But a set of standards that guide behavior allow for thousands of interlocking temporary complex adaptive mini-system to execute an intricate weave spur-of-the-moment. We're talking about tens of thousands of people making an endless series of split-second decisions based on the rate and trajectory of dozens of separate, self-directed objects each with its own set of goals.

They do this at a terrific rate, and yet they almost never collide. David Weinberger - Fry favorite, co-author of Cluetrain and one of the uber-nerds at Harvard's Berkman Center - refers to this as "tacit governance", a soft governance of standards (norms, he calls them) without explicit rules.

A Simple Example

The simplest example is the single pedestrian approaching a red light. Does she cross against the red or not? Standard 1 says keep moving, but will that motion violate Standard 2 by preventing other motion like, say, a taxi cab going 45 mph? If so, then the pedestrian follows The Rules, but only until the cab has past. If there is a safe window of opportunity, the pedestrian crosses against the red and is considered to have followed The Standards even though she broke the rules.

As we add more elements to this example, the The Standards' flexibility allows for virtually any situation. Perpendicular pedestrian traffic, for example, would have priority as they 'have the light'. Their continuing motion, supported by Standard 3, is more important than our single pedestrian who must still make a separate calculation about crossing 'against the light'. Thus, she would yield to let the crossing pedestrians 'make the light', then approach the intersection and consider her next move. 

The Expectation of Compliance

New Yorkers make these decisions almost without thinking because The Standards are so much a part of their everyday life. According to Weinberger, tacit governance only exists when compliance is nearly universal and non-compliance is dealt with organically. In New York, a simple "Go back to Jersey" usually gets the point across.

This expectation of compliance - that another pedestrian will recognize the priority of your motion and allow you to continue - is the heart of the system. There isn't time to consider whether or not all the other moving entities are aware of The Standards.

You act as if they do. If the don't, you tell 'em all about it.

Jul 16

Live Blog: Cafe - 16 July 2009

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Live blogging

7/16 Providence & Beyond

Round 1
Major Factors in the Next Economy

Provocation #1

•    The current economy is in “creative destruction:” the products and services previously developed are falling apart
•    The next economy is growing around these ideas: heal the ecology, develop clean energy and cradle-to-cradle product cycles, build healthy ‘whole place’ neighborhoods/communities
•    Everything is getting smaller, lighter, smarter, packed with more know how…think i-Phone…”small is beautiful”

•    Design thinking will reinvigorate every segment of the economy: growing food, making things, serving people, developing knowledge

Add transportation/mobility/flow
Design thinking then doing - fixing 'award winning' buildings
Relationship between design thinking and ecosystem destruction - we make things smaller, but make more of them so there's no net decrease of material use
Challenge: creative destruction 'full of ideology' - just a cyclical reinvention of the economy
Bifurcating economy where affluent follow green thinking, less affluent don't (challenged by anecdotal evidence - "they" get it)
3rd world countries "great at recycling because we need to use everything we get"
Challenge: creative destruction -
Challenge: new products/services - is that what drives the economy? Since 65, rate of mfg profit has dropped - current global situation shows overcapacity. Long trend of boom/bust - first phase is product oriented, then shifts to finance as markets are saturated. Not clear that they are cyclical. Usually based on a new place usurping markets.
Local angle - 'only thing growing and thriving is government' - if we replace factory mills with condo mills, what happens to the other housing stock?
Wood is an irreplaceable factor on the planet

Provocation #2

•    Non-compete clauses are unenforceable in California but enforceable in Massachusetts
•    In the 1980s, each had a small but growing IT sector
•    In California, Silicon Valley drove an unprecedented wave of innovation and economic expansion
•    In Massachusetts, Rt. 128 failed to reach its potential
•    An economy functions as a whole system where each element is dependent on many others for life. Elements advance based on co-evolution and co-determination
•    An ecosystem includes more than just companies – also disruptors, mavens, social/civic entrepreneurs, connectors as well as the places where they congregate
•    The denser and more layered the ecosystem, the richer the output

•    An ecosystem-oriented development strategy is essential to economic prosperity

Hunter/gatherer societies - provocation is true of older societies - level of technology determines how we exploit environment. Technology evolving so its impact gets redefined over time
- artist comment: I'm hunting and gathering, just in a different way.
Ecosystem can't be managed or control - an ecosystem that is nourished (as opposed to a development strategy) is essential...
Add the qualifier "sustainable economic prosperity"
Ecosystem model - one of constant change. Strategy would help us develop an ecosystem economy
Choosing winners break the model, breaks feedback mechanism
Challenge: currently MA's economy working better than CA's - CA unemployment 50% higher than MA
We can't pick winners, but we can enable a process to evolve as an economic development paradigm - what has to go into the system to nourish -
Challenge: Without including people and relationships in the conversation, language sanitized and not nuanced. Is this healthy for people, this success in the IT sector a good thing?
Challenge: Was the non-compete all that important or just one of many factors?
Challenge: Stop using the word "ecosystem" - confuses holistic approach with the natural environment
1986 CA study: predicted that biotech was bad bet for local/regional economy
In RI, we need to focus on the basics, not go off on tangents
On concept of flow, US still strong maybe because of natural flow. The more we incentivize, the more we 'screw up the natural flow'
Challenge: how do we define "prosperity" - in another conversation, the basic discussion went from buildings (20 yrs ago) to quality of life (today)
Citation: google redefining progress

Provocation #3

•    Corporations in our region are not providing the number or quality of jobs that they have in the past
•    Many jobs in the future will not be “jobs” but “work” where wealth is created in other forms
•    Entrepreneurial traits are “randomly distributed in the population” to “at least one in six people” (David McClelland: The Need for Achievement)
•    Newly-created companies have greater economic impact than relocated existing companies

•    The next economy requires a new definition of entrepreneurship that recognizes various sizes (self-employed, Mom & Pop, slow- and fast-growth companies) and various types (commercial, social, civic) of endeavors as part of the economy


Extend: nurtures, enables, connects, not just 'recognizes'
Recognize that entrepreneurship should go beyond traditional econ dev thinking
Extend: development of entrepreneurial thinking and doing that extends beyond business
Teaching/expanding entrepreneurship needs it to be pushed through all our systems
- Entrepreneurship: accountability for ones life
- Motivating people to entrepreneurial action
- teachable or 'inherent trait'
- always as "one's own company" or can it be inside an existing company
Over past couple of decades, the 'safe company job' has gone away, so people become their own product - inherent entrepreneurship
Class on green entrepreneurship - now forming a cooperative - 111 startup ideas
- not about big companies, but all the little companies that support the big one
How do we look at the pace of the entrepreneurial world - can we slow it down?
- have to shrink the economy to slow the pace
- 'don't shrink the economy' but have a choice
Risks to entrepreneur are so great that we only talk about the successes
- social piece of the equation - costs of failure on families
- - failure has never been so popular
- - "within the class of people that are likely to do so"
- do people really have a choice
- - once you step into a path, choice largely becomes moot
- - - expectations are what keep people in their paths, not lack of choices
Immigrant perspective: good students 'at home' fail in the US, something in the system turns them off to education
- is it really the students that are failing?
Use of the word 'entrepreneurship' - that there's an elite club of a few creative people that innovate. People need jobs.
- need to value non-entrepreneurs

Round 2
Supporting Innovation

Provocation #1

•    97.5% of start-ups are bootstrapped - they borrow small amounts of money here and there from friends, relatives and credit cards (<$100,000)
•    Less than 0.03% of start-ups get venture capital and the minimal threshold investment is in the mid 7-figures (~$5,000,000)
•    Innovative funding/lending options (social lending, micro-banks, “patient capital”, micro-enterprise grant funds, local currencies) are starting to fill in the gaps

•    The next economy requires a capital structure that recognizes and supports a very large number of very small enterprises

System now: the more you need capital, the less you qualify and vice versa - can that change?
- how long can you self-finance
- (Robert's story about self-financed company)
- again, we only tolerate/discuss success
- we have to talk about what's normal, it can't be anecdotal
Research: Small business failure rate is under 20% -
Research: Most job creation comes from small existing companies, not start-ups - giving $ to entrepreneurs often just burns that money
- what about new business development pipeline - you need to keep adding to the beginning of the process
Challenge: new funding sources are too small and disconnected from larger economy to make a difference - $5k grants not very meaningful
Challenge: THEREFORE needs to recognize all scale of businesses
Small biz perspective: was a gradual, evolutionary experience - hard to define the stages - just keep moving forward with new ideas
Why should we care? What's the social benefit?
- define the goals
Capital is not free, but it should be patient - easy capital is almost always wasted

Provocation #2

•    Current public policy does not recognize many of the new forms that entrepreneurship is taking
•    The forms include cooperative ownership, collaborative entrepreneurship, social enterprises, L3C (low profit) corporations, a cooperative of cooperatives, etc
•    Newly-recognized “loose connections” are facilitating the rapid creation and dissolution of enterprises that exist for a short period to achieve a specific goal

•    The next economy requires major, new public policy that recognizes these new formation and support their rapid creation and dissolution

Concern: public policy results in bureaucracy -
Concern: bureaucracy doesn't support dissolution
- is there a place for public policy?
If there are issues, people need to advocate for the change
Simplicity matters: the more complicated it gets, the more it costs
- selling stuff out of your front room is not easily made legal - requires special permits - why?
- even if everything is small, you can't escape the complexity of how big our society is
Public policy drives money, and money drives outcomes
- current stimulus has special green component - it's having a real effect now
- impediments of structure limit some activity
- - 4 people getting a mortgage together: basically impossible
- - banks thought Dirt Palace was prostitution
Much basic research is done from the public funding
- NIH for biochem, NSA/Pentagon for computer sci
Solar industry perspective: 70s solar industry 'killed by Jimmy Carter's generous handouts
Challenge: losing the human perspective

Jul 14

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

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The source (not specified) is Indeed's own listings that aggregate postings on company career pages and major boards. They have some filters to eliminate duplicates, but as this shows , this is really two jobs listed as four jobs. So the degree of overlap could play a significant role. Places that have offices of major employers that aggressively post on multiple boards as well as their own website will have some increase in representation.

Also, they don't define how they calculate what a 'metro' is. Lets assume it's "metropolitan statistical areas" or MSAs. An MSA is not, IMO, a good proxy for economic development area. It's too small. I grew up in a town that's part of the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk MSA, but everybody worked in NYC. While that MSA has more in-market workers now, the Metro North trains are packed taking workers to the city. Economic development is more regional than local.

Finally, because the state boundaries put a good part of our metro in another state, all the jobs in the Attleboros, etc. probably aren't counted. It really depends on how they parse their listings. The odds are good that the population figure is based on the MSA, which includes Fall River, etc, but the jobs number is RI-only. 

I guess that's a long way of saying that you have to take any given statistical output in its proper context.

Lies, er, Statistics About Rhode Island

I was at the People's Power and Light annual meeting last month, and Ken Payne (who is wikkit smaat, BTW) spoke a bit about why Rhode Island has the nation's lowest per capita energy use. It's certainly not because of any program by the state to reduce energy use. It's actually quite simple, entirely due to our small size, and not all that great an indicator for us.

Three factors have come together to create our statistic. First, we are very small, so small changes make a big difference for us statistically. Second, we are on the ocean and even have the bay in the center of the state. This strongly moderates the ambient temperature, so we're usually a few degrees warmer than, say, Worcester in the winter and a few degrees cooler in the summer. The take away is that our heating/cooling demand is, per capita, lower than our larger neighbors who have land far from the coast.

The last factor - and it's the "not good" part - is that our industrial demand is very, very low. Industrial demand can be a huge part of a region's energy demand, and ours has dropped as factories close down. Replacing industrial demand in a factory with residential demand in a converted factory is not even close to even.

The take-away isn't that statistics can be misleading. It's that RHODE ISLAND statistics are more misleading than others because our small size makes us statistically unstable.

Now as to that study that shows we're psychologically unstable ... DUH!

Jul 09

The Significance of RhodeB.us

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I recently started a community wiki about Pawtucket and I've been focusing on transportation. (Duh, it's Pawtucket.) Using RhodeB.us, I have links to all Pawtucket bus schedules. That's important, but it's not the most important aspect of this little hack. To me, this is a testament to the power of several active trends, including open source software, hacker/maker culture, direct citizen action and the unique culture of the greater Providence region.

Not to go too far under the hood, but open source software is software the source code of which is publicly available. This movement has created several well-known and widely distributed programs. In this case, the ubiquitous PHP (hypertext preprocessing) web development software used in the RIPTA sitehas facilitated this hack. PHP is fairly simple (as far as programming languages go) and works under some basic standards that have allowed our hackers to enter the site through a side door, if you will.

This hack is entirely benign. Better than that, it's entirely helpful. This is hacker culture at its finest. With expert knowledge and good intentions, programmers with no official capacity to make changes and without the knowledge or permission of RIPTA have vastly improved the usability of the RIPTA website. What's not to like? The term "hacker" may scare you, but not me. 

Citizens, therefore, have taken a direct action and provided a service to their community. For this, RhodeB.us get no reward other than the eternal thanks of anybody who needs to check RIPTA schedules often. They've done it as a civic good. And because THEY THEMSELVES USE RIPTA CONSTANTLY. Citizens taking action to improve the services they use. I'm thinking that's a good thing.

Which leads us to our final trend - the Providence culture. Geeks, hackers, makers, artists, enviro-greens, progressives and all the other subcultures that are so active these days have one thing in common: they (we) LURVE (the greater) Providence (region).  They recognize its shortcomings, but have the knowledge and the capacity to improve things. So they do.

To me, this is shockingly wonderful and a tremendously positive omen for the future. We need to find ways to unleash this power of well-qualified people taking direct action outside the official structure to rapidly and cheaply provide improvements to our infrastructure. It could be a hack for the RIPTA site. It could be a semi-regular citizens clean-up patrol. It could be anything and everything.

Do you have a pet project you'd like to just go ahead and do? Let us know. 

PS. One more time with feeling -- thanks, RhodeB.us. You've done us a solid.

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