The target is not the direction

NestCity-BlogPostOver the holidays, my neighbour Bob told me about the January Minimalist Challenge he and his family are taking on to remove from their home the things they don’t need. On January 1, one thing goes. On January 2, two things. On January 3, three things, all the way to 31 things on January 31, for a grand total of 496. Continue reading The target is not the direction

See your city in a new light


People chasing their passions are changing how we see our cities. Patricio Davilo and Dave Colangelo, graduate students at Ryerson University reflected the weather, and homelessness, to the surrounding streets in a reactive architecture installation. How’s that for a feedback loop?

Intheairtonight - Ryerson U
Source – Ryerson University

What does your city need to see? 



For more information on In the air, tonight:

  2. Ryerson University’s February 5, 2014 media statement
  3. CBC’s Nora Young talks Responsive Architecture with  Patricio Davilo and Dave Colangelo.   Here’s the interview.



Prototype social habitats


As I prepare to host friends new and old at the November 12-15, 2013 Art of Hosting BIG Decisions gathering, I have engaged in a learning experience with my co-hosts, and a few others, to explore Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer’s new book, Leading from the Emerging Future. As we meet each week, chapter by chapter, new learnings emerge for me as we explore this work individually and collectively.

Scharmer and Kaufer outline the evolution of economic thought and our economy as the evolution of human consciousness. They see a meta-journey of communal then state-centric paradigms, then a free-market paradigm followed by stakeholder or social-market thought. They sense the we may be evolving into an intentional eco-system economy that creates well-being for all. As they take us through 8 acupuncture points that explore how to effect deep systemic change (at the bottom of this post), they remind me that:

  • Our economic life – an essential part of our evolutionary journey – is connected to our view of nature.
  • Our work, and our passion for our work, is how we connect to economic life.
  • Our creativity, individual and collective, is the source of value creation in our economic life.
  • Our shared intention, as individual players connected to a larger whole, serves as strategic direction.
  • Our awareness, of self and whole, allows us to see where we would like to go, and if we are aiming – and moving – in that direction.

Moreover, Scharmer and Kaufer remind me that the Art of Hosting is an invitation to co-create the the world that wants to be. Our time together in November is an opportunity for us to practice “being and doing” the social habitat we long for, where we gather diverse constellations of people to connect with each other to, as Scharmer puts it, co-initiate, co-sense, co-inspire, co-create and co-evolve.

An Art of Hosting gathering is a safe place to invent and prototype social habitats to power and sustain our well-being, and our evolution.

Will you join us in our work to co-create new social habitats here in Edmonton, in just over a month?  November 12-15, 2013


***** *****

Here are Scharmer and Kaufer’s 8 acupuncture points:

  1. Nature – How can we rethink the economy and nature from “take, make, and throw away” to an integrated closed-loop design, in which everything that we take from the earth is returned at the same or a higher level quality?
  2. Labour – How can we relink work – the profession we choose to pursue – with Work – what we really love doing?
  3. Capital – How can we relink the financial economy and the real economy by recycling financial capital into the service and cultivation of ecological, social, and cultural commons?
  4. Technology – How can we create broad access to the core technologies of the third industrial revolution, blending information technology, regenerative energy, and social technologies in order to unleash individual and collective creativity?
  5. Leadership – How can we build a collective leadership capacity to innovate at the scale of the whole system?
  6. Consumption – How can we rebalance the economic playing filed so that consumers can engage in collaborative conscious consumption and become equal partners in an economy that creates well=being for all?
  7. Coordination – How can we end the war of the parts against the whole by shifting the mode of consciousness from ego-system to eco-system awareness?
  8. Ownership – What innovations in property rights would give voice to future generations and facilitate the best societal uses of scarce resources and commons?
 _____ _____ _____

Some friends and I have started a book club to explore Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Katrin Kaufer’s new book, chapter by chapter. This is the meaning I made of Chapter 3. Here’s what came of our circle when we met to explore Chapter 1 (Life guard) and Chapter 2 (The antennae of possibility).



Understand the underground


A few words of Ben Okri’s Mental Fight stand out as I explore what it means to be best citizen I can be:

It is all in the air - poem, Okri

Cities are about connecting people and the ways we think, make and do together. This is how cities are formed, how they energize us, by giving us opportunities to follow our passions. In turn we energize the cities.

The quality of how we relate to self,  each other and our cities themselves in this city-making endeavour is essential. Everywhere, at all times, we need to listen to – notice – all the things forming, in the air and underground. This is a citizenship practice, of stopping to notice what and how we each show up to dance, and our relationship with the dancers and the changing dance floor itself.

The underground is the implicit, internal inner workings of the city that are hard to discern. Not the traditional, physical “underground” we think of as the network of pipes that serve the city, but the connections and conduits within, among and between us citizens in our social habitat.

If we want our cities to be different for us, then we must be different. For our cities to be different, we need to explore the underground within us, within citizens. Our underpinnings need to be tended to. We have to connect our souls before our work together, the very work that creates cities, will be different and result in different cities.

This is, ultimately both a personal and collective ‘mental fight’ to see, and understand, the underground.

What do you do to understand the underground in your self and your city?


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This post is part of Chapter 9 – Enduring Civic Practice. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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City making


nestworks all in small.057

Cities are about getting where we want to go – at every scale.

As individuals in cities, when our basic needs are met, we are able to pursue our passions. We pursue opportunities to dig deep into the work we love. We pursue improvements that will make life better. We contribute all of this to the city-life experience. Its a messy place, often making us feel uncomfortable, but it spurs us on to a never-ending quest, should we choose, to think, make and do new things.

How can we know if we are making the cities we want and need? By choosing to build cities purposefully, a necessary transaction emerges: we need to know if we are getting what we are seeking. The next series of posts explore the relationships between citizens and cities – the city making exchange – and the feedback loops we need to make cities that serve us well.

What do we need from our cities?

What do our cities need from us?


_____ _____ _____

This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

_____ _____ _____

Cities – more like Titanic or iPhone?


At the Awesome Neighbourhoods for a  Sustainable City workshop I co-hosted last week with The Natural Step Canada, a question surfaced that is still simmering for me: Are cities more like the Titanic the iPhone?

Windmills to power the city – without noise

We started the day building models of awesome neighbourhoods that contribute to the city’s sustainability.  Citizens, developers, civil society and city managers (the four integral voices of the city) worked together to find what makes a neighbourhood look, feel, sound and smell awesome.  The models told the stories of what people are hungry for in our cities.  Andrea and Daniel, two participants from Workshop 1, summarized the stories.  It seems we are looking for neighbourhoods that:

  • Appeal aesthetically – beautiful buildings, visual diversity, artistic expression and public art, and interaction between buildings, transportation and open space
  • Generate sustainability – community based energy generation, increased density, and a shift in modes of transportation away from the automobile
  • Invite – a mix of public and private spaces, places for community activities and gathering, a great place
  • Meet basic needs – safe and secure, housing for all stages of life, places of worship, health services, schools, mixed land uses and affordability
Model under construction

After having built a neighbourhood and taken guided tours of each other’s neighbourhoods, we settled in to look at our collective work.  We noticed that cities are like the Titanic: hard to turn.  We explored this metaphor and found it both negative and positive.  The Titanic sunk and killed many.  We noted that the Titanic was ahead of her time; she represented great progress in that she was something we had never done before.   Unlike the Titanic that was unable to turn in time, we see that our cities are turning.  They are changing and evolving to be what we need.

Cities are changing and evolving because they are created by us and we are changing and evolving.  All of us, as citizens, as the folks that run our public institutions, the people that physically go out to build our city, and our civil society that organizes to live and speak our values and culture, play a role in how much we consciously respond to our surroundings.

We choose to stay in the fun dance hall at the heart of the Titanic, perhaps oblivious to our fate.  We choose to dare look out the window or go out on deck for fresh air and a view, looking out for the obstacles that could sink our ship.  We each choose, in our Titanic cities, to assume everything is okay or to look for feedback that may require our adaptation.  We choose the information we would like to have on our city/ship instrument panel.

Here’s where the iphone fits in: it is a platform for adaptation and customization.  It is a source of open, public feedback for our cities.  At the workshop, Carmen dreamed of knowing where all the saskatoon berry bushes are in Edmonton.  I imagine an iphone app where citizens upload geographic locations, enabling Carmen to harvest her favourite food across the city.  In Edmonton we tweet about where the food trucks mysteriously locate each day.  We have at our disposal unimaginable opportunities to share our cities with each other.  We have, as well, opportunities to share our understanding of whether our cities are serving us well or not.  This is the feedback we need to ensure our cities serve us well.

Tour of an awesome public gathering place

No one person or authority builds our cities.  We depend on ourselves and others to make sure we organize ourselves to build the ship and that she is sturdy enough for the voyage and flexible enough to meet our needs.  We depend on ourselves and others to  have appropriate standards and oversight to ensure what we create meets our needs.  We depend on ourselves and others to ensure that our cities reflect our evolving values and actively support the well-being of all inhabitants of the city and eco-region.

Our learning journey together revealed to me that cities are slow-turning Titanics that increasingly have inhabitants that create feedback loops.  The feedback within our ships/cities, between cities and among our planet of cities is improving.  These inhabitants are, from within the ship, creating new ways to turn and power cities so we no longer have the burden of the Titanic as a slow-moving ship heading to disaster.  Instead, we have ship that serves us well with a future of iPhonic feedback.

What makes your neighbourhood an awesome part of your sustainable city?  What would make it even more awesome?  


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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.


Stop and listen – to Self and city


There is great momentum in being busy, being distracted from who we really are and the possibilities we offer the world.  The result is that each of us, and the city habitats we create for ourselves, are not reaching our full potential.

Yesterday’s post, performance with purpose, articulated the phenomenon of performance momentum, were we find ourselves caught in a drive to perform.  In this state, we lose track of who we are and the inner passion that drives our work.  We lose track of the purpose of our work and dismiss the feedback loops that ensure our work is responsive to the needs around us.  The result is work that does not move the self, the organization, or the city forward.  There is no improvement; which is itself a fundamentally driver to our work.

In the work we do creates our cities, I concluded with two questions:

  1. To what extent is our work, even new work, blind to our changing habitat?
  2. How would we change how we organize ourselves to consciously choose to create habitats for ourselves that serve our present and evolving needs and desires?
The answers to these questions, or rather the exploration of these questions, are part of the city’s learning journey.  How each of us approaches our work has an impact on our cities.  How we collectively approach our work has an impact on our cities.  The cities we create, in return, have an impact on us.  If we are ‘busy’, missing the clues around us, then our cities will also miss the clues and not serve us well.  If we need healthy cities, and they are made by us, then we need to be well for cities to be well.  The development of our cities is a survival skill.

From time to time, it is essential to stop, to pause and have a look at the deeper inner self, the one that wants to be let out, free in the world.  As we each allow our hidden self to emerge, our cities will change to serve us better.  As our cities improve, they are creating the conditions for us to be better again.

It is hard to stop and listen – and we need to learn how to do this, for self and the city.  David Whyte, in The Three Marriages, has this to say:

… anyone who has spent any time in silence trying to let this deeper hidden self emerge, soon finds it does not seem to respond to the language of coercion or strategy.  It cannot be worried into existence.  Anxiety actually seems to keep an experience of the deeper self at bay.  This hidden self seems reluctant to be listed, categorized, threatened or coerced.  It lives beneath our surface tiredness, waiting, it seems, for us to stop.
Stopping can be very difficult.  It can take exhaustion, extreme circumstances on a wet, snowy mountain ridge or an intimate sense of loss for it to happen   Even then we can soon neutralize and isolate the experience, dismissing it as illogical, pretending it didn’t count, then turning back to our surface strengths and chattering away in a false language we have built around our successes. 
Success can be the greatest barrier to stopping, to quiet, to opening up the radically different form of conversation that is necessary for understanding this larger sense of the self.  Our very success can be the cause of greater anxiety for further preservation of our success (p, 154-155).
It seems the opposite of busy, performance momentum is to pause, to stop.  The lure of momentum, particularly if it is full of what we perceive as success, makes it difficult to slow down enough to give ourselves an opportunity to notice the purpose of our work, the meaning in our work and our innermost qualities of who we are individually and collectively.
How do you pause and stop to listen to your Self and city habitats?  

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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.

Feedback for purposeful navigation

Over the course of several posts I have been exploring, one by one, the 12 evolutionary intelligences for cities proposed by Marilyn Hamilton.  I have three left.  Today’s post is about navigating intelligence: whole-system feedback processes.

As I have been exploring the qualities of cities and what drives their evolution, there is one very clear pattern: feedback.  Feedback ensures that we are able to know and understand our world, and this is a very important factor when we consider that our world is always changing.  It is crucial that we understand the changes that are taking place, understand the adjustments that are needed, make those adjustments and confirm if the adjustments have the desired effect.  None of this is possible without feedback.

My view of how cities work (and evolve) looks like this:

Our work, our constant efforts to think, make and do new things, drives our economic life and is, in fact, the force that creates cities.  This takes place in the context of our physical habitat.  Cities start where they make sense, where there is water, shelter, food and a resource on which to build an economy.  As the settlement grows, our work also becomes the physical making of the city.  Our social habitat is the glue – it is where, and through which, feedback travels, telling us when times are changing and new methods of farming are needed, or that communication via computers is possible, etc.

Feedback loops are absolutely critical in the relationship between humans and our habitat.  The quality of our habitat depends on it.  The quality of our lives depends on it.  Our ability to thrive depends on it.

We are moving into a new era where the possibilities of having the means to monitor how are cities are doing is totally possible.  Cities I worked with several years ago slaved to have performance indicators to tell them how there were doing in relation to housing, water quality, education, etc.  But it was hard to get that data and confirm that it was accurate and politically defensible.  As data becomes more and more open, there will be more and more citizens and organizations examining the dynamics of their cities and pointing out what works and what does not.  A new era of noticing city dynamics is soon upon us.  A new era of feedback on how well our cities serve us is coming.

Here is  nifty 5 minute video on Analytics 101 you might find helpful.  As you listen, think about how the vast amount of digital data can help us create savvy cities.  For example, Daniel Haight, founder of Darkhorse Analytics, found that closing emergency service stations in cities results in better service.  There is insight in data, should we choose to look and ask questions.

There is insight in data, and we now have an abundance of data and abundant access to data.  The next question is what we hope to do with the data we have.  What questions should we ask?  What insight do we want and need?  Where do we want to go with our cities (ie purpose)?  What do we need more of to get there?

This whole business if feedback requires us to be prepared to ask questions and receive answers.  And also prepared to respond as needed. It requires bravery and courage.  It is a necessary skill to ensure that we are able to navigate our way to cities that serve citizens well.  The hard part will be articulating the purpose of our cities – our destination – and what success looks like.  Then we will be equipped to navigate our world and dynamically steer our cities into the future.

My next post will focus on living intelligence and the insight of life cycles in cities.


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If you are interested in learning more about evolutionary intelligences relating to cities, you will be interested in the Integral City eLaboratory – Co-Creating the Future of the Human Hive

Dynamically steering cities to the future

Figure A - City Dynamic

In yesterday’s post, I reached the conclusion that the quality of the relationship between our economic life and our social and physical habitats dictates our ability to generate cities that meet our economic, social and physical needs.  We create cities for the purpose of our individual and collective growth.  We create them to support our evolution.

Feedback Activity

Consider this simplified illustration of the city dynamic (Figure A), where the red center is our economic life, and green and blue are our social and physical habitats.  (For more information on the relationships between these three elements, please visit Cities need quality feedback.)  The feedback between our economic life and our habitat is the information that flows back and forth.  Feedback between our social and economic life is critical, as is feedback between our physical habitat and our economic life.  The more activity between these spheres, the more responsive a city is to the needs of its inhabitants.  For example, the illustration of activity in Figure B is less healthy than that of activity in Figure C in that it offers less feedback.  Less feedback may mean lower adaptation of our economic life to meet the demands of our changing social and physical habitat.

Figure B - City Dynamic (less activity)
Figure C - City Dynamic (more activity)

This perspective of the city’s habitats nests the physical, social and economic worlds.  This understanding builds on the lineage of our current understanding of sustainable development, rooted in the World Commission on Environment and Development’s 1987 report, Our Common Future, often referred to as the Brundtland Commission.  (Two links that might be of interest: the story, the report itself.)  The inheritance offered by this report is the insertion, into our collective planetary consciousness, of the relationship between our physical, social and economic lives.  This is now, rather conventionally, shown graphically as a Venn diagram (Figure D).

Figure D - Sustainable Development

The dynamic of the city habitat as I have described it here and in previous posts rearranges our understanding of sustainable development.  Looking at cities from an evolutionary perspective, our physical habitat holds everything. Within that we have evolved socially to create opportunities for new work, a feature of our economic life that generates cities, and in turn recreates our physical habitat.  The city dynamic consists of endless feedback loops, going in all directions all at once (Figure C).  Each sphere is critical, but with distinct roles to play.  Unlike the Venn Diagram, each element is never fully on its own.  It is all interwoven and interrelated.

The nature of these relationships is such that the healthier the city, the more interactions across and within the layers.  Remember these three patterns about how new work (innovation in our economic life) works (see earlier posts for more on this – development of cities, and our work creates cities):

  1. The development of new work means new ideas in response to life conditions.
  2. The expansion of new work means implementation in response to life conditions.
  3. The link between development and expansion of new work is habitat: life conditions.

These principles and how they behave give us clues about how to organize ourselves, such that we tune into, and be in tune with our habitat.  The interaction between these spheres is where the future lies for our cities.  How we organize our cities to gain this feedback and respond to it is a necessary survival skill.  With feedback, and appropriate responses to that feedback, we can adjust our path; without we can not.

Feedback and Adjustment

We need to approach our city systems in ways that allow for feedback and adjustment.  Brian Robertson, and his work on holacracy, describes this as dynamic steering, where a system receives regular, real feedback and immediately adjusts.  Imagine the system is you riding a bicycle.  As you move along, you start to tip, you adjust.  You see a pothole head, you adjust.  You see what is coming and you adjust, but the truth is you never know ahead of time what will come and what the appropriate adjustment will be.  Yet you are able to do it.

Most systems we are familiar with, such as organizations, operate in predict-and-control mode, where we anticipate what is going to happen and make the adjustment prior to even seeing if the event unfolds as expected.  We also make adjustments after events, assuming that future events will be the same and will need the same reaction.  Predict-and-control mode does not allow for appropriate responses to life conditions because it allows only minimal feedback between the habitats of the city.   Imagine riding a bicycle with arms out stiff in front of you; it doesn’t allow you to be responsive.  We need cities to be responsive.

In our cities, as when we ride a bicycle, our ability to keep our eyes on where we are going matters.  Our ability to notice when we have moved off track matters.  Our ability to choose to get back on track matters.  Our ability to do the work at hand matters.  Our very approach to our work matters.  It also means that we have to have a bicycle that is in good working condition and does what we ask it to do.

In today’s cities, with today’s challenges, we have an opportunity to be explicit about the cities we are creating and how they shape us in return.  We have an opportunity to integrate our economic, social and physical worlds in such a way that will allow us to respond to the changing conditions in our world.  Debating climate change is moot when the world is changing in so many ways.  It is a distraction from the true work at hand – learning how to dynamically steer our cities into the future that allows life to flourish.  Learning to be even more adaptable than we have been is key.  It means being open to feedback and willing to take action – at any and all scales.  There is lots of work for us to do.

The next post will touch on the scales at which we work in our cities.  Does the scale we work at matter?  

Cities need quality feedback from habitat

Figure A - City Dynamic

A city that meets our needs pays attention to three critical relationships within the city’s habitats:

  1. between economic life and social habitat;
  2. between social habitat and physical habitat; and
  3. between economic life, through social habitat to physical habitat.

In the first relationship, between our economic life and our social habitat, we make personal investments to come up with ideas and turn them into new work. Likewise, how we organize ourselves shapes our collective investment in the idea – the labour we put to it, the skills we put to it, or simply the ‘human potentialities’, as Jane Jacobs put it, shape what becomes of the idea.  In the workplace or in a community, for example, new ways of thinking, making and doing new things emerge when welcome; they likely remain invisible or nonexistent if the social habitat is hostile.

At a societal level, sometimes we just are not ready yet for new things until conditions change.  Sixty years ago my home was built with no insulation.  Energy prices were low and the notion of human-caused climate change did not exist.  In contrast, today we have building codes with minimal requirements for energy efficiency and government grants to upgrade older homes.  As our social habitat changes, so does our work.  And as our work changes, so does our social habitat.  Notice the adjustments we have made to life with computers, the internet, social media, etc.

This relationship between our social habitat and our economic life is critical to Jacobs’ refueling principle: “… no matter how efficient a cow may be, if it doesn’t self-refuel, it’s a dead cow.  Self-refueling is so fundamental to survival, and to all other process of life made possible by survival, that conceptions of whether it is a good or bad thing are pointless.”[1]  The ideas that survive in cities (new work) must be applied or used for economic life to thrive.  This is the essence of refueling – capture the good ideas, let new ideas emerge from them, try them out, see if more new ideas emerge.  The more this takes place, the stronger and healthier our economic life.  In our social habitat, we must create the appropriate ‘equipment’ to capture and make use of the ideas, as well as finding additional ways to capture ideas.  The social habitat supports, hinders, or removes our ability to self-refuel.  This is where we demonstrate our tolerance for diversity, new work and change.

The second relationship in the city habitat is between the social habitat and the physical habitat.  This is where we notice our physical conditions and whether they are changing or not.  This relationship is about our receptivity to our physical reality, when we notice how habitat creates us and how we create habitat. An open relationship between our social and physical habitats is exemplified by our ability to take in the good and bad news.

The third relationship in the city habitat, between economic life and physical habitat involves travelling through the social habitat.  Our social habitat creates the conditions for a relationship with our physical habitat and our economic life and between our physical habitat and our economic life.  In this relationship we recognize explicitly that the city affects our work and that our work affects our city.  We boldly look for feedback to link the three spheres.

Each of these relationships involves our social habitat, where there are degrees of mutual support and information exchange.  On a continuum, we are either open to the exchanges between habitats, or closed.  Like a tap, the choice is open with maximum flow, or closed with no flow.  In the middle the tap is open partway, with flow constricted.  And the degree of relationship compounds: the first two relationships must be open in order for the third relationship to take place.  If one is open only partially, the third relationship will also be partial; it is only as open as its constituent relationships.

As a whole, the city is a habitat that encompasses our economic, social and physical habitats.   Our social habitat allows the new work that creates and recreates our cities to take place in the context of our physical habitat.  This means that new work is needed to create a social sphere that allows the necessary data to go back and forth between our physical environment and our economic life.  The quality of the relationship between our economic life and our social and physical habitats dictates our ability to generate cities that meet our economic, social and physical needs.  

This framing reorganizes how we think of balancing the well-being of economic, social and physical factors for sustainable development.   My next post will explore the value of reorganizing these elements.  

[1]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 68