Friday, August 12, 2011

From the Vault: Decentralized Relocalization

Oops, turns out I wrote 6 in the five day span and I forgot one:

Decentralized Relocalization

You do not have to get past the cover of the book The Next 100 Million to know that author Joel Kotkin is talking about more people. The premise of the book is an optimistic one, an energy I share, despite disagreeing with the conclusions, which generally seem to fizzle out into a haze. He argues that more people are coming due to birth rates not falling as rapidly as other first world countries and immigration. More people equates to more and larger markets, which in turn must be met. With falling wages and education levels worldwide, one is left to worry. Will the roles reverse? Do we become the supply of labor to China's newfound prosperity?

Ignoring that the world is necessarily urbanizing with mixed results usually based on wealth/education, let's follow Kotkin's suggestion down the rabbit hole that the next 100 million people will largely fill out the vast quantities of land yet tapped by the real estate engine. After all he says, we have only built on 5% of it. His theory is that people will continue to disperse across the countryside because of cheap land and the connective powers of the internet despite cities being the greatest economic engine in human history typically around a cross roads of material flow or resource extraction. The internet becomes the crossroads and technology and green energy become the resources to extract and refine.

Germany is showing that their commitment to green energy can successfully disperse energy production amongst the people enacting federal programs where excess private energy production is sold back to the grid at a premium rate. No longer can singular monolithic energy production facilities be the target of attacks. Furthermore, the program has seen the rise of new clean industry. There are now more jobs in clean energy in Germany than in the automobile industry.

On the other hand, the World Wide Web, the tool bringing my words to your eyes via the medium of the Dallas Morning News and their editorial staff and none of us have ever met. However, the internet has not proven to be a replacement for actual face-to-face interaction, but rather a facilitator, an enabler that accelerates existing interaction and propels future ones. I recall in the 90's the worry was that we would become a nation of shut-ins, fingers glued to keyboards, and our interpersonal dialogue would have all the complexity of a game of Atari pong.

We failed to see its natural evolution, at our hands, as a human construct, towards something more useful, as a parallel, interconnected world to augment reality rather than detract from it. Web 2.0 has emerged with facebook, twitter, blogs, and various other sites to facilitate self-organized clusters upon a real landscape. Because of these things, I have now met hundreds of creative people throughout the City that I would not have otherwise.

Extending the trend line of decentralization over a variety of fields towards infinity eventually fails to understand the very nature of what it means to be human, the need for contact. All of these tools, from automobiles to the internet are extraordinarily young compared to the timeline of cities. We have not fully grasped or harnessed their power to maximize efficacy. Kotkin's fundamental mistake is to assume an either/or stance rather than one that is both/and. I fail to grasp where there is significant opportunity for new pop-up cities or idealistic suburbs, as he might say, where there currently is no infrastructure. We are already infrastructure poor and we must make use of what we have and improve it.

If this next 100 million people does create new markets, what will those markets be and where will they really occur? If we buy the logic that the emotions of needs and wants from a very basic level and applied to the technology of the day, we can follow Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a guide and project the future.

As for our basic needs, food and shelter will be the big ones. Certainly, food production needs to be done more locally to replace the 3,000-mile Caesar Salad. Housing, both adaptive and new, will require location-efficiency so that it is interconnected and residents can participate in the local economy safely and efficiently. If we are talking about affordability, Kotkin's reason for the growth towards the heartland, transportation costs are critical so walkability and transit access is vital. Neither of which can occur in a decentralized geography.

Moving up the hierarchy there are the jobs in the "connective arts" of both physical connection and social media. In the physical realm, there will need to be infrastructural improvements to accommodate the movement of all those new people. These will also have to be "clean" connections of multi-modal mobility: bicycle, streetcar, and potentially high-speed rail.

The most valuable places, those in greatest demand, have always and will always be those with the highest degree of interconnectivity. As Lewis Mumford states, transportation must be made for all distances and speeds, whether leisurely or hurried that we desire. In his stead, we could probably add real or digital, as there will also be a vast market for improving linkages not just between people but also between the parallel geography of places virtual and real.

Lastly as previously mentioned, is energy. While Kotkin suggests a correlation between decentralized energy and decentralized people, the decentralization here actually just means produced by the many rather than the few. This also benefits from clustering of people, locally- or neighborhood-based power producers benefit via lack of transmission loss as energy has much less distance to travel than from centralized power plants.

All of which points back to our cities and improving those which we already have. There will be no new pop-up cities like Ordos or giant mega-buildings like Burj Khalifa, both of which were entirely supply-side and remain empty. Rather we will focus on qualitative growth and incremental improvement.

The question then becomes, how do we get there? It is actually a cross-pollenization of what Kotkin suggests and what he seems to misinterpret from Richard Florida. It is not about smokestack chasing, or attracting creatives, but empowering creativity in all of us, which is what Florida is really saying beyond all of those statistics. These are merely indicators for tolerance and the most important form of tolerance of all is toward new ideas. We need to keep our creatives, all of us, and empower the collective energies towards a common purpose. Focus the creative, entrepreneurial energy locally, shaping our City into a great one to meet the needs of today and tomorrow.