“There are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult.”
– Quicksort developer C.A.R. Hoare

[My comment: Although this quote is about software, it also applies to the design of government policies.]

Misdiagnosing the Economic Problem

This – http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/ontario-lags-on-prosperity-potential/article2236059/ – is an interesting article, but it misses important aspects of currently evolving economic trend and thus misdiagnoses the economic problems facing Ontario, Canada.

1. Just by itself, the economic development of other areas is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, a general uplift in the world economy can work to everyone’s advantage.  So a narrow focus on comparisons is not helpful.

2. However, too small an increase in the local economy and especially in productivity are important concerns, so Ontario does have reason to worry.

3. If there is evidence of a significant use of the Internet, it may be that some of the economic activity that is going on in Ontario is not being properly measured because it is not monetized.  (Think about how little of the value of Wikipedia is monetized and thus how much of its value is ignored by standard economic statistics.)

4. They do need to step up innovation and the skills/knowledge of the people who live there.  Spending more on traditional educational institutions may not be the best way to do this.

5. You won’t be surprised if I add that “poor functioning of industry clusters, fewer workers living in urban areas” is just a reflection of what is going on elsewhere in the developed world and not something unusual to Ontario.  Economic strategies based on physical proximity will increasing be challenged by virtual connections.  

By the way, the report is much more nuanced than the newspaper story, but unfortunately it is usually only the newspaper stories that get read.

Here’s the link to the report: http://www.competeprosper.ca/

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

BetaVille: Citizen Collaboration For Urban Design and Planning

I have been working with the Carl Skelton, Director of the Experimental Media Center of New York University / Polytechnic Institute, in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society of NY, on their Betaville project for collaborative urban design.  Betaville is also part of an international partnership led by the Technical University of Bremen, Germany. 

In a nutshell:

“Betaville is an open web-based environment for real cities, in which ideas for new works of public art, architecture, urban design, and development can be shared, discussed, tweaked, and brought to maturity in context, and with the kind of broad participation people take for granted in open source software development … If a user-generated TV network is possible (YouTube), why not a user-generated city? How could this not be fundamental to the concept and practice of citizenship?”

Take a look at the video presentation from the recent MAS New York City Summit, entitled “From Science Fiction to Future-Making in Real Communities"  – http://youtu.be/c0vzSJucQto

Although we are used to urban planning being dominated by the professionals, this clearly does not guarantee the best results all the time.  A case in point was the planning and design for what is now called Central Park in New York City.  After an initially disappointing professional design for the new park, the New York City park board ran an open contest in 1860 for a design.  From among thirty proposals, they decided that Vaux and Olmstead’s proposal was by far the best – even though Olmstead was not yet considered to be an experienced professional.

In this century, BetaVille can be the platform for a range of contests to envision critical parts of a city.  It would enable more people to participate and provide a wider range of ideas for the urban amenities of the future that will be as successful as Central Park turned out to be.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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Telegraph vs. Internet: Which Had Greater Impact?

2012 is the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  You may remember just two things about this period from your high school history class.  First, in an act of ignominy for the Americans, the British burned down the capital.  Second, the war ended with the resounding defeat of the British by the heroic General Andrew Jackson in January 1815, in what was the war’s only set-piece battle between the opposing sides.  Jackson eventually rode this victory into the Presidency.

There is only one problem with this battle.  It took place after the war was over.  The previous month, in Europe, the two sides had agreed to peace.  But in those days, communications was so slow that word of the peace didn’t reach New Orleans until February 1815.

Fast forward, approximately forty-eight years later, to the Civil War.  In the period between these two wars, in 1831, Morse thought up the idea for the electronic telegraph.  The Union Army had mastered its quick deployment, so that in 1863 while sitting in Washington, President Lincoln could read almost real time reports from the battlefields many miles away. 

This was a dramatic increase in the speed of communications.  Not all that many decades later, telegraph lines and cables would unite the world.  Yet this did not fundamentally change the way people worked or lived or governed themselves.

So consider 2011, when the US Navy Seals got Osama Bin Laden.  There was a tweet about helicopters within several minutes, but the author didn’t know why the helicopters were nearby.  The first tweet with some confirmation came about forty-five minutes before President Obama made his announcement.

Now think back about forty-eight years before to November 22, 1963 and the assassination of President John Kennedy.  The news was out quickly all over television and radio and newspapers.  Walter Cronkite famously told the viewers of CBS News that the President had died thirty-eight minutes before.

Unlike the 19th century examples, there was no dramatic speed up in the reporting of these two more recent events separated by roughly forty-eight years.  While we may have more sources of information in more places now than in 1963, word doesn’t get out all that much faster.  You could argue that the Telegraph had a greater impact on communications than the Internet.

Yet many of us have the feeling that our world has been changed by this communications.  Why is that?

I think it has to do with the changing nature of the work we do.  In the mid-19th century, more than three quarters of Americans made things or grew food.  In 2011, less than a quarter do so and the rest of us provide services – and increasingly intangible services, including ideas, knowledge, entertainment and the like which is delivered digitally.  Because better digital communications directly speeds up the delivery of these services, we see the impact more.  It’s the increasing availability of high quality communications, in conjunction with these significant socio-economic trends, which will continue to change our lives. 

[picture credit for Battle of New Orleans http://www.frenchcreoles.com/battnozz.jpg]

© 2011 Norman Jacknis
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