Africa and Technology?

When I was in college, I took a course on science policy.  For the course paper, I decided to do something a bit unusual – study science policy among African nations.  Although there were (and are still) grave problems of poverty in Africa, there were universities, scientists and research. 

More recently, technology has become a truly global enterprise.   So we have seen the Internet and software development in Africa as well.  Ushahidi ( was created as an open source project in Kenya a few years ago as a means for the average person to report violence during their almost-civil war.  It has since been used in other ways and places, including reporting on conditions in Haiti as a result of the earthquake there in 2010. 

Now, the Kenyan government has announced the creation of Konza Tech City, about 40 miles southeast of Nairobi.  It will take years to determine if this project meets the promises for it (or if it is the best use of the money), but it is nevertheless worth watching.

More information can be found at:

Of course, there are still many Africans who need to benefit from technology and don’t get the chance to do so, even with the widespread use of mobile phones as a primary means of connecting to the Internet.  For these people, there are organizations starting to help create community technology centers and other ways to make technology available even in quite rural parts of the continent.  One good example is U-Touch ( in Uganda.  (Disclosure: I’ve given them a bit of advice, partly because I was a student in Uganda for a semester.)

Despite poverty, political corruption and instability, the desire for learning, entrepreneurial spirit and energy of Africans has been impressive.  The general view of Africa elsewhere in the world reminds me somewhat the way that China was viewed twenty years ago – as a “hopeless backwater” in the perception of those who didn’t know better.  Africa these days has all the potential to take the world by surprise the same way that China did, so that thirty years from now it will be a very different place.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Overdue Convenience of the Day: City Hall as Food Truck

Great story in American City & County and also the Atlantic  about Boston taking an old idea and using it in a new way.  Even in a time when it seems everyone has a phone that can get on the Internet to government websites, the reality is that many people can’t operate this way – some never and almost everyone at least part of the time.

So this City Hall on the go is a nice alternative.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Who Needs To Pay Attention To The Internet of Things?

There’s an increasing drum beat of news about the “Internet of Things”.   There’s even an acronym for it – IoT.   

IoT refers to the increasing number of devices on the Internet that report the status and location of physical things.  This covers everything from the location of your smart phone to where a package might be to the condition of your pulse to the condition of a highway.   (That’s why it is also sometimes referred to as the Internet of Everything.)

All this data has also led to people talking about “Big Data” and the need for analytical software to make sense of it all.

Less often noted is that things connected to the Internet can communicate with each other.  We’ve only begun to think about the practical and fundamental issues this phenomenon will raise.  

On a practical level, this machine-to-machine communications needs to be managed by people not through on-off switches or gauges, but through policies that can be operated at the same speed as the machines – not at the slow speed of human awareness and decision making.

The benefits can be striking.  For example, a bridge whose sensors are detecting potential cracks in load-bearing columns can ask the street light to turn red to stop traffic and also tell the police dispatch system to get a couple of police cars out to redirect that traffic.

Of course, the complexity of a global system that connects all these devices is mind boggling.  This global system has the potential for unpredictable and perhaps disastrous behavior.

That alone should get the attention of public leaders.

Now, most of the advertising and news from technology companies has focused on how corporations can use the Internet of Things.  Surely they can.  Just think of any company that ships things and needs to know the condition of the shipped items and there locations.

Companies are usually responsible for their own office and manufacturing space.  Even including shipments or goods, any individual company has to worry about at most millions of square feet.

However, governments are uniquely responsible for what goes on in a particular territory, which can be many tens, hundreds, thousands or even millions of square miles.  Eventually, all this territory will be covered by sensors, which will greatly outnumber everything else on the Internet. 

By the way, the Internet of Things is not something way off in the future.  Today, the number of physical devices connected to the Internet is already six times the number of people on the Internet, even though there are two billion of those people.  By 2020, just a few years away, there will be 50 billion connected devices.

It’s time for government leaders to start focusing on IoT as a policy concern and as a tool for managing their infrastructure and territory.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Gamification In The Public Sector?

Over the holidays, the New York Times had a story titled “All the World’s a Game, and Business Is a Player” (

Many of us are familiar with computer games.  If not a passion of ourselves as adults, the passion for games is observable among youth.  

The article is not about shooting adventure games, but instead what are called “serious games”.  In various ways, we’ve seen the private sector use gamification.  But the question here is: do even these serious games have a role in the public sector?

The interest in games is based on the observation that people are much more engaged, more motivated and learn quicker in game situations than in more traditional bureaucratic environments.  So there have been game designers and others who have tried to apply these “game mechanics” to the public sector.

Actually, this is not new.  The Annual Games for Change conference has been around since 2004.  At the conference last June, there was even a Federal government caucus.

In 2011, Jane McGonigal, one of the leaders of this movement, wrote the successful book, “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World

But there has been increasing attention to the possibilities, even in the public sector.  The newspaper article mentions games for everything from reducing energy waste to the Israeli Defense Forces.  

In my own work, I have advised a big state government that was interested in the use of gamification to change the environment and re-motivate its work force.  

I’ve also been involved in a strategy to better engage customers of city transit services through gamification.  This provides two additional benefits: it establishes a relationship with riders who before were anonymous and motivates the more social of those riders to help build a community of riders who can help improve the overall urban experience.

There are clearly limits to the use of gamification and it is fairly easy to think of situations where even “serious” games would be considered inappropriate.  But there is much potential in these ideas that have not yet been realized.  

If these are to be used in valuable ways to achieve public goals, then public officials need to take the lead on this movement, rather than watch while this movement gets built without them.

Please pass along examples of such games you’ve observed in practice or your ideas of where games could be used in the public sector.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Can Prediction Markets Test Public Policy?

Prediction markets are hot again.  With the Presidential election next week and the relative accuracy of prediction markets about the election in 2008, I decided to finish this article that I first started in March 2009, but put aside for various reasons.

What is a prediction market?  James Surowiecki, the author of the book, “The Wisdom of Crowds” explains:

The premise is that under the right circumstances, the collective judgment of a large group of people will generally provide a better picture of what the future might look like than anything one expert or even a small group of experts will come up with. [Prediction markets] work much like a futures market, in which the price of a contract reflects the collective day-to-day judgment either on a straight numberfor instance, what level sales will reach over a certain periodor a probabilityfor example, the likelihood, measured as a percentage, that a product will hit a certain milestone by a certain date.

[F]or a crowd to be smart, it needs to satisfy certain criteria. It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table. It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowds answer. It needs to summarize peoples opinions into one collective verdict. And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information and dont worry about what everyone around them thinks.

These markets have been around for a few years and have a good, if not perfect, track record.  Various studies have found prediction markets to be better than experts or public opinion polling.

But my focus is not on predicting who wins the White House or the SuperBowl or the number of coins in a large bottle.  Rather there is a use of prediction markets for government leaders testing the likelihood that a particular public policy will achieve success, especially if the policy is intended to change the behavior of people.

Often it is difficult to assess how the public will react to a proposed policy will people actually sign up for program X; will people recycle; etc.  I’m suggesting that prediction markets be used to estimate the reaction ahead of time.

Implicit in the diversity of views that Surowiecki notes is that enough people need to care about the policy.  The reason they care may be to win money, in some cases, but thats not the only reason.  They might care because the market deals with something that affects their lives.

And, the nice thing about this is that if only a few people care about a policy that also tells you something about the policy or, at least, whether youll get into deep trouble proposing it.

You can learn from prediction markets and they may be more effective predictors of policy success than traditional tools.

So far I can tell this has not really been tried yet in the way I’m describing.  The closest was in 2003, when DARPA created a Policy Analysis Market to be “a market in the future of the Middle East”.  That market looked, to critics, like a betting parlor on political assassinations by terrorists and was withdrawn.

In a more futuristic vision, Robin D. Hanson, an economist at George Mason University and a fan of alternative institutions, writes about futarchy, “a form of government enhanced by prediction markets. Voters would decide broad goals of national welfare, but betting in speculative markets would determine the policy steps to achieve those goals.”

I’m not proposing anything so revolutionary as he is.  Instead, let’s try to use prediction markets on a more experimental basis.

More background on prediction markets can be found in:

  • Wikipedia and

  • When the Crowd Isnt Wise

  • Interpreting the Predictions of Prediction Markets

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


A Fundamental Decision Making Flaw in Public Officials?

Are our public leaders flawed because they were selected as public leaders? 

The answer would seem to be yes, according a paper by four academic researchers on organizational behavior, which I came across recently (although it was published last November).  Its title and subtitle make the point: “The Decision-Making Flaw in Powerful People: Overflowing with confidence, many leaders turn away from good advice.

Some of their key findings:

“this paper finds a link between having a sense of power and having a propensity to give short shrift to a crucial part of the decision-making process: listening to advice. Power increases confidence, the paper’s authors say, which can lead to an excessive belief in one’s own judgment and ultimately to flawed decisions. …

"In addition to confirming the previous experiments’ finding that more powerful people were less likely to take advice and were more likely to have high confidence in their answers, this final experiment showed that high-power participants were less accurate in their answers than low-power participants. …

"For one thing, organizations could formally include advice gathering at the earliest stages of the decision-making process, before powerful individuals have a chance to form their own opinions. Encouraging leaders to refrain from commenting on decisions publicly could also keep them from feeling wedded to a particular point of view.”

Whether or not you might find this research conforms to your own experience, the last point – gathering in lots of information before the public leaders decide – is certainly not an unrealistic suggestion to improve decision making in many cases.  Today, the Internet and the collaborative discussion tools it offers can make this happen fairly easily. 

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


A Test Of Social Impact Bonds In NYC

A Test Of Social Impact Bonds In NYC

Five Books To Help Us Think About Our Times

I’ve been quiet on the blog for the last few weeks during the summer doldrums and vacations – a great time to catch up on reading books, including some that were published a while ago.  

Here are quick highlights of some of my more interesting summer reading.

1. Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century by Cathy N. Davidson (2011)

This book describes how we should be thinking about life in the 21st century.  In many instances, Davidson completely upends well established patterns of the industrial era.  She is well known in academic circles as a neuroscientist and former dean at Duke University, where she introduced the widespread use of technology among students.  The book covers a variety of topics, including education, work and aging. 

2. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

Kahneman, Princeton Psychology Professor and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, has pulled together the basic knowledge in cognitive science and how people actually make decisions.  If you want to catch up on what’s happened in behavioral science since you left college, this is the book for you.  It draws out some of the implications in a variety of contexts.  (Later, I’ll be posting a blog on the implications for public officials who want to gain acceptance for innovations.)

3.  When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication In The Late Nineteenth Century by Carolyn Marvin (1988)

If you believe what you read and watch on the news media, we live in an age unparalleled rapid change in which technology causes people to become detached from each other by technology among other awful new phenomena.  Marvin takes us on a history of technologies, like the telegraph and telephone, which we now take for granted but once were new.  The same kind of observations we get today about the Internet were foreshadowed long ago.  (Later, I’ll post a separate blog with some wonderfully juicy quotes along these lines.)

4.  Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford (2011)

With so many people saying they are innovative, Harford shows how those people will not succeed at innovation unless they develop some patience, even an appetite, for the failures that often precede success.  He provides fascinating examples.

5.  Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution by Jack Rakove (1997)

In this year’s unusual election of ideological contrasts, there has been an underlying (and often visible) debate about the views of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the constitution.  Rakove’s book provides the details of their debates and their own ambiguous feelings about many of the decisions which we now treat as is handed down in stone by the supreme being. 

These were politicians with great insight into political behavior and how it might be shaped.  Their concerns were well-founded, since some of what they worried could happen has happened.  But, in part, they were reacting to experiences in the 18th century that we do not share today. 

It also revealed the Founding Fathers’ concerns about those who sought some clear original meaning in what they wrote – and when their short term political objectives encouraged them to make the same kind of arguments about original meaning that politicians today make.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


What Kills Innovation?

Is innovation dying?  If yes, what is killing it?

This is a bit of follow up to my blog post last week.  Peter Thiel, well-known tech entrepreneur, has for a while argued that technology innovation has severely decelerated (with the exception of the computer business).  

His ideas are presented and somewhat debated in these three articles from earlier this year, among others:

He cites the rapid slowing of the last 200 years of progress in the US and Europe, noting that while existing technology is spreading elsewhere through globalization, new technology is not leaping forward in the US.  He feels we’ve forgotten how to innovate.

Of course, the debate with Gilder makes clear that trying to measure how much progress and innovation has occurred is a bit like the old line: how do you measure the length of a string?  (Depending upon the string you pull, it could be any length.)  

Thiel is a libertarian and identifies government regulation as the proximate cause of this deceleration.  No doubt, bad regulation exists and bad regulations can be a heavy hand on the wheels of progress.

But his perspective (as summarized in the first article) is broader than that:

speaking of “developed” versus “developing nations” is implicitly bearish about technology because it implies some convergence to the “developed” status quo. As a society, we seem to believe in a sort of technological end of history, almost by default.

This has bothered me too, but it points to a different cause than regulation and a set of solutions that involve the government.  

As long as we measure our economy in industrial terms (GDP) and give short shrift to the value of post-industrial, often intangible, goods and services, we will persist in this sense of stalled progress.  

If the problem is that we are telling ourselves that leap-forward innovation is at an end, then we need leaders who can help develop and propagate a new vision of the future – and who can then help change the culture that has created the problem.  This is true leadership, not the 5-point policy programs that result in a press release and not much else.

The US government’s reduction in investment in basic research has also been a negative factor – particularly when it shies away from underwriting many grants for ideas that have no immediately obvious value, which is exactly the kind of thing that leads to things of obvious value ten years later.  (The Fortune 500 corporations are also guilty of this shortsightedness.)

Another culprit is the “shareholder is always right” mantra, which has become the American legal standard over the last couple of decades.  This fiduciary standard has discouraged CEOs from making big innovation bets with long-term returns, since most of their shareholders have adopted a short-term outlook.  For a good assessment of this and other issues, see Lynn Stout’s article, Challenging the Long-Held Belief in ‘Shareholder Value’ where she describes the negative consequences when companies are run with the primary decision making criteria being maximizing return to shareholders.

This isn’t the whole story, but it points to a fundamental weakness in the way we think that is slowing us down.  What will it take to change that?  If you have ideas, let us know.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis August 8, 2012

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Diversity And Innovation

There’s an interesting post on the Harvard Business Review blog site by the founder of the Startup Genome project, which analyzes success/failure in new enterprises.  He titles it: “Reversing the Decline in Big Ideas”.  (See

He notes that there seems to be a lack of big new ideas in the tech industry and suggests that this is because there is not enough diversity in the founding teams of new enterprises.

In a recent presentation, I noted that we’ve learned about the importance of cross-pollination among disciplines for true innovation.  And then I made the point that many of the “innovation clusters” planned by governments instead aim to drill down into one very focused domain of knowledge – which might mean they won’t get the innovation they expect.  

The author’s argument about the homogenous nature of Silicon Valley startups is perhaps another example of this pattern.  All of those public officials who have dreams of duplicating the past success of Silicon Valley should take note.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis on July 31, 2012


Why Do We Still Have Tax Brackets?

It must be the warm summer that has made me wonder about silly things like: why do we still have these tables of brackets that determine how much income tax we’re supposed to pay?

I can understand there was a time, many decades ago, that the government wanted to keep things simple so each person could easily determine the tax rate that would apply.  And I know that the continued use of tax brackets is not the biggest problem around,  However, tax brackets are just another symptom of government’s failure to see the widespread deployment of technology in the general public and its failure to use basic technology for simple improvements that are appropriate in this century.

There are some problems that brackets cause.   Politicians, like Steve Forbes and Rick Perry, who advocate a single flat tax rate often start with the argument that their approach would be so simple people could just send in a postcard.  Putting aside the merits or demerits of a flat tax, there is, of course, something really backward about telling people to use a postcard.  From 2000 to 2010, postcard usage dropped by half, an even greater drop than in first class envelope mail.

There are also those who observe people trying to game the system by adjusting their income so they don’t get into a higher bracket.  Those who argue for lower taxes in the higher brackets implicitly say that people will work less if it means an obvious jump in tax rates by shifting into a higher bracket.  Similarly, US News published a story earlier this year on “How to Avoid a High Tax Bracket in Retirement”.

With the current set of progressive tax rates, your percentage of tax goes up as your income goes up.  There is nothing in today’s world that requires the use of brackets in a progressive tax system.  Indeed, a system based on a formula instead would eliminate the negative impacts of bracket-avoiding behavior that critics of progressive taxation point to.

There are a few possible formulas that might work.  The most complex would be a logarithmic or exponential curve, which is nevertheless easily computed by a computer.  If you want to make it even simpler, another formula would set the percentage tax rate as a percentage of income.  (Remember school math?  TaxRate = m * Income where m is some small fraction.)

No matter the formula, computers can handle it.  The IRS could make a formula available on line or over the phone – just enter your taxable income and it will tell you what you owe.  It can be built into the calculator function of cell phones.  We no longer have to assume we live a world limited to paper-based tables.

While we’re at the effort to bring government into the modern technological era, why do we still have fixed budgets?  This budget reform from the 1920s was also developed in a world that did not have the ability to dynamically make calculations.  So every year, government officials make their best guess on the condition of the economy, the demand from an unknown number of potentially needy citizens and other factors that determine the ebb and flow of public finances.  Since the budget process is lengthy, they make this guess well ahead of time so they could be trying to predict the future more than 18 months ahead of time.

A rolling budget would work better by automatically adjusting each month to the flow of revenue and the demands on government programs – and all you need is a big spreadsheet on a not-so-big computer.  However, the budget makers would have to decide what their priorities are.  For example, for every percentage of unemployment, we need to put aside $X billion dollars for unemployment insurance payments.  It would take work to do this for each of the promises the government makes – although maybe not as much work as trying to guess the future.  

(Of course, the real obstacle to a rolling budget model is that policy makers would be forced to make more explicit their priorities.)

I could go on, but you get the idea.  It’s about time that government not only buys technology (which it does, sometimes, in large volumes), but also brings that technology into its thinking.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


The Shrinking Office

Last week, as part of its regular reporting on the real estate market, the New York Times had an interesting article, entitled “More Room For Ideas In A Smaller Office”.See

The article highlights the greater collaboration and innovation that have resulted from the use of smaller, less traditional office space.

I do have the sense, though, that these newly discovered desirable features amount, in part, to making a virtue of necessity.

The Great Recession of 2008 made people think that the vacancy rates of commercial office space was a reflection of the poor condition of the economy.  But the reduction in the need for traditional office space has been a trend for a while.

Not mentioned in the Times was a recent survey by Jones Lang LaSalle, a major real estate firm. A report about that had these findings, as well:

  • 40% of IBM employees work from a location other than an office at IBM.  [The same is true for Cisco and many other organizations, not only IT companies, but those in any kind of intangible service.  Indeed the TImes article featured 22squared, an Atlanta advertising agency.]
  • The current rule of thumb concerning office space per employee – 200 square feet per employee – is shrinking to just 50 square feet by 2015.
  • As early evidence of the trend, office tenants renewing their lease nowadays often cut their total space by around 10%-30%.

In past blogs, I’ve pointed out how, traditionally, city plans and taxes have heavily depended upon office space.  Commercial real estate has been the goose that has laid the golden eggs for local governments around the US.

The trend of reduced space per employee will clearly have consequences for those cities that do not start shifting their assumptions about the way the economy will increasingly work.  

Those cities will also find their own financial success increasingly misaligned with the financial success of their residents, who are quickly adapting to the new work environment in the home and other places that don’t look like offices.  That is not a good situations for mayors and other elected officials.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Social Media In A Disaster

This is an age of ubiquitous communications, at least in the form of text and voice.  (We’re not quite there yet with video, but that’s just down the road.)

But some media have been diminishing in importance, while others grow.  The ability to reach most Americans in a hurry by just tapping into three television networks is gone, as viewership of network television decreases over time.  On the other hand, there has been a growing use of social media.

So government officials, who are responsible for handling disasters and emergencies, have been expanding their use of social media and experimenting with it.

And, of course, social media are social – which means that emergency news will be more widely distributed by those who initially receive it.  They help the government do its work.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Not surprisingly, college security officials have used social media during lockdowns and shooting incidents.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) [check name] has its own Twitter feed @fema .
  • During the wild fires in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, the Los Angeles Fire Department also used Twitter with a twist.  In addition to getting the word out, they asked residents to use Twitter to let them know where the fire seemed to be headed.  It was a kind of instant collective intelligence arm of the fire fighters.
  • As a result of horrendous floods last year, this January, Queensland, Australia launched an app called Ready Queensland, in which volunteers are quickly mobilized using their smart phones.  See  for more information.

With collaboration among Internet/smartphone users growing, I would expect to see some other government developed the next generation of the Ready Queensland app – one which enabled people to coordinate their activities in response to a a crisis.  

I realize this poses challenges to the traditional understanding of emergency managers as to how they do their job.  But it is likely they will see the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, as people who are organized together do better in a crisis than a disorganized, ignorant and, thereby, panicked mob.  

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Rethinking Urban Planning In A Networked World

What’s At Stake?

As the new channels of interaction between people, broadband networks are bound to have a tremendous impact on urban life.  This then is the question for those dealing with urban policy and planning at all levels of government: will these impacts occur intentionally or unintentionally?

This is not a new question, just one with a new technological twist.  In the 1950s, the US set about creating the interstate highway system for combustion vehicles, which in turn led to dramatic changes in urban life – often with unintended consequences.  Looking back with hindsight, the damage done to neighborhoods, like those in the Bronx where Interstate 95 runs through, is now among the best known examples of such consequences.

One reason to fear that the impact of broadband on urban life might not be addressed head on is that broadband is considered by many public officials to be a private, perhaps a luxury, service, sometimes associated with entertainment and trivia.  The point here is that broadband is not just a private service, but should also be considered to be a necessary public service which is essential to many aspects of community, cultural and commercial development.  Thus, urban policy today must address its impacts to ensure that society’s goals are met – not just private goals.  

Below, I try to identify – not necessarily to provide solutions to – some of the more important issues that will need to be addressed in future urban policy and planning.  

1. Broadband Networks Are Not Equal Everywhere

The first obvious question is whether all parts of our country will have sufficient service.  As a society, we cannot afford the redlining of poorer, urban (or rural) sections.  Some of what is called broadband in this country is, in fact, so slow that it cannot support the collaborative and video tools that will be critical for future economic and educational/cultural development.  

When the Interstate Highway system was constructed, no one required that 4 or 6 lane highways be built everywhere.  But it was also considered unacceptable to offer dirt roads to poor areas.  There was a minimum modern standard of highway that was offered everywhere.  So, too, urban planners need to ensure that a high enough level of broadband is made available in all neighborhoods or risk seeing the development of “digital slums” instead.

While not quite a limited resource such as railroad mainlines, broadband networks do have a backbone structure.  In the same way that urban development occurred around these mainlines and railroad stops, it is important for urban planners to anticipate the growth that will surround prime broadband network paths.

2. Broadband Needs To Reach Into Where People Live And Work

All people in our society should have the option to use broadband where they live, work and learn.  The broadband backbone network – like the highways – does not reach to every door.  However, urban planners need to ensure that the connection from the home, business and schools/libraries to the broadband network also supports sufficient speeds.  

This implies the need for new policies, including building standards which specify data networking requirements much as they require electrical, plumbing or heating requirements.  It also implies a serious and enforced requirement for broadband connections in publicly funded or subsidized housing and business projects.

3. Urban Residents Need To Gain Broadband Skills

All people should have the ability to use broadband.  The availability of broadband to a room is not enough.  Urban leaders in the 19th century recognized the importance of ensuring all citizens could read and then created the public schools and libraries necessary to achieve that goal.  Today, urban leaders need to ensure that all are given sufficient training to use the broadband networks.

4. The Merger Of Spaces For Working, Living and Shopping

Consider the changes in the nature and location of work.  During the last hundred years, the place for work, the place for living and the place for shopping have been separate.  Vast transportation networks were built to move people from one kind of place to another.  Zoning rules were established to keep these different places separate from each other.

Today, in many suburbs, the distinction has softened dramatically – with people commonly having home offices where they tele-work at least part of the week.  They also shop from their homes.  The same pattern shows up even in more densely populated urban areas where the distances between work, living and shopping are less formidable than in the suburbs.

As broadband increases and more people participate in an information-driven economy, more and more people will not go to work, but the work will go to the people – wherever they might be, including home.  This has already led to a decreased need for office space.  (Cisco Systems found that it needed 40% less office space per employee because of broadband-based tele-work and collaboration tools.  There was also a significant reduction in energy use and greenhouse gases.)

Urban policy must adapt to this new world and urban planners must re-think the assumptions that guided a society where work, home and shops were apart.

5. New Understanding Of Economic Development

As the nature of work changes and work increasingly mixes with other aspects of life, so too must the economic development strategies of urban areas change.   Work, even in large organizations, is increasingly dispersed among people who are connected together by broadband networks.  

We are entering an era where many people can work from anywhere and still be paid well.  So for those people, the question is not necessarily where the jobs are, but where the quality of life is highest for them.

Thus the old strategy of providing incentives and other special considerations for companies who “locate” in an urban area will result in diminishing positive benefits.  Instead, the focus will need to shift from the companies to the employees and the investments in the urban economy will be more focused on the non-economic qualities of urban life that people find attractive.

6. Increasing Demand For Educational And Cultural Services

More generally, this new broadband age will also result in a re-ordered set of priorities for urban life.  For example, in a knowledge based society that is connected by broadband networks, there needs to be an understanding of the critical role that will be played by educational and cultural services for two reasons.  

First, in a knowledge economy, workers will need to continually upgrade their education and intellectual skills to maintain their own economic viability.  Urban leaders owe it to their residents to ensure that these skills can be upgraded where the residents already live because the necessary network infrastructure is in place.  

Second, the availability of educational and cultural services is an important part of what makes an urban area attractive to potential residents.  Thus, urban policy will need to address the development of such services to ensure that urban areas are vibrant areas to live.  

Libraries are a central urban institution in the provision of these lifelong education and cultural opportunities.  Libraries in many parts of the world have aggressively responded to the development of the Internet and are recreating themselves as centers not only of books, but also as the place to go for computer technology and digital media, spaces for the creation of literature and music, and guidance on upgrading work skills.

7. Making Other Urban Infrastructure Smarter And Greener

Broadband networks are not just a new infrastructure or another utility.  They are also, in part, the intelligent infrastructure that could make all the other infrastructure – roads, energy, water and waste – work better and operate in a greener way.  

Similarly, urban planners will need to understand how the design and form of the built environment will become dramatically changed by the broadband transformations described above.

In sum, urban policy makers and urban planners must face the changing world and changing requirements on urban life that broadband networks will necessarily impose.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Living Long In A Networked Age

This post was started in 2010 in Australia, when I was asked to speak at the biennial world meeting of the International Federation on Ageing ( and the World Health Organization.  They were interested in my early work on socio-economic trends in this networked age.

I don’t like giving packaged presentations and much prefer to talk about things that have some meaning for the audience.  So I did some research on aging and tried to work out in my mind what are the implications of the growing digital network on the way that we live longer.

This post is a summary of that thought process.

First consider the traditional view of aging, perhaps more prevalent in the general public than among experts.  

Basically, as you get older, this view says you will get increasingly debilitated and immobile, have to retire from the work force, become dependent upon government financial support and personal service from others, and spend much of your time in medical facilities.  There is no doubt that some of these things can happen and eventually the body does wear out.  

But is this a necessary picture of aging in today’s world? Not when people can be connected by broadband networks that, increasingly, include video capabilities which really make it feel that you are together with others who are far away.   

First, let’s deal with the dissociation from the work force.  In 1900, 71% of the American labor made goods or food.  This was often back-breaking work, the kind of job that indeed did become untenable for the elderly.

But, by 2000, only 21% of American workers are still in the business of making goods or food.  The rest provide services, increasingly intangible services that are created on computers and delivered over the Internet.  

One of the consequences of this is that many people no longer go to a job.  Their work goes to them wherever they might be.  It is so common that people are working at home or in locations outside of the offices of their employers that many companies have found they need half the space per employee that they did ten years ago.  

So when people are faced with reduced mobility, whether it is due to a skiing accident or the aging of the body, it no longer means that they cannot work and earn a living.

Is this relevant to seniors?  The Pew Internet and American Life Project has found that 41% of those over 65 are online.  Among the next wave of potential retirees,  those between 50 and 64, 74% are online.  

Even a couple of years ago, you could find a story about “Seniors finding social networking exhilarating” (from The Dallas Morning News, October 12, 2009).  And many of us have seen grandparents connect with the grandkids via videoconferencing and social media.

Ok, you might say, that seniors might be able to work, but do they want to or do they wish to just live off their savings and government help?

In an article entitled, “Successful Seniors Who Won’t Retire”,  Business Week featured 105 seniors a couple of years ago who won’t quit, with Jane Fonda as the prime example.

There have been recent research studies about this very question.  Labor force participation by seniors has gone up in recent decades.

In another Pew study, they reported that 12% of current retirees already work for pay.  More than three quarters of current workers expect to work for pay after retirement – 60% because they want to and only 30% because they have to work to make ends meet.  The authors conclusion:

“The latest Pew findings suggest that retirement is a phase of life about which public attitudes, expectations and experiences are in a period of transition.”

This is not just an American phenomenon.  Xinhua News reported:

“About one third of the retired people in Beijing want to keep on working to earn more and to stay in touch with society.”

Although age discrimination is widespread in hiring, it is counter-productive. Other research has found that “Older Workers Had Higher Educational Attainment Overall Than Older Non-workers.”  

Of course, those people, no matter what their age, who have higher education are more likely participants in the knowledge economy – the intangible, digital part of the economy.  Thus the labor force participation rate of those with advanced degrees was about three times that of those with less than a high school education.

But what about the disabilities that seem to be part of aging?

Among those who work with seniors, there has been a movement called “universal design” whose aim is to ensure that every room in a home or other building is designed with ease of use.  For example, look at the work by the NCSU Center for Universal Design (

Their goal for seniors is to prevent accidents, like slipping in a shower.  (The point has been made, of course, that these improvement also help those who are no so old.  Anyone can slip in a shower if it’s not properly designed.)

In this century, we can do more than be careful with traditional physical design. 

There has been much in the news lately about the “Internet of things”, which is a phrase that describes the increasing number of sensors and other devices without direct human interfaces all over the world, including in our homes.  

This enables architects to design a blended virtual/physical environment for seniors that can monitor their safety and health.  For example, it is possible to build in prevention and detection of falls among seniors.

Being always connected can mean always having access to tele-health.  I’m thinking of what exists now.  There are all sort of devices to monitor chronic diseases, which means that doctors can remotely diagnose and catch problems early before they become critical and expensive.  

These devices allow for a range of options for senior, instead of unnecessary commitment to a long-term care facility.

In the future, sensors that transmit from inside your body and that help repair your body will become available and take tele-medicine to an extraordinary new level.

The connectivity of seniors at home can also lead to better health outcomes as was demonstrated in the Vermont Telecare for Rural Health Project.  They ran a successful, multi-way interactive tai-chi exercise class for those over 70 who did not leave their homes.  As the leaders of the project noted:  

“We know that exercise is helpful for senior patients, but we can’t get to them. And we know that Tai Chi helps keep seniors healthy, increases their well-being and balance.“

So even home-bound seniors with chronic diseases can still participate in the economy and the wider society.

Ok, you might say, we can overcome some of the physical handicaps that sometime accompany aging.  But what about the mental degradation? the intellectual stodginess that is part of the common view of the elderly?  Aren’t seniors unprepared to participate in an economy in which innovation is a critical element of competitive success?

In many, these views are misleading or irrelevant in this century.  Let’s start with the irrelevant by observing our own children and how they use the Internet.

Is a quick and expansive memory for details something they cherish, even among themselves, when there is the Internet to look up almost any fact?

Is it necessary to worry about reminders when "there’s an app for that”?

But the misleading part of this view is more interesting, if less well known.

There was a time that it was assumed that only the very young were creative.  However, there has been more recent bio-medical research on the resilience and continuing growth of the brain even among older people.

There was also the interesting research by the economist Galenson who focused on artists, among others.  In a review of Galenson’s work, Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker magazine, asked: “why do we equate genius with precociousness?" 

Galenson divided creativity into two types – conceptual and experimental.  The complete conceptual revision of some domain, be it art or physics, is often associated with the very young.  

The experimental or experiential type of creativity is evidenced by those much older since it is based on the ability to make connections among diverse experiences that only older people have had.  It is also based on a lifetime of experimentation with the world.  

In discussions of innovations in business and in driving future economic growth, it is this kind of creativity that makes the most difference.

But there is a catch, which is why many are misled about this subject.  The catch is that creativity is a collaborative act.  It is not about some lone 20 year old genius sitting on a mountainside.  As Steven Johnson put it in his book "Where Good Ideas Come From”:

“That is how innovation happens … chance favors the connected mind.” 

No matter what someone’s age, if they are not in the stream of new ideas, they will not achieve their creative potential.  Unfortunately, for most people, they are exposed to new ideas and knowledge less and less for each year they are away from college or their last formal educational experience.

Some colleges, for example Purchase College of the State University of New York, have admirably tried to remedy this by enabling seniors to audit classes for a very low fee.  But classroom instruction is expensive and not always convenient for seniors.

The Internet, however, has a vast potential to put seniors back into that stream so that they too can be innovative.  MIT has put its courses online, among other universities.  Carnegie-Mellon is leading an open learning project.  Florida has a virtual reference librarian available 24 hours a day.  There are training videos and tutorials in almost every subject imaginable.  

Especially interesting is the cooperative, free online university for seniors – University for the Third Age (U3A).  

There is just a tremendous amount of scientific and other research that used to be available only on the campus where it occurred or later in scientific journals and conferences.  Now much of that is available online.  And local librarians can help people find this, if it becomes too daunting to search through for an individual.

Public leaders in the 19th century recognized the economic importance of ensuring that all citizens could read and they created the public schools and libraries necessary to achieve that goal.  In this century, public leaders need to ensure that residents of all ages are helped to identify where they can get 21st century learning. 

Another significant socio-economic trend in this century is the increased recognition of the role played by new entrepreneurs in economic growth – and the way that the Internet makes it easier than ever to start up a business.

Thus, there is no reason that this greater entrepreneurial opportunity cannot be grabbed by a 59 year-old as much as 19 year-old almost-college-dropouts.  Apparently, this is something that older people realize.  The Kauffman Foundation highlights its finding ( that the 

“increasing rate of entrepreneurship among older adults has led to a rising share of new entrepreneurs in the fifty-five to sixty-four age group. This age group represented 14.5 percent of new entrepreneurs in 1996, whereas it represented 22.9 percent of new entrepreneurs in 2010.”   

As we enter into the world of ubiquitous communications in this century, we will find that the traditional issues which have handicapped older people are diminishing.  This should generate a whole new way of looking at them and at this part of life – not a phase of debilitation and near vegetation, but an active life despite whatever limitations the aging body may impose.

This new outlook may be represented by a new equation, with apologies to Einstein, e = (mc)²  Enhancement of life experience results from more connectivity which leads to more choices.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


“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

Simplicity in design applies to government policies and programs as much as it does in the creation of software. 

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Hidden Reserve Of Public Safety Skills

Protection is a public service and one that can only effectively be carried out with the support and consent – and participation – of the people.  We’ve read stories about how Twitter played a key role in responding to wildfires or iPhone applications show a community map of registered sex offenders and crime areas.

But in public safety, especially, there is a unique source of participants – one that is especially important in these days of tighter state/local budgets. In California, for example, there are nearly 190,000 sworn active public safety officers (police and fire).  However, there are nearly a million retired and former officers.  This represents, on average, nearly 15 million years of skills and experience walking the streets.  This population of people never lost their purpose or their desire to contribute – they just ran out of time!

How can we harness this trusted population?  A local government could create an “opt-in” network of these experienced citizens.  Typically, public safety training records are centralized through a central state body.  A database comparison of the records can be matched against the ‘opt-in’ application.

Once accepted, the officer will receive instantaneous alerts on his cell phone, based on its GPS location, about reported problems.  When a problem is reported, the public safety dispatcher would have the ability to examine a geo-spatial screen and discover how many people are in a particular area and who best to solicit or notify. 

Governments across the country should enable this skilled population to support public safety problem-solving, in order to identify, recognize, and address problems much faster.

With Jeff Frazier, Cisco IBSG

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


New Competition Between Governments

The speed and accessibility of digital information and services increases everyday.  Whatever a government does online can be viewed by not only its own constituents, but by anyone else.

This building trend is likely to lead to increasing competition among governments.  Competition between governments is not new – we have a long history of wars between nation-states to prove that point.  Even when relations between governments are peaceful, there has been a strong economic (mercantilist) competition to attract (steal) businesses and the jobs their plants and offices presumably bring when they move.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  Instead, what will be at stake is the very loyalty of citizens and the relevance of public leaders to those citizens.

This may seem odd.  Historically, governments – no matter their political ideology – have been about control over physical territory and the people who live within the borders of that territory.  But the Internet is all about breaking down borders between people.  As the Internet increases in use, these borders become weaker.  This is true, as we have seen in some countries last year, even when the government has governed through the use of threats of physical violence and coercion.

We have also seen an ever-larger percentage of people who earn a living by the creation and delivery of knowledge, ideas and other intangible services, rather than the industrial era’s tangible services and goods.  These people can and do take their work with them, instead of going to an office or factory.  They may split their time each year between multiple locations, but they can still be in virtual touch with any place.  

This has two implications for the way they look at government.  First, it sets up a competition for the attention and allegiance of these people.  Which, if any, of these locations is the one they consider primary?  In a way, the governments of these different locations are in competition.

Second, while government still delivers many physical services, like maintaining streetlights, government too is finding that an increasing proportion of its activities are intangible services.  Much of what used to be conducted over the counter or desk, such as filing applications or making payments, is now done on the Internet.  

As society has become more complex, government finds itself also delivering digital information about problems from avoiding insect-born diseases to financial literacy.  For many of these intangible services, a person can look to any number of government websites, not just the website of the nearest government agency.

A few years ago, the Health Department in Westchester County, New York, created a web site on women’s health.  That site received visits from people who lived way beyond the New York area, even as far as South Africa.

So government leaders can no longer take for granted the interest of the people who might physically be located within their jurisdiction.  

This doesn’t mean government will disappear.  There will always be some geographic and physical responsibilities for government, like maintaining roads.  But from a citizen’s viewpoint it may become more like a visit to McDonald’s.  When I need it, I want to find it nearby, to be clean and to have good service, but I don’t have any particular loyalty or interest in McDonald’s beyond that.

While they may not normally go out of business, governments can certainly shrink because the lack of interest makes it hard to raise taxes.  And, of course, some governments have disappeared as when city and county governments have consolidated in various parts of the US.

So what’s a leader to do? To begin, public leaders must recognize that this competition is intensifying and that, like smart executives of consumer products companies, they have to think about market differentiation and market strategy.  As well, to strengthen the brand value of their jurisdiction, public leaders will also have to start to exercise the creativity that has made companies like Apple and Starbucks so successful.

To get your creative ideas flowing, I’d suggest two classic books on innovative strategy: “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen and “Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne.

As your thinking develops on this, please let me know so I can share your ideas with others. 

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Questions For Academic Research

I made a presentation two weeks ago at HICSS-45, one of the largest and longest running international systems conferences.  They had a running track on e-government and related topics.

Unlike the public officials I normally interact with, this provided an opportunity to talk with the university researchers who are delving deeply into the impact of the Internet on government, politics and society.

One of their requests to me was for a list of questions that non-academics are interested in getting answers to.  I reached out to various people who are currently or have been in government positions and came up with the list below.  (I’ve imperfectly organized the list by category.)

This list is not only of value for academics looking for interesting topics, but also for non-academics to step back and think a bit about the consequences of what they’re doing.

Politics and Governance:

  • What evidence is there that governments around the world are using the change potential of new technologies, especially social technologies, to not just “do things differently” but to “do different things”?  What are the distinguishing characteristics of those governments who are doing so?
  • We have heard anecdotes about how eGovernment has increased trust in, confidence in and legitimacy of government, in place like Mexico.  What survey research, before and after the introduction of eGov, is there that demonstrates this relationship? For what kinds of citizens is the effect most positive or not? For what kinds of governments is the effect the greatest?
  • Technology is supposed to be part of a wider shift to co-design, co-production and co-development of public policy and public services.  What are the conditions that facilitate this or inhibit this shift?  
  • Is there a link between eGovernment and other aspects of the Internet that enhance or diminish the resilience of societies?

Government Services:

  • How much of the benefits promised by eGovernment have been achieved?  What are the conditions that lead to greatest likelihood of delivering on its promise and potential benefits? 
  • What is the pattern of use of eGov services and other eGov tools? Has it been increasing, decreasing, or plateauing?  How do demographic, attitudinal, behavioral, and other factors affect the degree to which a person will use the Internet to interact with government?
  • To what degree and in what ways does the experience of citizens as consumers in the virtual marketplace on the Internet affect their expectations of how government should work?
  • What are the priorities and expectations of citizens, politicians and bureaucrats for technology-enabled government?  What accounts for any observed differences?
  • How is technology changing what it means to be a public servant and public servants view their relationship to citizens?

Citizen Behavior:

  • What are factors – personal, societal, governmental, technological – that result in citizens moving from inattention to lurking to higher levels of participation in Internet based public policy discussions?
  • Is there a relationship between increasing use of social media by government “actors” (politicians or bureaucrats) and trust/confidence in government?  
  • Noting that there are a variety of Internet-based tools, how do different technologies enhance or diminish the ability of people to collaborate on public policy or political action? 
  • As technology makes it possible for people to participate in “local affairs” from a distance, how and when do they decide to participate virtually? For those who have allegiances to more than one jurisdiction, how do they decide what is their primary allegiance and concern?

Technology Challenges:

  • How do you build a network that is secure, yet integrates the technology in the homes and offices of citizens with the technology owned by the governments serving them?
  • As the movement to the Internet of things means that government covers the geography it controls with sensors everywhere, how can this mass of real-time data be quickly analyzed and correlated, and then systems control and respond to anomalies that are detected?
  • Governments have experimented with various technological means of interacting with citizens, from web-based versions of paper forms to social media to geographic mashups, etc.  What software works best for what kinds of interactions?

Please feel free to contribute other questions so we can continue the dialog between the researchers and the rest of us.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


“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.]