On my mind this week.
There comes a time when it makes sense to question conventional wisdom, and I think now is such a time.
We have moved GDP centre stage as the default measure of progress, regarding other measures as sideshows – things to address as long as we don’t disturb GDP. We do this even though we recognise that the distribution of that GDP is increasingly skewed towards fewer and fewer people.
Over 56% of us now live in cities, and if we take economic performance as our benchmark, it is easy to see why. When a town or city’s population doubles, the infrastructure cost reduces by 15%, whilst at the same time productivity – measured in salaries, innovation, culture – even the pace at which people walk – increases by 15%. More productivity, less cost – and were off to the races. The dynamics are relatively simple – economies of scale for costs and interaction of people – the productive friction of cafés, shops, restaurants, theatres, and other social activity gives serendipity a boost in making connections between people, ideas, and capital.
But – there is always a but – there is a dark side. The interactions also increase crime rates, disease, stress and other social ills by the same 15% every time a population doubles. There is another feature – the rates of reducing costs and increased productivity appear to be co-dependent. Unhealthy cities with poor infrastructure result in lower rates of productivity growth – and vice versa.
It raises a fundamental question; at what point does the magic wear off?
Before the pandemic, Londoners were commuting on average for 74 minutes – twice the global average. Unfortunately, that commute has been getting ever more expensive in return for increasingly poor service.
Self-reported stress levels were also getting higher. Then, of course, we had the pandemic, or more accurately, have the pandemic. Seven billion people have yet to be vaccinated. So there is plenty of life left in the virus, and as we see now, the mitigation measures we are implementing create new forms of disruption all of their own. So what we are facing is way from over.
Before information technology started giving us options, the social friction that provides us with the benefits of cities could not really happen any other way. Now it’s different, and whilst digital friction lacks the buzz of being in the same room, it does complement it. So is there an opportunity to redefine a city and our relationship with work?
I was one of those 75-minute commuters and made my decision, held up by leaves on the line at Amersham station that I was not prepared to spend five working years of my life commuting into a city I didn’t like and where I was not ready to live. Of course, that was many years ago, but I suspect many more are thinking the same right now and have less drastic options than I took.
Being face to face with work colleagues has to be important – but for how long, and how often? What about the opportunities presented by being face to face with people we don’t work with? – in my experience, good ideas are hatched more often there than in any office. And what about the improvement in our wellbeing from not commuting every day?
It will indeed cause all sorts of problems to those with sunk costs in obsolescent and uninspiring buildings, but that, as they say, is showbusiness. If we want people to be keen to meet up with work colleagues, make it somewhere worth spending the time to travel to.
For well over a year now, I’ve been meeting for four hours a week, every week with people I do not work with yet who have done more to inspire and support me as we travel this pandemic journey than any workplace I have ever attended. As a result, my work has become much more enjoyable and productive, and so it appears, has theirs. As restrictions ease, I will get to meet some face to face regularly; others less often as they are countries away. The critical point, however, is the issue of social friction. It does not need a city, nor a gated workplace, nor a commute. We did not integrate technology into our businesses; we found it changed them (and made many rapidly obsolete along the way) altogether. So might we find that technology will help us redefine what it is to be a city. to get the benefits with much less of the dark side.
It seems like an experiment worth trying and one we are feeling our way into at Originize.
Covid is not disruption; it’s a catalyst to ways of making work human again.
What’s been inspiring me this week
Over two thousand books have accompanied and shaped my thinking over the last thirty years, so rather than list new ones, I’m going to spend the next few weeks introducing you to the ones I keep going back to. Many of them you may have read, but I hope in here somewhere might be a gem as you rethink your relationship with your work and where it happens.
The Brain is wider than the Sky. Bryan Appleyard. I appreciate his sceptical take on how far computers will take us as humans.
Stealing Fire. Stephen Kotler. A deep look at how groups get into their best performance zones. It’s a bit “marmite”, though I have found the rigour and insight, as well as those parts I am resistant to, stimulating.
The Value of Everything. Mariana Mazzucato. A leader in challenging accepted wisdom, in this case conflating value with price. A wonderful, inspiring read that should make you deeply dissatisfied with our current approaches.
How description leads to understanding. FS Blog. When reading on cities and how they evolve, Jane Jacobs work is essential. This FS Blog takes you into her thinking and how making efforts to describe what we see does more than anything to help us understand it. Vital right now.
It’s not what you do; it’s the way that you do it. Smithsonian Mag. In the West, we have become accustomed to a “win at all costs” approach. So this article on Karate and how delivery is as important as results for the long term is a good challenge.
A Good Scrap. Aeon Magazine. We far too often avoid challenging the status quo and accepted wisdom. We shouldn’t. A good scrap well conducted is essential to sense-making.
Natural Growth. Aeon Magazine. A stunning 6 min video of how a single cell evolves. Humbling.
Have a great week.