Tag: planning

Form is the possibility of structure

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein with today’s quotation-as-title. I’m using it as a way in to discuss some things around city planning, and in particular an article I’ve been meaning to discuss for what seems like ages.

In an article for The LA Times, Jessica Roy highlights a phenomenon I wish I could take back and show my 12 year-old self:

Thirty years ago, Maxis released “SimCity” for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by “SimCity 2000” in 1993, “SimCity 3000” in 1999, “SimCity 4” in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, “SimCity: BuildIt” in 2013 and an app launched in 2014.

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

Jessica Roy

Some games are just awesome. SimCity is still popular now on touchscreen devices, and my kids play it occasionally. It’s interesting to read in the article how different people, now responsible for real cities, played the game, for example Roy quotes the Vice President of Transportation and Housing at the non-profit Silicon Valley Leadership Group

“I was not one of the players who enjoyed Godzilla running through your city and destroying it. I enjoyed making my city run well.”

Jason Baker

I, on the other hand, particularly enjoyed booting up ‘scenario mode’ where you had to rescue a city that had been ravaged by Godzilla, aliens, or a natural disaster.

This isn’t an article about nostalgia, though, and if you read the article in more depth you realise that it’s an interesting insight into our psychology around governance of cities and nations. For example, going back to an article from 2018 that also references SimCity, Devon Zuegel writes:

The way we live is shaped by our infrastructure — the public spaces, building codes, and utilities that serve a city or region. It can act as the foundation for thriving communities, but it can also establish unhealthy patterns when designed poorly.


People choose to drive despite its costs because they lack reasonable alternatives. Unfortunately, this isn’t an accident of history. Our transportation system has been overly focused on automobile traffic flow as its metric of success. This single-minded focus has come at the cost of infrastructure that supports alternative ways to travel. Traffic flow should, instead, be one goal out of many. Communities would be far healthier if our infrastructure actively encouraged walking, cycling, and other forms of transportation rather than subsidizing driving and ignoring alternatives.

Devon Zuegel

In other words, the decisions we ask our representatives to make have a material impact in shaping our environment. That, in turn, affects our decisions about how to live and work.

When we don’t have data about what people actually do, it’s easy for ideology and opinions to get in the way. That’s why I’m interested in what Los Angeles is doing with its public transport system. As reported by Adam Rogers in WIRED, the city is using mobile phone data to see how it can ‘reboot’ its bus system. It turns out that the people running the system had completely the wrong assumptions:

In fact, Metro’s whole approach turned out to be skewed to the wrong kinds of trips. “Traditionally we’re trying to provide fast service for long-distance trips,” [Anurag Komanduri, a data anlyst] says. That’s something the Orange Line and trains are good at. But the cell phone data showed that only 16 percent of trips in LA County were longer than 10 miles. Two-thirds of all travel was less than five miles. Short hops, not long hauls, rule the roads.

Adam Rogers

There’s some discussion later in the article about the “baller move” of ripping down some of the freeways to force people to use public transportation. Perhaps that’s actually what’s required.

In Barcelona, for example, “fiery leftist housing activist” Ada Colau became the city’s mayor in 2015. Since then, they’ve been doing some radical experimentation. David Roberts reports for Vox on what they’ve done with one area of the city that I’ve actually seen with my own eyes:

Inside the superblock in the Poblenou neighborhood, in the middle of what used to be an intersection, there’s a small playground, with a set of about a dozen picnic tables next to it, just outside a local cafe. On an early October evening, neighbors sit and sip drinks to the sound of children’s shouts and laughter. The sun is still out, and the warm air smells of wild grasses growing in the fresh plantings nearby.

David Roberts

I can highly recommended watching this five-minute video overview of the benefits of this approach:

So if it work, why aren’t we seeing more of this? Perhaps it’s because, as Simon Wren-Lewis points out on his blog, most of us are governed by incompetents:

An ideology is a collection of ideas that can form a political imperative that overrides evidence. Indeed most right wing think tanks are designed to turn the ideology of neoliberalism into policy based evidence. It was this ideology that led to austerity, the failed health reforms and the privatisation of the probation service. It also played a role in Brexit, with many of its protagonists dreaming of a UK free from regulations on workers rights and the environment. It is why most of the recent examples of incompetence come from the political right.

A pluralist democracy has checks and balances in part to guard against incompetence by a government or ministers. That is one reason why Trump and the Brexiters so often attack elements of a pluralist democracy. The ultimate check on incompetence should be democracy itself: incompetent politicians are thrown out. But when a large part of the media encourage rather than expose acts of incompetence, and the non-partisan media treat knowledge as just another opinion, that safegurd against persistent incompetence is put in danger.

Simon Wren-Lewis

We seem to have started with SimCity and ended with Trump and Brexit. Sorry about that, but without decent government, we can’t hope to improve our communities and environment.

Also check out:

  • ‘Nation as a service’ is the ultimate goal for digitized governments (TNW) — “Right now in Estonia, when you have a baby, you automatically get child benefits. The user doesn’t have to do anything because the government already has all the data to make sure the citizen receives the benefits they’re entitled to.”
  • The ethics of smart cities (RTE) — “With ethics-washing, a performative ethics is being practised designed to give the impression that an issue is being taken seriously and meaningful action is occurring, when the real ambition is to avoid formal regulation and legal mechanisms.”
  • Cities as learning platforms (Harold Jarche) — “For the past century we have compartmentalized the life of the citizen. At work, the citizen is an ‘employee’. Outside the office he may be a ‘consumer’. Sometimes she is referred to as a ‘taxpayer’. All of these are constraining labels, ignoring the full spectrum of citizenship.

Is planning just guessing?

Eylan Ezekiel pointed to this post on the Signal v. Noise blog recently on our Slack channel. The CEO of Basecamp, Jason Fried, points out that most business ‘planning’ is simply guesswork:

So next time you’re working on a business plan, call it a business guess. And that financial plan? It’s a financial guess. Strategic planning? Call it with it really is: a strategic guess. 5 year plan? You mean 5 year guess.

There’s nothing wrong with guessing, dreaming, or predicting, but it’s not planning. Planning’s too definite a term for most things. We often use planning when we really mean guessing. And what we call it has a lot to do with how we think about it, do about it, and devote to it. I think companies often over think, over do, and over devote to planning.

I can’t believe that people still even attempt five-year plans. It didn’t work for Stalin; it won’t work for you!

The reason I’m particularly receptive to this at the moment is that I need to be thinking what happens after we launch the first version of MoodleNet. I could make confident assertions, but actually I don’t know. It depends on the feedback we get from users!

I’m always a little suspicious of people who come across like they’ve got it all figured out. Life is messy. This post respects that.

Source: Signal v. Noise

Moral needs and user needs

That products should be ‘user-focused’ goes without queustion these days. At least by everyone apart from Cassie Robinson, who writes:

This has been sitting uncomfortably with me for a while now. In part that’s because when anything becomes a bit of a dogma I question it, but it’s also because I couldn’t quite marry the mantra to my own personal experiences.

Sometimes, there’s more than user stories and ‘jobs to be done’:

For example, if we are designing the new digital justice system using success measures based on how efficiently the user can complete the thing they are trying to do rather than on whether they actually receive justice, what’s at risk there? And if we prioritise that over time, are we in some way eroding the collective awareness of what “good” justice as an outcome looks like?

She makes a good point. Robinson suggests that we consider ‘moral needs’ as well as ‘user needs’:

Designing and iterating services based on current user needs and behaviours means that they are never being designed for who isn’t there. Whose voice isn’t in the data? And how will the new institutions that are needed be created unless we focus more on collective agency and collective needs?

As I continue my thinking around Project MoodleNet this is definitely something to bear in mind.

Source: Cassie Robinson

The Kano model

Using the example of the innovation of a customised home page from the early days of Flickr, this article helps break down how to delight users:

Years ago, we came across the work of Noriaka Kano, a Japanese expert in customer satisfaction and quality management. In studying his writing, we learned about a model he created in the 1980s, known as the Kano Model.

The article does a great job of explaining how you can implement great features but they don’t particularly get users excited:

Capabilities that users expect will frustrate those users when they don’t work. However, when they work well, they don’t delight those users. A basic expectation, at best, can reach a neutral satisfaction a point where it, in essence, becomes invisible to the user.

Try as it might, Google’s development team can only reduce the file-save problems to the point of it working 100% of the time. However, users will never say, “Google Docs is an awesome product because it saves my documents so well.” They just expect files to always be saved correctly.

So it’s a process of continual improvement, and marginal gains in some areas:

One of the predictions that the Kano Model makes is that once customers become accustomed to excitement generator features, those features are not as delightful. The features initially become part of the performance payoff and then eventually migrate to basic expectations.

Lots to think about here, particularly with Project MoodleNet.

Source: UIE