(2018-01-12) Why Cities Fail

Venkatesh Rao: Why Cities Fail (Urban Development)

Cities fail when there is a mismatch between their DNA, the ideas they attract, and the ambitions they attract I've been thinking about the nation-level lessons of the great book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail, and wondering how you might apply the same kind of thinking to cities

If we are headed for a city-state future, and I'm increasingly convinced we are, we have to understand why cities succeed or fail, the way Acemoglu and Robinson figured out why nations succeed or fail. And no, smart-cities bullshit ain't it.

Asking questions like "what's the next Silicon Valley?" is dumb. It's a functional-utilitarian way of thinking,

real cities are their own reasons for existing

New York was about textiles before it was about high finance. And all of them are always, first and foremost, about themselves. About their unique psychological identities. The current global-macroeconomy "job" of a city has only a weak correlation with its essential nature.

Great cities are longer-lived than nations and empires.

Paul Graham's article, Cities and Ambition (2008-05-28-GrahamCityMessages) has the beginnings of a better model than finite-game, job-based economic functionalism: cities are about particular kinds of ambition. Which means they are defined by their emergent, anthropomorphized infinite-game-playing psyches rather than their function in the world.

Money, power, intelligence, fame. These are the sorts of things cities choose to be about. Not computers or banks or movies. Or worse, particular kinds of architecture, or look-and-feel aesthetic factors divorced from the ambitions they catalyze, or mindsets they harmonize with. Or worst of all, particular kinds of jobs in those industries.

Ideas grow differently based on the kind of ambition you devote to them. Two kinds of people go to any city: people who bring the appropriate kinds of sparks (ideas) and people who bring the relevant kind of ambition (the fuel). Sometimes the same person might bring both to the party.

When people in a city say somebody is "too ambitious" they often really mean the person has the wrong kind of ambition for the city

Ideas themselves, the second ingredient, have a fit to the environment, but idea flows are more transient, and easier to import. They drive shorter-term dynamics like business cycles.

If there is ambition-city fit, but not idea-city fit, you end up in a potential energy trap. The city has the economic and psychological potential, but nowhere to direct it.

If there is idea-city fit, but no ambition-city fit, you get a theater of ideas that never go anywhere. A cargo-cult

New York or Berlin. Though they have tech "scenes", they punch far, far below their weight class as cities.

In the coming century, I suspect we'll see lots more cities that are big enough that the succeed/fail question applies. And we'll see a lot more of all 3 kinds of failure. The trick is going to be spotting the cities that are succeeding and picking one with the right kind of idea and ambition fit for you.

What I said in last week's newsletter about riding brain bicycles (2018-01-05-HowToRideYourBrainBicycle) actually applies to cities as well. A city is not a place, but a social brain. A collective intelligence. A city is great when it has found a unique way of looking out on the rest of the world, and at its own past and future. This manifests as an elan vital -- call it "ambition" if you like.


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