Old buildings

I love old buildings , and I usually feel a strange sort of curiosity mixed with nostalgia for the people and cultures that made them. Just in the UK I’d love to see the castle garrisoned by knights and squires, the barn full of hay and animals, the old mill humming, the Tudor pub in its heyday, the telephone exchange building at its historical cutting edge, the cathedral decked out in coloured paint, the rows of clerks in the bank, the WW2 airfield lined with Spitfires and Glen Miller on the gramophone…

Dead buildings – either ruins, or frozen-in-time museums and country houses – seem that much more evocative than the ones that manage to stay in use for centuries, which end up watered down and bastardised…

But that’s probably because we’re paying attention to the wrong things. We fixate on a neat snapshot of a culture at a moment in time, forgetting that these places grew out of a messy and dynamic culture just like ours, were disruptive (and probably disturbing) when they were built, and were evolving from the moment they were finished. We’ve always been leaving the village behind, and we couldn’t stay, and we couldn’t go back – even way back then.

Buildings stay alive and socially profitable when they stay relevant – when we keep them alive by changing them and use the old spaces in new ways – often new ways to achieve old purposes.

The alternative is a building’s slow and expensive death as the network of life around them shifts and ceases to nourish them, at which point they decay and disappear until those that survive become old enough and scarce enough to become interesting again, and the past that they represent is far enough away from us to be the subject of nostalgia and museums.

And all of this is true of our organisations, too.

*See also: How Buildings Learn (wikipedia) and Youtube

Seeds (2): bikes, planes and automobiles

Many of the seeds of the automobile industry came from bicycle manufacturers (I touched on this in Use, Copy, Repair, Make), and on a visit to the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu I learnt some more of the story.

Karl Benz, widely credited as the maker of the first practical automobile, started in mechanical engineering and ironwork and started experimenting with petrol engines to power industrial machines. In 1883 he joined forces with Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm E├člinger who owned – you guessed it – a bicycle repair shop. Benz & Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik made petrol engines for industry, which allowed Benz to develop his expertise and finish his first Patent Motorwagen in 1885.

Other companies that grew out of bicycle manufacturers include Rover, Peugeot, Opel, Skoda, Humber and Hilman, Sunbeam, and Calcott.

There’s a parallel trend with weapons manufactures: Royal Enfield and B.S.A. (British Small Arms) turned their expertise in machining from guns to motorbikes and cars.

And it doesn’t stop at cars: the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics turned manufacturers who turned their hand to aviation instead.

We needed bike companies to innovate and start making cars, becoming cross-breed or hybrid companies before second generation ‘pure’ car companies picked up the torch and made further innovations as specialists.

So what, Sharky?

Right now, somewhere, in something that already exists, the seed of the Next Big Thing is taking root and getting ready to grow.

  • If you have an idea of what the future looks like, what might the seeds look like? Can you shape your project with the Next Big Thing in mind?
  • Looking at things from the other way round, what might your organisation be the seed of? What’s The Future for your field?
  • Is there a hybrid step (engines and bicycles, bicycle engineering and wings) that you could take to open up possibilities for your organisation?

On inequality

Inequality is inevitable (because we’re all different), and it isn’t necessarily wrong (if we value the freedom to make meaningful choices) and doesn’t necessarily have to be corrected (because we value diversity).

Once we’re clear on this, we’re forced to be specific. We can ask which kinds of inequality we’re not prepared to tolerate, making sure that we’re clear about where they come from and why they’re damaging (“because I believe in equality” isn’t an answer) and start talking about what we can do to make things better.

Then we can be the ones to go first and start to do those things.

Podcast Recommendation: Econtalk with Alain Bertaud on Cities, Planning, and Order Without Design

This is a great episode of Econtalk. Bertaud uses labour markets as a lens for thinking about cities. Helpful examples of emergent order and the challenges (impossibility?) of planning in complex adaptive systems.

Highlights (coming up) include:

  • Discussion of the importance of culture and context in how cities develop;
  • Bertaud’s explanation of his broader-than-usual understanding of labour markets;
  • When planning and regulation is helpful and when it’s damaging;
  • The trade-offs made by new arrivals in a city (and the danger of planners trying to decide these for them);
  • The way that property markets can turn development costs into opportunities.

Highly recommend.

The Onion (3): exemplar interesting problem – learning to read

Problems gain (or lose) interestingness as their context and scale changes.

Take teaching a kids to read as an example. It’s almost inevitable that a child will learn to read given the following ingredients:

  • A supportive family
  • A strong reading culture at home
  • A steady supply of good books
  • A reasonable curriculum or methodology for teaching
  • An well educated, motivated teacher (who could be a parent) who cares about the child who shows up consistently
  • A safe, relatively comfortable, relatively calm environment
  • An absence of specific learning difficulties

These factors form a strong, mutually reinforcing (and robust and self-repairing) network/system that makes learning to read more a matter of process than a problem, per se. If one or two of these ingredients are weak or missing, strength in another area will probably make up the difference. The outcome (learning to read) might take a bit more time, but it will happen.

But the more ingredients that are missing from the system – the looser or weaker the network – the harder (and more interesting) the problem becomes. It’s no longer a case of due process, but of finding a path and doing something new.

To be continued…

Resource: Tim Harford on 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy

If you haven’t thought much about economics, this series from the BBC is a first-rate introduction to a lot of key ideas about how markets work.

Each episode is about ten minutes long and features at least one interesting, often entertaining and sometimes surprising ‘thing’ to illustrate fundamental principles of economics.

There are lessons galore about how technologies take off and spread, change culture, transform the environment (human and physical) for both good and ill, and the unpredictable nature of emergent order and complex adaptive systems.

Seasons one and two are here at the BBC, and downloadable free wherever you get your podcasts.

There’s also a book (amazon).

Tim Harford is great – The Undercover Economist and More or Less (also on the BBC) are well worth checking out too.

Kicking cans: job descriptions versus culture

A few days ago I watched a schoolboy kicking a can down the road. He kicked it a couple of times and then miskicked, sending the can flying into the road, where it landed at the feet of an off-duty city cleaning worker, still in his orange uniform. These guys are fantastic: they put in the hard yards of sweeping the streets, cleaning out ratty drains and fetid canals doing a whole load of other stuff to keep Jakarta clean. This guy – in his uniform – trapped the can with his foot, bent down, picked it up, and looked at the kids with a grin that said “Don’t worry guys, I’ve got this.” Then he leaned back and tossed the can stylishly over his shoulder and straight into the… flowerbed.

This is a man who spends several hours a day sweating to keep Jakarta clean. He works in the dirt and grime, puts up with rats, cockroaches, heat and traffic fumes to clean the city up and to keep it clean. He’s part of the Orange Army transforming Jakarta – but he throws a piece of rubbish that lands at his feet into the flowerbed instead of the bin. Why?

Because that’s his culture. It’s what he saw his parents do, it what his neighbours do, and despite the best efforts of the school curriculum to teach another way, it’s probably what his kids do.

Job descriptions alone won’t solve this problem: you can hire all the street-sweepers you want, but you’ll never have clean streets until a large majority of people put their rubbish in the bin rather than throwing it on the ground. In other words, until keeping the city clean becomes the culture: “people like us, do things like this.”

Changing the culture is harder work than giving some people the job of cleaning up everyone else’s mess. Harder and slower, but in the long run more effective, cheaper and more sustainable. Changing the complex system of culture takes conversations, campaigns, and curriculum changes. It takes leadership: politicians, celebrities and parents who care enough to do what they say. And it does need street sweepers – people can’t see that the streets are dirty until they’ve seen clean ones.

Job descriptions are necessary, but they’re never sufficient.

*See also: Singapore, tree planting and the new normal

Machine. Ecosystem. (5) – Duncan Green on systems thinking and development

A ‘system’ is an interconnected set of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.

A defining property of human systems is complexity; because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets.

In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse or apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact.

Unfortunately, the way we commonly think about change projects onto the future the neat narratives we draw from the past. Many of the mental models we use are linear plans – ‘if A, then B’ – with profound consequences in terms of failures, frustration, and missed opportunities [when the plan is thrown out by unexpected consequences within the plan, or by things that were never in it]. As Mike Tyson memorably said, ‘everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.’

Let me illustrate with a metaphor. Baking a cake is a linear, ‘simple’ system. All I need to do is find a recipe, buy the ingredients, make sure the oven is working…

Baking a cake is also a fairly accurate metaphor for the approach of many governments, aid agencies, and activist organisations. They decide on a goal (the cake), pick a well-established method (the recipe), find some partners and allies (the ingredients), and off they go.

The trouble is that real life rarely bakes like a cake. Engaging in a complex system is more like raising a child. What fate would await your new baby if you decided to go linear and design a project plan setting out activities, assumptions, outputs, and outcomes for the next twenty years and then blindly followed it?

Deng Xiaoping said, “We will cross the river by feeling the stones under our feet, one by one.”

Duncan Green – How Change Happens (amazon)

Struggle

Honest love is born from the struggle / it’s lived in the valley as much as the hill

Mark Stone

I saw a young man driving a supercar in Vancouver – he was too young, I thought, to have earned it – and I thought “poor guy.”

In giving him the world on the plate, I realised, his parents had rendered his life weightless: too light winning makes the prize light. His wealth had robbed him of something priceless.

This raises all sorts of questions about the good starts, leg-ups and help we give to others.* Looking back, how much struggle would you have chosen? How much would have been good for you?

*Education and training, community development and parenting are the first three areas that spring to mind.