Tag: WIRED

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.

First tea, then revolution

I’m working with Outlandish this week, as part of a MoodleNet design sprint. One of their co-founders, Harry Robbins, is quoted in the latest issue of WIRED about the CoTech network of which Outlandish (and We Are Open), are part.

CoTech is just one example of how cooperatively-owned tech businesses look poised to proliferate in the UK. Their network boasts 32 member-businesses across the country. They’re boosted, too, by the recent launch of startup accelerator Unfound, the UK’s first accelerator for tech co-ops, which announced its first successful candidates last week. If they succeed, they will be following the lead of countries like Spain and Italy, where cooperative enterprise has flourished for decades. Their proponents see business structures as driving radical change: getting the fruits of innovation shared more fairly and providing better social responsibility. Funding troubles have often stunted co-ops’ growth though – but, with tentative links to blockchain technology and a newfound spirit of collaboration, that’s something that could now change.

It takes a while to get collaboration between different organisations off the ground, and CoTech has been no different. I really enjoyed the CoTech gathering at Wortley Hall (a worker-owned stately home) last year, but we’ve more work to do.

CoTech’s 32 member-businesses have around 300 workers between them, with trades that range from web development to broadband infrastructure and augmented reality. The three biggest, among them Outlandish, boast turnovers of between £1 and £2 million. They’re yet to implement the equal pay suggested at their first meet-up, but they have made progress in efforts at collaboration. They now hold inter-coop training, monthly meet-ups to hold discussions and share skills, and run internal crowdfunding using the Cobudget tool (developed by New Zealand social enterprise network Enspiral).

It’s only when you set up a co-op or something other than a straight-up limited company that you see the default ‘operating system’ of 21st society: capitalism. And not just warm fuzzy capitalism, but rapacious, neoliberal capitalism that sets out to deprive normal, everyday people of money, rights, and dignity.

Robbins argues that being a co-op creates a different set of incentives: with no shareholders demanding dividends, generating profit isn’t the primary goal. And with it not being a quick or easy way to get rich, they’re more likely to be founded with a purpose that’s socially- or ethically-minded.

He sees big openings for CoTech to grow in both their member businesses and their respective staff – and thinks a lot of the UK’s small businesses are already effectively operating as co-ops. In an overheated market for developers, he believes that a big proportion of them want to work for companies that are socially responsible, but don’t want to do the repetitive web maintenance on offer at many charities.

It’s great to see CoTech continue to get mainstream press. Interestingly, and as you can see from the photo of the Rochdale pioneers that accompany both this post and the WIRED article, traditional co-ops weren’t necessarily any more diverse than their mainstream counterparts. That’s something that modern co-ops are actually really quite good at: diversity and democratic processes.

Source: WIRED

It’s not advertising, it’s statistical behaviour-modification

The rest of this month’s WIRED magazine is full of its usual hubris, but the section on ‘fixing the internet’ is actually pretty good. I particularly like Jaron Lanier’s framing of the problem we’ve got with advertising supporting the online economy:

Something has gone very wrong: it’s the business model. And specifically, it’s what is called advertising. We call it advertising, but that name in itself is misleading. It is really statistical behaviour-modification of the population in a stealthy way. Unlike [traditional] advertising, which works via persuasion, this business model depends on manipulating people’s attention and their perceptions of choice. Every single penny Facebook makes is from doing that and 90 per cent of what Google makes is from doing that. (Only a small minority of the money that Apple, Microsoft and Amazon makes is from doing that, so this should not be taken as a complete indictment of big tech.)

Source: WIRED