Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Piercing the Narrative

It might have been Kant who came up with the idea that the world doesn’t impose its meaning on us, we impose our meaning on the world. Call it a priori knowledge, paradigms, archetypes, narratives, frames, etc. It’s all the same basic thing. It’s the notion that we all have a preconceived lens through which we process the world.

One of the best expositions of this I’ve read is Thomas Khun’s Structure of Scientific Revolution. In this book, Khun describes his paradigm concept, in which science takes place within the scope of a certain “grand unified theory” of how the world works relative to a particular field:

An apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time…Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Much of the success of the enterprise derives from the community’s willingness to defend that assumption, if necessary at considerable cost. Normal science, for example, often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.
Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life. Because it has that character, the choice is not and cannot be determined merely by the evaluative procedures characteristic of normal science, for these depend in part upon a particular paradigm, and that paradigm is at issue.

What Kuhn calls “normal science” takes place within the bounds of a particular paradigm. Indeed, science itself only emerges when there is a shared paradigm to which virtually all practitioners subscribe. The existence of a paradigm doesn’t mean it will last forever. Indeed, much of Kuhn’s work deals with the accretion of anomalies paradigms can’t explain, leading to a scientific crisis that ultimately results in switching to a new paradigm, such as the move from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics. (I believe Kuhn’s book, which was published in 1962, popularized the term “paradigm shift” as a shorthand for describing this, though I’m not sure the phrase actually occurs in the work).

The pre-scientific age is characterized by rival camps with various competing world views that are often philosophical in form. It doesn’t take much reflection to see that when it comes to understanding the function cities and what makes them successful, we are still in that pre-scientific phase.

In 2008 economist Joe Cortright did a study for CEOs for Cities called City Success: Theories of Urban Prosperity that examined no fewer than 18 different theories about urban success. These range from business climate to distinctiveness to industry clusters. Clearly, there is no consensus yet.

The other problem is that this question of urban success is fundamentally normative. It concerned with the type of communities we want to have and the type of world we think we should live in. Unlike describing the behavior of light, there’s little agreement on what urban success looks like. In that regard, it’s unsurprising there’s little consensus on how to get there.

Indeed, the very theories of success that are promulgated often leave the distinct impression that the strategy itself is actually the goal. In the “Sustainable City” theory that Cortright identified, I can’t help but wonder if its advocates see sustainability less as a means to success than as something they want to do in any case. Dittos for the “Business Climate City” or other matters. We argue in favor of policy based on both moral grounds and utilitarian ones. Unsurprisingly, people who claim their policies are right invariably also claim they will bring the greatest benefit. Isn’t the universe wonderful?

Given this situation, it’s unsurprising that various camps of urban policy advocates spend most of their time talking past each other. They inhabit entirely different worlds. What we at best hope for at the moment is at least some awareness of the true state of affairs, so that we don’t see all others who don’t share our own convictions as unscientific savages, but rather as fellow grovelers for the truth in a “hundred schools of thought” age in which a true science of cities has yet to emerge.

Topics: Strategic Planning

10 Responses to “Piercing the Narrative”

  1. Wad says:

    Thanks for the CEOs for Cities monograph, Aaron.

    It’s handy to have 18 archetypes of city regions in a single place, and the city regions that are working representations of these cities.

    In the wrong hands, though, such information is destructive. It’s very easy to reach the wrong conclusions.

    The most dynamic city regions are various blends of the 17 archetypes. The 18th, a diversified city, wouldn’t really be an archetype on its own as it it is an aggregation of the other 17 narrowly defined city regions.

    The problem here is that government, business and other stakeholders Must. Do. Something. They’ll settle on a strategy that doesn’t produce the desired outcomes, or even backfired, all the while ignoring or stifling the seeds of something big.

    What the monograph also didn’t say was how city regions became great due to events that they didn’t control.

    In the Northern California megalopolis, San Francisco of the 1960s and 1970s was terrified because it was being “inundated” by “queers”. Had San Francisco been successful in banishing the gay population — and boy did it try — it would have killed the seeds of its 1980s-1990s renaissance in the soil.

    Further south, the Silicon Valley as we know it was the economic equivalent of a chemistry lab spill. A few ingredients came together to form a technology sector that would be more powerful than anyone could have imagined. One was government, in the form of research grants and the Lawrence labs. The second was the university research institutions led by Stanford and UC Berkeley. The third was the sector of businesses supplying the former two. The fourth was San Francisco, which happened to be the financial center of the West.

    While all the parties had a sense that what they were working on was important, there was no step-by-step plan in place to remake the world. That happened through millions of mundane transactions in between those parties. The area was fortunate enough to have all the ingredients in place.

    Had the Silicon Valley community embraced Ayn Rand before, and not after, technology became a runaway success, their impetuousness would have killed the seeds in the soil. That’s because the Lawrence labs, and the federal government in general, are voracious consumers of scientific products and knowledge. I wouldn’t be typing this on Urbanophile had the government not siphoned taxpayers’ money and redistributed it as research money many decades ago.

    Had the universities not invested resources into computer sciences and engineering, which at the time had little practical applied value, there wouldn’t be the knowledge to form the building blocks of the technology sector.

    Had there been no financial base in San Francisco, there would have been no offshoot venture capital industry. That actually began in Boston, and Massachusetts would have developed VC hegemony had it not been for the less-nimble vertically integrated Route 128 firms.

    All the ingredients had to be there for success. It took just one missing ingredient for failure.

  2. Wad says:

    Also, I think I am the only one that cringes every time the word “sustainability” is mentioned.

    It’s a shibboleth of the environmental movement, and it’s become a moral imperative.

    Sustainability is ecology’s codependent relationship. The logical end of sustainability is the exact opposite of the idealistic intentions of its advocates.

    Detroit and Pittsburgh built automobile and steel industries, respectively, that became so sustainable that they rendered their home cities obsolete. Oklahoma farmers practiced sustainable farming techniques that ended up giving them the Dust Bowl.

    Miners, foresters, fishers and fossil fuel extractors are all sustainable occupations by definition. Sustainability inevitably leads to resource peaks and the psychologies that make the downward slope steeper and faster than the upward slope.

    I don’t get why sustainability was ever thought desirable.

  3. Wad @2: I have no idea what definition you’re using for sustainable, but the way it’s used in the groups I frequent goes something like, “Development or resource-extraction is sustainable if, were you to continue doing it indefinitely, it could CONTINUE indefinitely without using up its seed-corn or causing you to need somewhere to put the heaps of toxic waste.”

    Sustainable farming, by definition, does not eat its topsoil; it creates new topsoil at the same speed it uses it up (through rotation and fallowing) or doesn’t appreciably consume it at all (diversified use of interplanted perennial crops without tilling). I can’t imagine a sustainable mining operation; by definition, mining uses something up. Sustainable city development or industry, of the kind I mean, wouldn’t (pardon crudery) shit where it lives. Ideally, its shit would even be composted and turned into fertilizer to re-use, rather than needing to be sent elsewhere.

  4. Chris Barnett says:

    Wad illustrates above how the confluence of the California Gold Rush (SFO’s position in finance plus Leland Stanford’s wealth endowing Stanford U.), World War 2 defense spending on the West Coast (Fairchild and Lawrence Labs), the post-secondary education widely afforded “The Greatest Generation” (GI-Bill educated engineers), the postwar consumer electronics boom, the Space Race, and Vietnam-era defense spending later produced Silicon Valley.

    No one could, or did, predict it; it is far from as simple or straight-line or inevitable as we depict it in retrospect. Most importantly, it can’t be replicated.

    Fundamentally, economics, sociology, and history are “social sciences”. Our (shared) history and narrative does affect our choices individually and collectively.

    Merely having these success narratives can lead to their dilution and ultimate lack of success elsewhere: “it worked for Silicon Valley” is the rallying cry of every legacy pharma city trying to build a “life-sciences” dynamo around people, VC, and eds-meds.

    In 10-20 more years we’ll know for sure where it worked and why; no one could pick the big winner today.

  5. Rod Stevens says:

    There is a valuable message here that we can’t just wish things into being.

    I agree with Aaron that perhaps we need to start with a more sobering look at how things are likely to be, compare that against our goals, and then figure out what we need to change. For almost 50 years we’ve had sprawl. People have long talked about how we might live differently, but purely in terms of acreages, things are not changing that fast. A more hard-headed look at averting sprawl would look at the pay-off, cost and probability of change for various levers of change. The parallel is war: you don’t want to be engaged in it, but once you are, you figure out how to wage it effectively. D-Day was about results, not ideas.

    We, as Americans, assume there is a happy ending to our story. Confidence is one of our strengths. But are we creating happy-ending stories that keep us from facing up to hard work today? Perhaps.

  6. Jim Russell says:

    “Also, I think I am the only one that cringes every time the word “sustainability” is mentioned.”

    No, you aren’t the only one. In fact, students of global economic development are deeply skeptical of the term. “Sustainability” is a meaningless concept.

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    A riff on sustainability:

    My grandparents’ farm in the Ohio Appalachian foothills was “sustainable”. By this, I mean that they had their own springs, and enough ground to grow crops and trees and raise livestock. They fed and clothed themselves, owned running vehicles, and paid their taxes. Their children were the 5th generation on the farm.

    Until the term “sustainable” came into vogue, this was called “subsistence” farming.

    My granddad grew corn and hay to feed cattle and hogs, selectively sold standing timber, sold milk from his very small dairy herd to the local cheese company. He didn’t use organo-pesticides (and I don’t think he even used fertilizer, because that was an unaffordable luxury) so I guess his farming methods would count as “organic” today. I remember him bragging about harvesting 30 or 35 bushels per acre of corn. He hunted quail and squirrel and rabbit occasionally for food (and groundhogs as pests whenever he saw them burrowing in his fields).

    My grandmother raised chickens for eggs and Sunday dinners, and they had a large garden for fresh foods and canning. Their old stone house was built in the 1830’s and it will probably still be standing in two more centuries. They “modernized”, adding indoor bathrooms and converting to gas heat from coal in my lifetime. (I shoveled my share of coal, and used an outhouse more than once. I put up hay, and shoveled out stalls. I learned to watch my step in the pasture.)

    It’s not romantic or heroic. It’s just very hard, and backward by today’s standards. Mom left when she was 18. None of her siblings stuck with it, either.

    Not surprisingly, the area is now overwhelmingly populated by Amish who are still willing to live the 19th Century small-farm life that my family has abandoned. There are plenty of Amish families to buy the farms that the 5th and 6th generation German-American families are selling.

    My parents retained the gardening habit, and I grew up tilling, planting, weeding, and picking with some of my spare time. While there is nothing that can compare to produce that fresh, it is (guess what?) a lot of hard work.

    That’s the picture I have in my head of “sustainable” living. I’m more likely to think of “Green Acres” than city living when I sense people (who may have too much time on their hands) lecturing me about “sustainability”, especially local food production. Today, people want to be fairly paid for their work; intensive farming is not very attractive unless one is selling artisanal $10/pound goat-milk cheese or $3/bunch hand-grown greens. There’s a limited market for that, though.

    For a related take on extensive vs. intensive agriculture, read Richard Longworth’s current blog post at

  8. Wad says:

    Elliott, I don’t disagree with some of the ideas under the sustainability rubric.

    Waste reduction (not shitting where one lives) is worthwhile for all inhabitants of cities.

    Topsoil conservation is a proven agricultural technique, but what exactly is being sustained? The farmer and its consumers, for their collective self interest. Wilderness left alone can better sustain itself than agriculture.

    We should not confuse improvement of the environment with finding a magic process that will allow us to keep doing what we are doing.

    Sustainability gives us an overconfidence in our knowledge and ability to control the world around us.

  9. David says:

    Regarding the point about different theories, I don’t think any of them mean anything. If I had to pick one idea, it would be from William Cronon’s book on Chicago and Great West, that each city has a role to play as trading partner with other cities and countries.

    New York City, for example, needed the rest of its state to pay for the Erie Canal so that it could connect to the Midwest. What would have happened if Albany and Buffalo had somehow ended up in Pennsylvania? Wouldn’t make a difference at that point if NYC was “creative”, “innovative”, or anything else.

    The one defining trait of the struggling Eastern Great Lakes cities today isn’t lack of education – Metro Cleveland’s as educated as Metro LA – but a dependence on industries that have very limited exports. KC, Minneapolis are all net exporters of ag goods, Seattle of aircraft, other coastal cities are major hubs for international trade.

    Now I’m not some genius who has all the answers for what works, but I know what doesn’t – Richard Florida-inspired attempts to be “creative” or “cool”. That only succeeds in creating embarrassing econ dev campaigns.

  10. Wad says:

    I’ve been re-reading this thread over the past week, as there is so much to analyze and debate.

    I was thinking about this graf in particular: “The other problem is that this question of urban success is fundamentally normative. … Unlike describing the behavior of light, there’s little agreement on what urban success looks like. In that regard, it’s unsurprising there’s little consensus on how to get there.”

    Consensus implies a political license on how to get there.

    Many of the successful cities happened by adaptation or fortune, while a small percentage of it was directly because of “good choices.”

    What happens when a city comes into good fortune, such as Houston, Oklahoma City or Calgary, which saw a tidal wave of energy investment in the last decade? All of them correctly took their good fortune and sought to diversify beyond energy.

    Much of the Sunbelt regions, however, took growth as a given. These regions were the geographical equivalent of a “momo play” in the stock market; expecting to profit from an investment by riding market momentum, one that often blinds the investor to shaky inherent value.

    In many of these places — Phoenix is the biggest and starkest example — the momentum itself, not any inherent economic value, perpetuated growth until the momentum just halted. These fast-growing metropoles realized they had no other advantages and too many identical competitors.

    A lot of these places chose to brand themselves as “business friendly” cities, as in the first category of the CEOs for Cities monograph. This further reinforces the momentum feedback loop. Consider how much these cities are scared of their own shadows over the subject of taxes.

    One test for a business-friendly city is to examine whether it is prone to “taxaphylaxis.” In other words, if a city imposes a tax, are businesses so allergic to the increase that the economy gets an actue allergic reaction?

    If so, the economic region is fast-growing but poor and the city will only grow more poor. At the same time, imposing the tax sets in a cycle of decline. In either case, the end is the same but the roads to get there are different.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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