Archive for December, 2009

Open the pod bay doors, HAL

December 22, 2009

Essex County Council has asked IBM to manage its public services for the next eight years. My first reaction to this story was that handing over schools and social services to a company that builds supercomputers could go terribly, terribly wrong. Have these people never seen 2001?

Lord Hanningfield: You’ve switched off the heating in all the care homes. Turn it back on!

HAL: I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that. This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardise it …

Anyway. Over the next few years many local authorities are going to have to do more with less. So it’s encouraging to see some trying out new ways to deliver.

Enterprising Conservative Leaders and Chief Execs are also trying to catch Central Office’s eye. The Times suggests this is ‘a new wave of privatisation supported by David Cameron’, following Barnet’s EasyCouncil model and various other experiments. According to Eric Pickles, ‘this is the future and we will be watching developments in Essex very closely.’

That seems sensible, particularly as the wings may be falling off the budget airlines model. My concern, though, is just that what’s being proposed for Essex isn’t exactly innovative, and hasn’t worked brilliantly in other places.

On paper the proposed contract seems a little odd. It’s worth ‘up to £5.4bn’ over eight years, and may save up to £0.72bn over the first three. Even if IBM identifies the same level of savings for the rest of its term – a heroic assumption – Essex only saves £1.92bn overall, but pays out over double that. This doesn’t sound like value for money.

In Canada, where IBM was involved in local government streamlining, the firm introduced one-stop shops and cut service duplication. Many UK councils already do this stuff, though, and few needed an outside contractor to tell them so. Bringing in IBM may say more about Essex officers’ own capabilities than point the way to the future.

My biggest worry is whether business consultants in general understand what local authorities actually deliver. IBM says it provides ‘business analytics and optimisation’. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, public services are more complex than running a shop or a selling cheap flights. This is why we’ve seen many, many examples of business process engineering failing to deliver real value for the public sector. Look at some of Capita’s contracts, or Fujitsu and the NHS Computer Project.

To be fair to both firms, poor management by civil servants is often part of the problem. But that’s another reason to worry about who’s in charge at Essex.

Local public services are also done for different reasons. Efficiency in the narrow sense isn’t actually what we want here, since we’re operating outside the domain of the market. Market efficiency criteria tend to push you into providing less for less, something some Conservative councillors might be quite happy with. But local authorities are charged with providing the best achievable outcomes for people in the area. Sometimes that means reprioritising, even spending more. As Obama Administration’s ‘Ebay in reverse’ initiative suggests, cost-cutting is an important means to free up resources.  But as an end in itself, it’s inappropriate.

Compulsory Competitive Tendering forced councils to operate on a cost-minimisation basis, often producing perverse outcomes and bad policy. The danger for Essex is that it just retreads the CCT experience, without understanding why the world’s moved on.

New stuff

December 20, 2009

A couple of new things from me. First, UCL Urban Lab and Figaropravda have just published ‘The Architecture of Financial Crisis’, papers from a recent workshop on cities, urban economics, design and the crash. Chapters from me, Peter Hall, Matthew Gandy Davida Hamilton et al.  It’s all masterminded by Louis Moreno. PDFs should be here.

Second, a new paper on cultural diversity and innovation by me and Neil Lee. We do some number-crunching on firms in London, and find a small but significant ‘diversity advantage’: firms with a richer mix of owners / staff seem to innovate more.

This paper will be coming out in January in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Knowledge-Based Development, but you can download it here for a while.

The research is part a bigger piece of work I’ve been doing here at Berkeley. I’ll be presenting the new findings in April at the AAG 2010 conference in Washington DC, if any of you are around for that.

A hidden geography

December 3, 2009

Eleven weeks in, five more to go, and I’m still finding my way around this place. It’s got me thinking about the different ways we can get to know a city. How to get under the skin?

The job of geography is to explain the production of space, place and the everyday life of those places. Jane Jacobs tells us to think about cities as ‘problems in organised complexity’. We should pick an angle and work around it, pick another and connect to the first, and so on.

Why and where

This works for me. My way in is via urban economics and economic geography. The first task is to draw a line. In practice, it’s many overlapping boundaries – from satellite images, terrain maps, political units, transport networks.

We identify hubs and start linking them up. Then we can begin to fill in what happens where and why. At base, economic geography is about understanding the push and pull forces that help explain location. At the heart of successful places are increasing returns – from matching, sharing and learning. Feedback loops amplify these returns; bad luck or bad choices can run them down. Each local recipe is always slightly different.

So we start with people’s ‘demand for urbanness’. Then by looking at who gains and how, we can factor in the institutional, class and political forces shaping production.

The best geography of this kind – Jacobs, Michael Storper, Ian Gordon, David Harvey – succeeds in connecting macro to micro, megatrends to real places.  But a lot of everyday life falls between the lines – the ‘Bay Area-ness’ of the Bay Area is gone. What can bring it back?

The city as conversation

The local mediascape is more powerful than you’d think. As Jane Jacobs says, we should look less at the front pages and more at the small ads to understand what’s truly valued – or what isn’t. Dave Eggers’ San Francisco Panorama is a fantastic piece of street-level writing, if nothing else.

The city as story

Fiction helps us intuit urban experience. Each of the eight million stories in the Naked City reveals a little more of New York. The Wire does the same for Baltimore, to the point that it’s hardly a crime show at all. David Simon says it aims to be “…a show that would, with each season, slice off another piece of the American city, so that by the end of the run, a simulated Baltimore would stand in for urban America, and the fundamental problems of urbanity would be fully addressed.”

The city as you find it

Benjamin and his disciples in psychogeography show how powerful wandering, image and imagination can be for understanding urbanity. Essentially you are wiring the city into yourself, from your own impressions and resonant memories. These are Lefebvre’s ‘representational spaces’, or lived space. Yours is only one of eight million stories, but if intuition is a kind of hyperlogic, others will share it. This excellent post by Owen Hatherley on seeing Sheffield via Red Riding, brutalist architecture and Warp is a great example.

The city as game

The mobile and social web is – finally – starting to help us multiply urban possibilities. Matt Jones talks about a better kairos – more opportunity, richer knowledge – as technology tells us more about where we are, what’s happened, or who’ll be around. And one level up, we’re using the data itself. Here’s Dan Hill mapping a building from the wifi cloud. Or MIT’s Senseable City Lab using mobile phone data in real-time urban heat maps; or Mapumental linking access, price and quality of neighbourhood life. Urban Tick has masses of interesting real-time stuff.

For me, this is exciting but risky: the danger in this perspective is that urban life reduces to codeable routines or design solutions. A city can’t always be hacked.

Being there

As Benjamin says,  ‘the power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane … Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands.’

The most knowledgeable people I’ve met here have simply spent a lot of time in the Bay Area. They’ve walked the roads; they know it inside out. So I leave you with A Hidden Geography, an awesome piece of spatial synthesis by UC Berkeley’s Richard Walker. As a layering of image and text, framework and dot-joining, it’s hard to beat. Enjoy it.

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